The dominant narrative around Mark Bradford’s work goes something like this: He’s African-American. He takes many of his materials from economically depressed, post-Watts, South Central Los Angeles. Therefore his work is to be considered within the context of its urban-ness, its blackness and Bradford’s allegedly urban biography.
Except… that path to Bradford’s work is reductivist at best, even misleading. Bradford grew up in Santa Monica, a white, upper-middle-class suburb. His choice of materials has as much to do with Alberto Burri, Mimmo Rotella, post-war European abstraction and Robert Rauschenberg’s combines as it does the post-Watts American cityscape. One of the best things about Bradford’s work is that he’s tackling so much more than just urban black America. He takes on big themes. [Image: Bradford, Practice (video stills), 2003. Collection of the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis.]
On this week’s Modern Art Notes Podcast, I asked Bradford if the critical focus on one part of his biography — being African-American — is overdone and if another part of his biography — he’s gay — is under-considered. Among the works we discussed were Practice, Niagara, Crow, Paris is Burning (I couldn’t find an image, but it’s the construction that spells out “Fuck Straigt [sic] People”) and Pinocchio Is On Fire, a new room-sized installation he made on the occasion of his traveling mid-career survey. (Aside: The National Portrait Gallery’s “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture” would have been an even better show if it had included Practice or Niagara.)
I think some of Bradford’s stories about growing up in a place and time that didn’t know what to do with a black, gay young man may surprise you — and may provide insight into some of his recent work. If you haven’t listened to this week’s show yet, take a gander via the links below. [Image: Bradford, Pinocchio Is On Fire, 2010. Installation dimensions variable.]
Related: Bradford was featured on Season Four of the public television program Art21. Here’s Art21’s entire Bradford segment. Here’s an Art21 YouTube clip of Practice. Bradford’s mid-career survey is at SFMOMA, its final stop. Here’s a peek at how Pinocchio looks at SFMOMA.