In the spirit of auction week here in New York City, it seems fitting to hear from the artist whose work recently set the record for the highest-ever auction price achieved by a living African American artist: Mark Bradford. The record-breaking work was the large-scale painting, Helter Skelter I, which sold for $12 million at Philips this past March. Bradford’s work fetching extremely high prices is just one of the many reasons that he’s quickly becoming one of the hottest artists alive. Along with being awarded a MacArthur "Genius" Fellowship, a US State Department Medal of Arts, and the esteemed Bucksbaum Award, the American abstract artist was chosen to represent the United States at the 2017 Venice Biennale. It’s no surprise that Artnet has claimed, “Bradford is our [generation’s] Jackson Pollock.”
Born in 1961 in Los Angeles (where he still lives and works today), Bradford was raised by a single mother who worked as a hairdresser. His exposure to art began with his experiences working in his mother’s beauty shop—an intimate space that had an all black, female clientele. Eventually, the salon moved to neighborhodd of Leimert Park, and set up shop in a building that is now the site of Bradford’s foundation, Art + Practice, which he founded with philanthropist and collector Eileen Harris Norton, and social activist Allan DiCastro. The foundation supports the needs of local foster youth, and simultaneously provides the community with access to contemporary art, with museum-curated exhibitions and moderated art lectures.
Bradford started studying art at the California Institute of the Arts in 1991. Despite emerging onto the art scene later in life (the 2001 group show Freestyle at the Studio Museum in Harlem launched his career when he was 40), he has since enjoyed solo shows at the the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Institute of Contemporary Arts in Boston, and SFMoMA. Bradford’s work is often visually complex and multilayered, incorporating everyday elements—from end papers used for perming hair to billboard poster remnants and carbon paper—that comment on the social and political conditions that impact communities. Consequently, the term “social abstraction” has often been used to describe his paintings.
Here, we’ve excerpted an interview from Phaidon’s new monograph on the artist to reveal what all of the buzz is about. In a conversation with Anita Hill—the American attorney and academic, who became a national figure and women’s rights advocate after speaking out against U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas for sexual harassment in 1991—Bradford describes how his background and being “on the fringe” of society has influenced his work, and how he in turn gives back to the community that shaped him.
Mark Bradford, Niagara, 2005, video. Picture: Mark Bradford. Image via Phaidon.
What was life like for you in LA in the 1970s and 1980s?
I was working as a hairdresser, travelling all the world, basically partying and working, doing clubs. I didn’t really have relationships. I’d be in and out of this and that, but I never really locked down too much. I was streets. Randy Crawford’s "Street Life." That’s me, honey. That’s what I did.
That had to be an influence on you. What were the clubs in Los Angeles like at that time?
I went to all of them. Gay, straight, black, white, Mexican, Chinese, you name it. I liked nightclubs… People could be whoever they wanted to be. A woman who’s working in a bank every day could put on this disco dress, go to the club and shimmer all night. She could do her thing. She could have a different name. I didn’t care what her name was. I was like, ‘You look fabulous. Let’s twirl all night long.’ I love that space of creativity and being anonymous at the same time. Although I got labeled as girls do—fast, street, promiscuous, all that stuff—I liked going out and dancing and being in the nightclubs. Make no mistake, there’s a dark, dark side to it. You get caught up and your body gets eaten up: destroyed by drugs, sex, AIDS, violence. I was always aware. Violence has never left me. I wish it would at some point. It’s always part of my narrative. I think women can understand that more. Violence never, ever fully leaves my context. I turned a street corner last week and a guy said, ‘Oh, there’s a faggot.’ Still, at fifty-four years old! The same thing as a woman. A woman never loses the feeling that she could be sexually assaulted.
Let’s Walk to the Middle of the Ocean, 2015. Image courtesy of Mark Bradford, via Phaidon.
In the 1990s, with your time in the shop and in the clubs, did you think that you were an artist?
I knew that I had such a strong background in materials and texture and color, from working with hair for so many years and from the clubs, that I had a good mastery of materials.
You had knowledge and ability that came from your experiences. What did you want from art school?
I remember thinking, ‘I need to go to a school that has ideas.’ CalArts was a school of ideas. You read. That’s what you do. You read, you process, you think. For me, because I had a strong material side, I thought that that was a great place to go. I entered CalArts at thirty/thirty-one. What I was interested in learning about was ideas. I stumbled on a little bit of feminism through reading Octavia Butler and Angela Davis. It opened up my eyes to the fact that a lot of women were challenging the system and standing up and speaking in voices that were not just of the status quo. I’d never seen that before. You were actually the first black person that I ever saw standing up in public. My mom had a television in the shop. All I kept thinking was that you were telling a counter narrative; you weren’t supposed to do that. I remember thinking there was something inside of me. I identified with that. You were black and you were telling on somebody black. I’d never seen anything like that. You were standing up and not being on the fringe. I think before, you were on the fringe, to be honest with you. You stood right in the center and put your hand up and said, ‘There’s a problem.’ I’d never seen that before. That was something! I said, ‘How can she do that? We’re black people.’ I’d never seen that before. I said, ‘Oh, I know what that is.’ They started calling it feminism: speaking your truth to people who may not agree. I was like a ghost on the fringe: keep moving until they see you run. I never thought to say that there was a problem.
