For the first three years of his career, Mark Bradford made paintings out of the end papers that hairdressers use when giving a customer a permanent wave. Then he sent a crow flying into a wall.
That piece, first created in 2003 and re-made for installation at Wexner Center for the Arts curator Christopher Bedford’s career-length Bradford survey, was the artist’s declaration that his work was about to take a turn both in its relationship with the art that came before it, and that he would more intensely mine his own life experience. As a work of art considered outside the context of Bradford’s career arc, Crow is a taxidermied gesture. Considered in the context of Bradford’s oeuvre, it is a smart synthesization of both American history and art history, as well as a thrilling declaration of Bradford’s intent. [Image: Bradford, Crow, 2003/09, installed at the Wexner Center for the Arts. Photo by Sven Kahns.]
To understand why Crow represents a pivot point in Bradford’s career, we have to go back to Bradford’s breakthrough work: From roughly 2000-2003 Bradford made canvases layered with end papers, a material with which Bradford had worked as a hairdresser (such as in 2003’s Smokey). There are other materials in those paintings too — including billboard paper and photomechanical reproductions — but it’s the end papers that dominate the compositions. Five of them are in the Wexner show, including Strawberry (2002), which I showed here. (Pictorially, these early Bradfords recall the work of Carter Potter, a Los Angeles-based artist who started making ‘paintings’ built up from the square cells that make up collaged strips of film in the 1990s.)
Then comes Crow, in which a (stuffed) bird flies into a wall beak-first. Crow is Bradford’s most direct engagement with Robert Rauschenberg, whose combines of the 1950s and 1960s are full of birds. Bradford had plenty of access to many of Rauschenberg’s combines because the best institutional collection of Rauschenberg combines is in Bradford’s hometown of Los Angeles, at the Museum of Contemporary Art.
The three works in which Rauschenberg most explicitly presents his avian metaphor are Untitled (1955) at MOCA, Odalisk (1955/58, now at the Ludwig Museum in Cologne) and Canyon (1959, below left and which is in the Sonnabends’ collection but which has been on public view for many years, most recently at the National Gallery of Art and at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.) Several other MOCA combines, including Painting with Grey Wing (1959) and Inlet (1959) also feature grounded birds. Both were on view at MOCA from early 2001 until 2002.
Rauschenberg uses birds that don’t fly as a metaphor for struggle, mostly for Rauschenberg’s own struggle with his sexuality (he was briefly married to the artist Susan Weil and the couple had a son) but also for American society’s inability know what to expect from or engage people who don’t conform to the dominant societal orthodoxy, such as gays. Everyone knows that birds fly; with the exception of a species or two, flying is what birds do. But in Rauschenberg’s combines, all the birds are grounded, permanently. They are a commentary on expectation. (MOCA curator Paul Schimmel explores these works in his essay, “Autobiography and Self-Portraiture in Rauschenberg’s Combines,” in the catalogue for his 2005 Rauschenberg combines show.)
Bradford’s Crow most explicitly engages Canyon, which features a bald eagle stuck in place. So far as I know, Canyon is the only combine in which Rauschenberg takes an actual bird and extends its wings, as if it was in flight. In Canyon Rauschenberg builds on Rembrandt’s painting Ganymede in the Claws of the Eagle (Zeus) (1635, below left), in which Zeus, having fallen in love with a beautiful boy, takes the form of an eagle in order to abduct him. Rauschenberg’s combine, which includes a photograph of Rauschenberg’s son Christopher in a pose that recalls Rembrandt’s Ganymede, adds an autobiographical spin: Can the eagle not escape and fly free because it is tethered to a heterosexual past, as represented by Rauschenberg’s son? Are both a reference to the challenges presented to a gay man by a hetero-dominated culture? Canyon updates the Ganymede myth by making it an autobiographical story of tethered complication. (And of course Rauschenberg’s experience was particularly common among gay men in 1959, a decade before the gay liberation movement took root in New York.)
Bradford advances Rauschenberg advancing Rembrandt. The bald eagle has been replaced by a crow, which is likely Bradford’s way of referring to his own blackness. The stuck-in-place bird of Rauschenberg’s combines has flown, a reference to how the conflicts and difficulties Rauschenberg and others faced in the 1950s, before the California Hall and Stonewall revolts led to increased (but hardly complete) freedom and equalities for gays. The crow is flying forward, into the future.
Consider that an indication of artistic intent. From Crow onward, Bradford’s work took a particularly Rauschenbergian turn. Bradford had used found materials before Crow — all those end papers! — but from now on the billboard paper and other detritus from Bradford’s South Central Los Angeles neighborhood would become as prominent in Bradford’s work as ephemera from Rauschenberg’s life was in the combines. From 2003 forward Bradford would increasingly make references to his own homosexuality in his work (including in this piece, which I mentioned in part one of my write-up on Bradford-at-the-Wexner.)
Including Crow in this survey may have been curator Christopher Bedford’s best decision. I was not previously aware of it. (The piece was first made in 2003 and was re-fabricated for the exhibition.) Yesterday I wrote that Bedford made the right decision by not installing his show chronologically. If there is an argument to be made in favor of a chronological installation here, Crow makes it. It is the pivot point in the exhibition and in the early part of Bradford’s career. Only its placement in the catalogue, which presents the works in the show chronologically, makes its significance apparent. Regardless, it’s exciting that Crow is in the exhibition. It is worth finding — and celebrating.
Third Bradford-at-the-Wexner post coming next week.