Artist’s career began with end papers

Time in salon inspired working with ‘whispers’

Bradford says a MacArthur grant has allowed him to “ratchet up the creativity.’’ Bradford says a MacArthur grant has allowed him to “ratchet up the creativity.’’ (Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff)
By Cate McQuaid
Globe Correspondent / November 19, 2010

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Mark Bradford’s career trajectory is on a steep, heady rise. Last year, the Los Angeles artist was awarded a 2009 MacArthur Foundation Award. He follows that up with the first museum survey of his works. Organized by the Wexner Center for the Arts at Ohio State University, “Mark Bradford’’ opens today at the Institute of Contemporary Art. The show spotlights Bradford’s dense, vibrant collages of layered and abraded found paper (and more) on canvas. Formally, they share DNA with Abstract Expressionist paintings, but they have a scorching social consciousness. Sculptures and video works are also on view. I sat down in the ICA’s offices with the tall, reed-thin artist, who turns 49 tomorrow, to talk about his work.

Q. You grew up in South Central Los Angeles.

A. To be fair, I grew up half in South Central and half in Santa Monica. And Santa Monica is like a beach suburb, so I grew up in both. My mom had a hair salon in South Central.

Q. And you worked there.

A. I absolutely did. It was the family business. You work in the family business, you know the family business. It’s in your DNA, I think.

Q. Your early pieces are made with end papers used for hair perms.

A. I started using materials that had, I call it “whispers.’’ Whispers of something social. Class, or economics, or just a multiplicity of whispers. And the end papers were so familiar to me. It was a familiar material. I knew it. That’s when I went to the studio and closed the door and really tried to just develop, to synthesize me. I was a very separate person. Compartmentalized.

Q. You went through a lot as a youth.

A. I came of age with AIDS. It was a new disease. There was a new drug, crack. There was this new kind of very conservative faith church rising. The rise of gang culture in Los Angeles. The rise of the Crips and the Bloods, the rise of gangsta rap, all at the same time. Drive-by shootings. Little boys going to school, my age, going down the street and being gunned down for wearing a different color. That was so new. I didn’t have any way of processing that. So I went to Europe. I didn’t really see anything. I think I was a ghost, really. I just didn’t want to die.

Q. You didn’t go to California Institute of the Arts until you were 30.

A. Most of the people I’m very close with all went to school late. I think there’s a reason for that; I think those were lost years. I got out of there in ’97, and I went back to the hair salon, still working. There I am in the studio with this [master of fine arts degree], and now I’m supposed to make this work. And then, you know, it all just starts to come back. The social just starts to fly out.

Abstraction was the form that made sense to me. I was looking for a way to articulate the social, and I did use the tools and tenets of Abstract Expressionism. I used material that was very grounded. I didn’t use paint because I knew that that would actually make it too difficult to talk about the social.

Q. Because it would be so much about painting, about art history?

A. Because it was paint. There’s just so much paint. I thought, what can I use? And I just thought, paper is about as common as you can get. It’s ancient and contemporary at the same time. It’s high and low. The Gutenberg Bible all the way to Kinkos, it’s still paper. Paper talks about people. I thought, well, it’s going to be paper.

Q. With all the building up and erasing, there’s revelation in your work, but also a sense of disappearance. Which makes the meaning sometimes elusive.

A. Oh, and it changes. A painting is the most unstable object I have ever seen. It is the most vulnerable thing in the world. It’s in my studio, it’s one thing. It goes to the gallery, it becomes another. It goes to the collector, it becomes another. That poor little thing, it’s like a floating signifier that becomes all these different things. I’ve seen my work five generations from the studio and I’ll look at it and go, “I remember you, but not this you.’’

Q. Your video “Niagara’’ shows a man named Melvin sashaying down a street in South Central. ICA chief curator Helen Molesworth said that this piece is a key to all your work, because you’re always exploring what’s encoded in the culture.

A. That’s true. [I emphasize] these little details that point to codes that are not what make prime time. It’s more complex than just oh, that’s black and that’s urban. There’s all kinds of different dynamics and power struggles, on just that one street. So Melvin, it’s a tough part of South Central, and he is black, and he is in the public sphere, and he is actually doing [his own thing]. He’s not a gangster, he’s not a gang member. He’s doing this.

Q. The MacArthur grant. Now that you’ve got it, what are you doing with it?

A. I’m keeping it moving. I’m really interested in making a film. I expanded my studio. I ratchet up the creativity. Same stuff, I just ratchet it up. I always have a lot of stuff going on.

But the career part of it, I struggle with that. It’s very linear, one thing after another. History is very tidy. I’m so not tidy. I don’t make as much sense as history. I think I’m always trying to untidy it so that it’s more me.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Cate McQuaid can be reached at