Spiderman, installation view at The Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, 2015. Image courtesy of Mark Bradford, via Phaidon.
Does your art become your truth?
Oh lord, yes. Yes, it absolutely does. It’s always me walking into the middle of the room and saying my truth whether I like it or not. Sometimes I do wish my art wasn’t so vulnerable. Then I remember that delicate person standing right there. That’s something that burned into my memory and I do that with every piece. For me, it’s not about existing on the fringe; nor is it about the people existing on the fringe. It’s actually about us pushing ourselves into the center—alternative voices pushing into the center: women’s voices, people who are not deemed proper.
The Devil Is Beating His Wife, 2003. Image courtesy of Mark Bradford, via Phaidon.
There are a couple of things that I keep coming across when people are describing your art—social abstraction and Abstract Expressionism. How do you see your art?
I can tell you what I know. I can tell you the impulse that I had. I thought that I wasn’t going to let anybody tell me what to do and how I was going to do it. I decided that I was going to take all my experiences in the world and all that material from the world—the detritus of the world that we live in, the billboards, the stickiness, the messiness—I was going to take all that, I wasn’t going to use a drop of paint and I was going to push myself into the center of the room. That’s what I did. It’s not just abstraction. Abstraction for me, I get it—you go internal, you turn off the world, you’re hermetic, you channel something. No. I’m not interested in that type of abstraction. I’m interested in the type of abstraction where you look out at the world, see the horror—sometimes it is horror—and you drag that horror kicking and screaming into your studio and you wrestle with it and you find something beautiful in it. That’s what I was always determined to do. I have never turned away. As a child in the hair salon, I never turned away from horror. I saw it all. There was so much strength and so much beauty too. The laughter in between the crying. I believe in that. For me, I was going to drag it all into the studio and then I was going to drag it out to the gallery. Yes, in a way it is social abstraction. The thing about Abstract Expressionism that fascinated me was the fact that so many African-American men and women have been left out. It was also really fun when they told me, ‘Oh Bradford, you can’t.' Don’t do that.
Finding Barry, installation view at The Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, 2015. Image courtesy of Mark Bradford, via Phaidon.
Six years [after receiving the MacArthur Fellowship], First Lady Michelle Obama awards you the Medal of Arts. You have the State Department’s Medal of Arts, a MacArthur ‘Genius Grant’—we knew you were a genius, but now so does MacArthur—and with the Venice Biennale 2017, the whole world knows. It’s a singular honor to represent the United States in this renowned international art exhibition. You said you knew early on in your life you were powerful. Could you have predicted this?
I never think about stuff like that. If I did think about the Biennale for five minutes, it was because I didn’t want to disappoint the people who believed in me, so I let them go ahead and put this little packet together because I didn’t want to disappoint them. But I didn’t think that I was going to be important. No. I didn’t think that I would be a runner in that. I don’t even think I thought about it. I certainly didn’t do any politicking. I certainly didn’t do any networking. It does seem to be a much watched thing and a huge platform, maybe because this country at the moment has had so much unrest around it.
You have five salons at the Biennale?
In the first salon is Spoiled Foot.
In the second salon, you go back to a familiar space.
You come into the second salon and, for me, it really is the hair salon. It’s me hiding underneath Medusa’s crown and her hair. As I watched her turn her man to stone, there was fierceness—a fierceness that made me feel completely protected. There was fierceness in my mom’s customers. The women hid me.
Medusa, 2005, installation view at the Venice Biennale, 2017. Image courtesy of Mark Bradford, via Phaidon.
That feeling of being shielded shows up in the poem Spoiled Foot. And the calm of the beauty shop shows in the paintings in the second salon. But then, as represented in the middle room, you began to wander.
Yes, this little boy remembers. The middle room for me is the Middle Passage and it’s really about something rushing in. I call it Trouble Man, after Marvin Gaye. There’s a song about 'Trouble man.' He steals me out to sea: Middle Passage. In the belly of the boat, what were they thinking? People were kidnapped fast and would go from their village to the boat in very little time. We think of it as this long period of time, but often times, it wasn’t. Then they were lying in vomit in the bottom of the belly of a boat as cargo.
But the fourth salon seems to mark a turning point, flowing from the years of wandering.
Yes. After this mental work is the muscular work. The painting where I knew who I was. I had survived—a little bit battle-scarred, but I’d survived. In the exhibition, you go from the Middle Passage to the next salon of three paintings that are muscular and about Abstract Expressionism and social abstraction. There’s a joy and a mastery and a power in those works. That’s me. That’s me as I knew I could be when I was seven years old. I kept it really quiet, but I knew that I could do that. The last room is really about me again, walking the earth. It’s not me walking literally. I don’t walk like that. But it is about me, as I am, vulnerable, in a vulnerable body, walking the earth with the potential for violence that will never leave me, but with a strength and also a back story. It goes in this way that I didn’t think it was going to. I think it’s probably the best thing I’ve ever done. I’ve never been as excited about a body of work.
