Seated on scaffolding high above the floor of the Hammer Museum, Mark Bradford runs his hand along the grooved outline of a two-story map of the United States. Patches of brilliant pinks, various hues of blue and earthy olives peek out from where the white wall has been scraped to reveal the many layers underneath — evidence of the past 29 murals that have, at one point or another, occupied the museum's lobby gallery.
Within each state a number has also been scraped: California, 12.5; Florida, 28.1; Wyoming, 2.4. These represent the number of adolescents and adults out of every 100,000 people who were diagnosed with AIDS at the end of 2009.
As he runs his hand along the border between Washington and Oregon (7.3 and 6.7, respectively), Bradford says he decided not to use the most recent diagnosis rates because he wanted to "leave some speculation about where we are now." He adds: "HIV is not over."
FOR THE RECORD
June 22, 1:46 p.m.: An earlier version of this article had a photo caption that identified a painting by Mark Bradford as "I Don't Have the Power to Force the Bathhouses to Post Anything." The title of the work is "The Next Hot Line."
The piece is a reminder of a pressing social condition. But it's also a wry nod to the museum's own history. "Finding Barry," as the piece is called, takes its name from San Francisco-based muralist and painter Barry McGee, who created one of the Hammer's early lobby installations in 2000 — a crimson skyscape of stylized clouds and sad-sack male figures. "He was one of the first to do a drawing on this wall," says Bradford personably. "So I'm just scraping until I find Barry."
On June 20, the Hammer Museum will open the doors on "Scorched Earth," the artist's first solo museum show in Los Angeles, where he'll be displaying a series of 12 new paintings (including the lobby mural). The show also includes a six-minute sound installation titled "Spiderman," in which Bradford delivers an off-color comedy routine that lampoons the often crass and macho language of stand-up. (The piece was inspired by the artist's own encounter with a homophobic Eddie Murphy routine.)
For the artist, this is an exhibition that has been long in coming.
Bradford is a born and bred Angeleno, raised in West Adams and Santa Monica and educated at the California Institute of the Arts, where he received both his bachelor's and his master's degrees in fine arts. He has made a name for himself internationally with works that employ the raw materials that L.A. has given him, such as the plentiful street signage advertising quick cash and DNA testing that he harvests from utility poles and reconfigures into textured, abstract works that ride the divide between collage and painting — works that channel urban landscapes that have been constructed and obliterated, only to be constructed and obliterated again.
The artist has been the subject of critically well-received surveys and solo museum exhibitions in New York, Boston and San Francisco. Since 2013, he has been represented by Hauser & Wirth, the international gallery juggernaut with spaces in Zurich, New York and London (with an L.A. outpost in the works). Moreover, he is a 2009 recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, the so-called genius grant. But until this week, he had never had a solo museum show in L.A.
It's a moment in which the artist has come full circle: After traveling the world, Bradford is having his museum debut in his hometown at age 53. But it's also a return to the themes that preoccupied him as a young, black gay man in Los Angeles in the early '90s: Rodney King's beating by L.A. police, the subsequent riots and some of the worst moments in the AIDS epidemic, in the days when contracting HIV represented a probable death sentence.
Today, Bradford finds himself contending with headlines that echo those themes: protests in cities such as Ferguson, Mo., Baltimore, Oakland and Los Angeles over police violence against black men as well as stories about the ravages of Ebola, which links images of black people to fatal illness in the larger media narrative.
"This whole show is what I think of as big formative moments," he says. "In 1992, during the riots, the city was vulnerable. It was covered in cyclone fencing and plywood, where I got so much of my material. And HIV was happening, and the body became vulnerable. It has to do with transition. We had to rethink our sex practices. And we had to rethink our city."
Bradford's works have always been a wonder to look at: wild patterns dappled with bits of color. But they've also always crackled with a kind of aggression too — the effect of layering paint and paper into map-like arrangements, then attacking the whole combination with a sander. The new works at the Hammer feel even more primeval: geological accretions of paper and paint webbed with lines and singed circles that, in works such as "Test 3," almost take on the feel of bullet holes.
One painting, titled "Dead Hummingbird," features what appears to be the black silhouette of a small bird against an exploding background of black lines. In parts, patches of red peek through like bits of coagulated blood.
On the day of our interview a week ago, Bradford walks me through the Hammer's galleries, where a pair of 12-foot-long coal-black canvases lay on the floor awaiting installation, looking like a pair of elegant satellite aerials of desiccated riverbeds. Bradford made them by placing ink-soaked paper on the canvas, then tearing it off as it dried. The patterns feel almost cellular.
"The paintings are really visceral," says Connie Butler, the Hammer's chief curator. "When you walk through the gallery, there's this sense of movement in the room. He talks about seeing something of circulation and blood."
"I wanted these to feel like I'm looking at something under a microscope," says Bradford.
"The social and political Mark Bradford gets a little backburnered by the market success of his very beautiful paintings," Butler says. (His works have been known to sell at auction for upward of $4 million.) "But there are these touchstones: the 1992 riots and Ferguson and the protests in the wake of Eric Garner. He really thinks of these cycles of resonance in the culture.... And to me, they are all in those paintings."
The early days
Bradford took a somewhat circuitous path to get to where he is, one that wound from Santa Monica to Amsterdam, from a Leimert Park hair salon to the hallowed halls of CalArts.
