Chicago, Aug. 2011 - Just before his traveling survey opened to the public at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art, Mark Bradford and I had a conversation in the midst of his work in the galleries. I don't think it's possible to have an unproductive conversation with Bradford; he's very expressive and clearly enjoys talking about his work and his ideas.
Bradford has gained much acclaim for his work that balances formalist aesthetics with social relevance, arraying singed endpapers used in beauty parlors and layering posters from off of the street and sanding them down to expose different strata. Despite these materials, his work is often described as painting, which is where our conversation begins.
Mark Bradford, Untitled (Shoe), 2003; Courtesy The Speyer Family Collection / Photo: Bruce M. White, 2010
Abraham Ritchie: In a lot of writing about your practice, your work is described as painting, even if it doesn’t involve paint. How do you stand in relationship to that tradition of painting? It seems like there are a lot of people saying that about your work, but I wanted to hear what you had to say.
Mark Bradford: Oh I got a lot to say! And we never agree.
AR: There did seem to be a little bit of conflict there so I wanted to ask.
MB: I see them as paintings because I make it easy on myself, because they are on a stretcher bar. I’m not getting into whether that’s a collage, or . . . They’re on stretcher bars so they’re a painting for me. Now the material that I use is something different. Obviously I don’t use paint. Obviously. And it wasn’t a political strategy, against painting -- “Fuck you, paint” -- it wasn’t that.
If I’m doing work that really starts to mine modernity, even if it’s visual, sort of like abstractions, it just goes like art history, like whishhh, [makes a hand gesture of something being sucked off of his hand and thrown behind him] sucked into the vacuum of the institution. But I had this impulse to talk about spatial issues and social issues and all these other things and I didn’t want to just have that in the title like Agnes Martin, you know. So I started using something that had that sort of embedding in it.
I’m very impatient and oil painting takes a long time to dry. It’s very toxic; it gives me a headache, so I knew I couldn’t use it. Acrylic paint, it doesn’t work for me.
These endpapers were cheap, fifty cents a box, which was good getting out of school. So it organically led me to other materials. When I needed more end paper I’d walk out, find some street paper; the street paper has color so I'd have a color pattern now. Eventually I decided that because of the territory I was mining, paper made sense. I don’t know when, or at what point, but I just decided, ok I’m going to keep doing this.
AR: And in these galleries you can really see the organic way your work has progressed.
MB: History loves to be linear, but it’s usually not.
Installation view of Mark Bradford, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago; Photo: Nathan Keay / Courtesy MCA Chicago
AR: You’ve said that before.
MB: Yeah, it’s not and neither is mine. I don’t always know what I’m doing when I’m doing it. I can look back now and say, oh I see what I’ve been doing... But at the moment I’m in it, it’s like an anxiety-ridden unknown. It’s like the voice of God.
AR: So let the art historians and the curators figure it out?
MB: They can figure it out. This is visual talent that I’m interested in and I know that I’m trying to mine a certain territory and that takes up all my time. I certainly don’t have time to figure out what history this work relates to.
Sometimes they give me too much credit, right? And I’m like this art-savvy person, but they’re like, "He’s referencing these paintings and these paintings." Sometimes I’ve looked at them and sometimes not. I think that’s a function of art history.
AR: What are the differences and how does your work operate in two-dimensions versus three-dimensions? Because something like Mithra [seen above] operates in three-dimensions, but it also operates two-dimensionally via the panels.
MB: I started off as a sculptor, and before that I was a hairdresser. When you are doing hair you are always thinking about it in three dimensions. So that was very, very easy for me to do, to work three-dimensionally. I’m sure I translated that on some unconscious level when I started working two-dimensionally in regards to depth.
AR: Ah, ok.
MB: I was really obsessed with depth. Flatness and depth. That came from my sculptural background. But it was intuitive, it wasn’t like, “I am a sculptor and I am going to translate that. David Smith is god.”
AR: [Laughs] So if you’re obsessed with flatness, how do you approach something that’s totally in the round, literally, like a sculpture like Kobe I Got Your Back (2008)?
MB: It’s not that big of a deal. Oftentimes I work on paintings and sculptures at the same time. I have two studios and I’ll do sculptures in one studio and paintings in another and I’ll run between them. Sometimes I’ll get bored with 2D and want to do 3D. I bounce a lot.
The sculpture is one form and the painting is another. I’ll be painting and get a great sculpture idea; I’ll be sculpting and get a painting idea.
I think I think in 3D. I’m almost sure at this point.
AR: Yeah, being here in this space, I can’t help but see those rapid progressions. But like you said there’s a good amount of rupture between them—
MB: Oh yeah man, I rupture, like it ain’t even nothing. Because that’s what history does. We have the art world now, but we forget that two years ago it collapsed. It wasn’t slow. It just stopped. The housing market collapsed. So I always try to have these interruptions in my work.
Value 47, 2009-10; Courtesy of the artist and Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York / Photo: Fredrik Nilsen
AR: I’ve been asking this question for a couple years to most people I’ve talked to because I think it’s interesting and a lot of artists have pretty strong opinions. What about beauty in your work? These things are simultaneously very beautiful but sort of rundown too.
MB: Rundown you said?!
AR: Well I mean they are right?
MB: Totally, they are, I love that you said that. They’re rough around the edges, rundown.
Beauty is like the two-fer. It’s like the thing you get when you buy a Pepsi, and they give you a little...
AR: And you get a little something for free?
MB: Beauty is like the thing for free. It’s not something I aspire to, but when it’s there I’m good with it. It’s like, ok fine. It’s the buy one, get one free. That’s how I look at it; it’s not the primary -- the idea is the primary. If it ends up beautiful, or rude, or mean, or poetic, or sublime...you know, that’s such modernist talk for me.
AR: When it does go into—
MB: Whishhh, [makes the previous hand gesture of something being sucked up and thrown into space] that?
AR: Yeah, when it goes into modernist ideas—
MB: Whishhh! [makes the gesture again]
AR: —I think I feel an affinity with you, that too much theoretical interpretation takes away from the work doing what it actually does.
MB: Yeah I just want it to do what it does. I think that people get it; they can feel it and they understand it. No, no, no, no it’s exactly what you just said—it’s beautiful but a little ragtag. That’s exactly me. I’m elegant but I have this little rough edge. That’s me. I’m crazy for the cornflakes but not the milk; I’ve always been that way.
I don’t think that you have to endlessly, endlessly, endlessly, debate it. Of course I’m not anti-intellectual, certainly. At the end of it, it doesn’t make it any better. Either a work is going to hold up or it’s not.
ArtSlant would like to thank Mark Bradford for his assistance in making this interview possible.