Oracle, installation view at the Venice Biennale, 2017. Image courtesy of Mark Bradford, via Phaidon.
I can’t even imagine a seven-year-old saying, ‘I’m going to be a great master painter of the twenty-first century.’ But you’ve done it with this combination of honors. It’s a huge platform.
Anita, I’m going to tell you the truth. I’ve been hearing stuff like that my whole life. I’ve always tried to do what I do because, girl, there are so many boats that sweep you out to sea. I’ve always stayed centered. Six foot eight at fifteen, people said, ‘Now, you know you got to play basketball’ or ‘You know you got to go model’ or ‘You know you got to do this.’ I said, ‘All these big words, these big capitals around everything in my life… I’m going to just keep staying the course.’ Medal of Arts—I stayed the course. MacArthur—I stayed the course. Biennale—I stay the course. None of that stuff really gets inside.
The words that you use in your art have evolved from phrases like ‘sexy cash’ to the Preamble to the US Constitution, including your large-scale work We The People (2017) for the US Embassy in London. Do you see parallels between the Sexy Cash text and the Preamble?
Sexy Cash is about a whole mindset of exploitation and colonization. When I’m dealing with the Constitution, it’s this huge, unwieldy, heavy document and I’m trying to dismantle it, even though it will never be dismantled. I’m grappling with it. It’s me going to the Lincoln Monument and trying to rub out something. It’s me trying to grapple with the enormous history that made this country. It’s me grappling with being three-fifths of a man originally in this country in the south. Where do I fit into this document that was made when they weren’t thinking about black bodies? They were thinking about black bodies, but not as humans with rights. For me, it’s personal and emotional. It’s policy and personal and, somehow, the personal and the policy lock together and it makes it work. I’m trying to navigate through it. I’m trying to find out how I feel about policy. When I see a young black man murdered by the police on television, I’m trying to grapple with policy. I’m trying to grapple with it personally.
It seems that one of the ways you’re grappling with the policy and the personal is through your foundation Art + Practice, in the same building that housed your mom’s beauty shop.
Leimert Park. When we got to Leimert in the early 1990s, it was a thriving black community with a lot of black businesses. It was really a black business mecca. Interestingly enough, it was turning from a merchant culture to a center for Afrocentric arts and there was a push to get all the hair salons out of Leimert Park.
How would you describe the Foundation’s work?
The Foundation supports both contemporary art and social services for foster youth. We have two arms. We collaborate with museums and we collaborate with a foster youth organization. It’s about policy—education, grades, housing. Some may be undocumented immigrants. It means helping them get a little job and then a little bit bigger job and then cleaning up their tax or credit records. I can tell them that I’ve been through all of that.
Right. The foster youth you work with are particularly vulnerable because they’ve aged out of the foster-care system so that the safety net they once had, even that little safety net, no longer exists for them.
In that situation, you’re truly on your own on the fringe. So much of what I had to do, they have to do. They beat themselves up. I can say to them, ‘Stop all that. I’ve done all that. You can choose how far you want to go.’ That’s why I’m a strong proponent of education and why I love to see seventeen-year-olds on college campuses. It gives you at least a safe space to grow up. Education, housing, job training, job placement: these are fundamental blocks, and once we get all that, we can talk about maybe going to college.
It seems to me that so many of the things that you’re accomplishing are making the world safer for people.
Yes. Yes. Yes. I never thought about it until you said it, but yes, you’re right. I do want to make it safer. I do want to make these little safe spaces where it’s: ‘We’re going to work in this little safe space and figure out how to get some armor on you.’ Yes. I think everybody should have a little protection. I think everybody should have a little cover, everybody should have a little bit of a net and I think that society should give it to us, but for so many people society doesn’t do that. You have to build that net for yourself by any means necessary.
I’ve seen your library. You read everything and I see it in your art, the ideas that you began to study at CalArts have exploded.
They take off. I don’t keep too much around in my head. I never have really. That’s why I’m here. I have an incredible focus wherever I am. I’m 100 percent there. Then in two hours, I’ll be at In and Out Burger, and a lady has just ordered and I’ll look at her hair and look at her shoes and look again. And the only thing I’m ever interested in is what I’m working on right now. I can’t go back and do something. I can’t remake it. I’ll say ‘I’m going to go back and make five of these. I’m going to make so much money.’ I never do. I’m living in my power, but as I’m living in my power, I’m constantly pointing to the fringes of society and saying, ‘There are people hurting. We can do more. We can do more. We can open our mouths when we know something’s not right.’
You can do art.
I can do art. That’s what I do. That’s the whole thing.