The artist is the eldest son of a single mom who worked as a hairdresser. As is frequently noted in media profiles, he is very tall and rail thin, checking in at almost 6-foot-8. To fit on the scaffolding at the Hammer, he has to fold himself in half. He is also a natural-born ringmaster. Over the course of our interview — conducted mostly atop said scaffolding — he greets the crowds of people walking into the museum with effusive waves and joyous hellos, as if welcoming the world from an improvised metallic throne.
Bradford grew up in West Adams until age 11, when his mother, Janice, moved the family to Santa Monica, seeking a safer environment for her children. "This was not the Santa Monica of today," he says. "It was the Santa Monica of co-ops and Birkenstocks and socialist natural food stores."
An unremarkable student, when he got out of high school, he got his hairdresser's license and went to work at his mother's salon in Leimert Park. His forté, he says, was color. "I could go into the back and mix the hell out of color," he says, laughing. "I could just never replicate it! I'd be all like, 'Now how much of this did I put in there?'"
The salon, he says, provided him with a protected space — one where he could be himself. "The women there, they saw I was different," he remembers. "And they'd say, 'It's tough out there. You will have good days and bad days.'"
The salon also provided him with spending money, which he used to travel to Europe for weeks and months at a time when he was in his early 20s. As a teenager, Bradford had read James Michener's "Iberia" as well as James Baldwin's writings on France. (Despite being a lousy student, he was always a big reader.)
Baldwin, in particular, was a major influence. "I couldn't believe how powerful he had the nerve to be," he says. "This was a man who wouldn't let his sexuality or his race define him, who wouldn't let society tell him what he could and couldn't be."
Inspired by these works, he made his way to Amsterdam, which he used as a base for exploring Europe. The experience was transformative. "I felt liberated from U.S. racial constraints," he explains. "It was the first time I felt that people weren't just seeing my color."
During this time, he settled on the idea of studying art — something that came as a gradual realization instead of one big aha moment. In his late 20s, Bradford settled back in L.A., enrolling at Santa Monica College. At the urging of one of his teachers, he went on to CalArts. Like Europe, his studies there represented more a period of absorption than of creation: "I didn't paint. I just read a lot. I discovered bell hooks, I discovered Foucault, I discovered Octavia Butler and Toni Morrison.... It was about slowing down and just thinking."
It was also a moment in which he began to consider and truly digest the work of important abstractionists from all over, from the boxy squares of the Russian suprematist Kazimir Malevich (which he had admired at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam) to the effusive drips of Jackson Pollock to the mosaic-like canvases produced by the African American color field painter Sam Gilliam.
"I was thinking about race and stereotypes, and I started to think about how I could grapple with these ideas," he says. "I wanted to find a space for me as an artist."
But Bradford wouldn't find his voice until several years after he left graduate school. One day, while working at his mother's salon, in the early 2000s, a pile of endpapers used in permanents fell on the floor. "I looked at them and the pattern they created," he recalls. "They represented certain things socially. And they were plentiful and cheap. It opened my eyes to the material around me."
He took these back to the studio and immediately began using them to produce ebullient abstract canvases comprising layers of paper and paint — the type of work for which he would quickly become known. It was shortly thereafter that Thelma Golden, the chief curator at the Studio Museum in Harlem, showed up at his studio. "I was totally awestruck," he recalls of the meeting. "I mean, I was off the radar. If there is off-Broadway, I was off-off-off-Broadway."
At that point, Bradford had exhibited only in small group shows around L.A. and San Francisco. Golden's visit would change his life.
Golden included him in the critically acclaimed "Freestyle," the 2001 exhibition of so-called post-black art that looked at the complex and nonliteral ways in which black artists were tangling with questions of society, politics and identity. The show catapulted Bradford into the stratosphere. ("I just grabbed a wing and held on," he recalls.)
Suddenly he was getting solo shows at New York galleries and jetting off to Art Basel Miami Beach, where in 2002 he re-created his mother's hair salon as an installation. "The only problem is we didn't know how to do Caucasian hair!" he recalls with a laugh. "We did weaves and cornrows on all these art ladies. It was hair diplomacy!"
As funny as it might seem in retrospect, the salon, nonetheless, raised all kinds of issues related to race. "Everything I do," he remarks, "has an underlying political question."
Art + Practice
Today, Bradford lives and works not far from the house where he lived in West Adams with Allan DiCastro, his partner of 18 years and an activist who has also worked in banking. After the success he has enjoyed in the art world, Bradford says he feels an obligation to give back.
Last year, he joined the board of the Museum of Contemporary Art, one of five artists to serve. And recently, he and DiCastro teamed with collector Eileen Norton (the first collector to ever buy a work from the artist) to open the art and social services organization Art + Practice in Leimert Park — part of which occupies the salon space once owned by Bradford's mother, who has since relocated to Atlanta.
Art + Practice has a gallery space that features museum-class exhibitions curated by the Hammer Museum (the first of which featured one of Bradford's CalArts professors, Charles Gaines), as well as a job training and educational center for South L.A. foster youth run by the RightWay Foundation.
"I fell through the holes in the educational system," he says. "But education is still a way to change a life. Plus, local communities don't have enough access to contemporary art. You can't always be asking people to get on the bus and get their two hours of culture at the museum."
Art + Practice wasn't born out of some theory-driven vision to create socially driven art — an idea that is in vogue in the art world. "I'm pragmatic," he says. "I just looked at the glaring needs. I don't need to make it sexy for the art world."
That's a philosophy he lives by in other ways too. Bradford isn't motivated by artspeak or critical trends or who-said-what in Artforum.
"I just follow the things I'm interested in," he says. "That's always guided me. If I'm interested in something, that's where I go."