Mark Bradford is hot, hot, hot. It’s easy to see why: Bradford makes visually engaging paintings that aren’t exactly painted. He makes sculptures that aren’t sculpted. He repackages objects from America’s most historically troubled urban ghetto, South Central Los Angeles, and alchemizes them into art. He raises subjects, but he doesn’t take stands. He samples from mostly post-Rauschenberg art history, but he doesn’t commit to any particular lineage. He has enough conceptual underpinning to sometimes require a press release to decipher the totality of what he’s doing, but his work is not so befuddling that you can’t find plenty in it without access to the right PDF file. [Image: Bradford, Scorched Earth, 2006.]
Bradford’s first retrospective, curated by Christopher Bedford and on view at the Wexner Center for the Arts through October 10, reveals preliminary accomplishment and abundant promise. The show will travel to the ICA Boston, the MCA Chicago, the Dallas Museum of Art and finally to SFMOMA, closing in May 2012. By the time the show ends, it will have been traveling for two years, a period equivalent to 20 percent of the length of Bradford’s career.
That statistic came to mind again and again as I walked through the Wexner’s galleries: Everything here was recently made. The artist hasn’t matured — or is only just beginning to do so. (More on this later.) Bradford, 49, finished school in 1997. He has been in the ‘adult’ phase of his career for just over 10 years.
No question: It’s been a decade during which Bradford garnered abundant accolades and institutional recognition. He has had small solo presentations at museums such as the Whitney Museum of American Art, Artpace and the Cincinnati Art Museum. He’s been included in major group shows at significant institutions all over the world. He’s also well-collected by art museums, even if mention of such is oddly absent from the exhibition catalogue. The group includes the Museum of Modern Art, the Hirshhorn, the Walker Art Center and the Albright-Knox. In 2009 Bradford won a MacArthur Foundation ‘genius grant.’ [Image: Bradford, Strawberry, 2002.]
So Bradford is off to an exciting start — but does any artist just a decade into his career merit a five-city, full-career survey? Ten years in, Matisse was not yet a fauve, Roy Lichtenstein was making gestural Hans Hoffmans and Robert Irwin was still a painter. Giving an artist this kind of full-blown roll-out just 10 years into his career is a curatorial declaration of the loudest, even brashest sort. An artist who has been working for a decade can be discovered, but can he be examined with meaningful rigor and historicized? Has the artist made enough work and shown enough range to be presented in a way that reveals depth and breadth? (Or can he only be promoted?)
The Wexner’s exhibition does not make a convincing argument for the value of the ten-year retrospective. There are 52 works here. The earliest is from 2000, the most recent 14 pieces are from the first four months of this year. Almost half of the show consists of works Bradford has made in just the last two years, a decision that reveals that the early work was thin, de-emphasized, or that the rush or need to fill out a survey-sized show was acute.
In an apparent nod to the shortness of Bradford’s career, Bedford chose not to install his exhibition chronologically. It’s the right choice, but it was also the only choice: Formally and conceptually, Bradford’s output falls within a narrow range. If there will be a reason to hang these works in a chronological order, it may not be apparent for another 10 or even 20 years. [Image: Mark Bradford, Potable Water (2005) as installed at the Wexner. Photo by Al Zanyk, Wexner.]
Only the most recent works argue for being hung together and their quality may partially explain why Bedford chose to weight his show so heavily toward Bradford’s recent production. To the extent that it’s possible to pick out work from a year or two and to say something specific about it in relation to the rest of Bradford’s oeuvre, there is a suggestion that the works from the last year or so of his output will be pivotal.
For the first eight years of his career, Bradford was content to raise questions, to float like a butterfly, to posit but not pursue. In Bread and Circuses (2007) is Bradford presenting a Medusan swirl? An urban road network that prioritizes transport over livability? A trying psycho-geographical network? Is the painting’s silver shininess an indication that Bradford’s city, Los Angeles, is too often considered as little more than a set for the silver screen or a caricature? Do Bradford’s materials — recycled signs and detritus from around his South Los Angeles neighborhood — refer to a city constantly in the process of tearing itself down and putting itself back up? Yes to all of the above? Bradford asks, you decide.
Only in the most recent works in the show has he been willing to make declarative statements, to provoke. In Paris is Burning (2010) Bradford confronts the viewer with exciting directness: The phrase “Fuck Straigt [sic] People” is not-so-subtly hidden amidst collaged elements that reference the music industry. Bradford’s point and the way he presents it is arresting: Parts of the music industry, most famously hip-hop, lace their output with barely veiled homo-hatred. Bradford is paying that forward with his sarcastic swipe at straight people — and by misspelling ’straight’ in his piece he smirks at the ignorance of the bigots he references. (It’s also possible that Paris is Burning and other recent pieces are more confrontational one-offs and that Bradford hasn’t pivoted toward statement-making at all. They’re so new and Bradford hasn’t yet done whatever’s next.) [Image: Bradford, Luma, 2010.]
All this hurry puts a lot of pressure on a curator’s catalogue essay, and Bedford’s mostly delivers. However, Bedford’s attempt to give his early-career subject some late-career heft reveals itself in the way Bedford strains to connect Bradford to art theory and to critics of other eras. When he tries to connect Bradford to ekphrasis, Michael Baxandall and Jean-Simeon Chardin all in the space of a single sentence, it comes off as a stretch that the reader understands Bedford pretty much had to attempt.
Other catalogue essayists seem eager to attach themselves to Bradford’s rising star but offer little. (Rob Storr’s essay revealingly closes his essay by noting that, “[Bradford's] prospects stretch as far as the eye can see.”) New Yorker theater critic Hilton Als’ pseudo-poetic run-on or short story or god-knows-what is particularly bizarre. Only LACMA curator Carol S. Eliel’s Q&A with Bradford and Hunter College professor Katy Siegel’s essay are consistently thought-provoking.
Bradford has made fascinating work for much of the 2000s. This survey demonstrates that Bradford is a very good artist. It also reveals that it’s too soon to tell if Bradford had a really good decade or if he’s having an important career.