We had a chance to interview Mark Bradford in 2010, during his first museum survey at the Wexner Center for the Arts. This story ran in the Summer 2010 issue. copyright June 2010, The Conscious Voice Magazine.

“I create artwork everyday like it’s going to be at the Wexner Center.”



Mark Bradford fuses culture, class and found materials into contemporary art masterpieces

by Janel St. John


At first sight, you know artist Mark Bradford is no ordinary guy. At 6’8 he towers above everyone else in a room. In casual conversations, he is a brother from around the way. Engage him in a discussion about his paintings, you will find the intellectual. Go a little further - into the processes and mindset of creating an artwork, and you will be mesmerized by his medium, method and message.

This combination fuels the brilliance of Bradford’s work – large scale abstract paintings made from a variety of collaged materials: billboard paper, permanent-wave end papers, newsprint, carbon and other papers layered together, or stripped apart and manipulated with nylon string, caulking and sanding.

Forty-five of these works are now on view at the Wexner Center for the Arts in “Mark Bradford,” the first museum survey of the artists’ work. A 2009 MacArthur Foundation “genius” award winner, the Los Angeles-based artist also received the 2009-10 Wexner Center Residency Award in Visual Art, for which he created brand new works. But Bradford, who received his BFA and MFA from the California Institute of the Arts, is no novice to receiving awards; he actually has a slew of them: the Bucksbaum Award, 2006, the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation Award, 2003, and the Joan Mitchell Foundation Award, 2002.






Potable Water, 2005, Billboard paper, photomechanical reproductions, acrylic gel medium, and other mixed..... media, 130 x 196 in., Collection of Hunter Gray.
Luma, 2010, Acrylic gel medium, newsprint, carbon paper, and additional mixed media, 34 x 22 inches, Courtesy of the artist and Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York, Photo: Fredrik Nilsen


Outnumbering the awards… is the positive press coverage, making the artist, somewhat of a media darling. When asked about the magnitude of his first museum survey - Bradford speaks humbly but pointedly. “I create artwork everyday like it’s going to be at the Wexner Center.” Clearly, the enormity of his work ethic is comparable to his largest artwork - the 22-foot high, 64-foot long ark, Mithra, constructed for a New Orleans exhibition in the Lower Ninth Ward.

“He goes into the studio everyday and pressures himself to move his artwork forward,” said Christopher Bedford, Wexner Center curator. Bedford became familiar with Bradford, many years ago, while living and working in LA. At that time, the artist was creating work from his apartment, using found materials. “I got the chance to see the way an artist sees and thinks,” Bedford said. Not only did he curate this exhibition, Bedford brought his works to the attention of the Wexner Center, asking them to consider Bradford for a solo survey. “The show is a chronological account of Mark’s development over ten years,” Bedford said. “The key concepts, recycled themes and ideas - It renders a portrait of a person, through his work.”

Medium and Method

“This rhythm and repetition is very labor intensive and very meditative,” said Bradford, describing his process of using permanent-wave end papers to create an artwork. “I burned the ends of the papers because I couldn’t find them– it was white on white. Then I liked it.” This use of end papers, defines his earlier works. It also defines the environment that gave birth to his artistry.

Born and raised in South Central, Los Angeles, Bradford’s mother owned a beauty salon. “In the 1960’s and 70’s she styled a lot of wigs,” he said. “There was always a monetary association with things that you can create.” A family business, Bradford was frequently recruited to wash heads. After graduating from art school, he gravitated to familiar objects.  “End papers had music and memory of personal places,” he said. “I used what was available, and what was cheap.” He also speaks about his father’s work ethic. “He always worked 3 and 4 jobs,” he said. “Family was always first. He taught me to be observant and focus on what I see.”

It didn’t take Bradford long to see a goldmine. The LA Riots of 1992 produced blocks of burned out lots. Businesses quickly filled this ‘free advertising space’ with billboard ads. To Bradford, these billboards became an endless supply of art material. He describes stripping a wall and rolling up the giant poster  ‘in broad daylight.’  “The lower the income of an area,” he said, “the less policed it is. I couldn’t get merchant posters in Upper Arlington,” he quipped. That is how Bradford created James Brown is Dead, 2007….from a billboard. The actual artwork is more than 22-feet long and marks the singer’s passing in 2006.

.....James Brown is Dead, 2007 Billboard paper, photomechanical reproductions, acrylic gel medium, and additional mixed media, 47 3/4 x 267 inches, The Museum.of Modern Art, New York; purchased with funds provided by Kathy and Richard S. Fuld, Jr., Photo courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York



Scorched Earth, 2006, Billboard paper, photomechanical reproductions, acrylic gel medium, carbon paper, acrylic paint, bleach, and additional mixed media on canvas, 94 1/2 x 118 inches Collection of Dennis and Debra Scholl Photo: Bruce M. White

These billboard sheets have layers of decades of signs, advertisements and handbill flyers. This raw material in the hands of an artistic tour de force with a relentless energy to uncover, has produced extraordinary abstractions. “If you cut a tree, you can tell how old it is,” Bradford said, describing his process of distressing surfaces to create works, while leaving pieces of older material and images to show through. “Life is complex – most people live a layered existence. I’m trying to find a bridge between all the people, places and things.” Bradford’s quest is revealed in the grid-like patterns of many of his works, which form literal maps. It is also an expression of community and experiences. “LA is very racially divided,” he said. “Freeways connect and cut off communities.” The artist lived in all-black South Central, until his family moved to all-white Santa Monica. Bradford floated freely and frequently between both communities.

Therefore, race, culture and class are also constant themes. The dramatic red and black color palette of Scorched Earth, 2006, refers to the fiery end to the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. Over the course of three days, a rumor of an assault on a young white woman inflamed racial tensions and ended in the virtual demolition of Greenwood, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, home to 10,000 black families and the country’s most prosperous business community, also known as Black Wall Street. 

A mob of thousands of white men burned more than 30 city blocks to the ground, leaving hundreds of African Americans dead and thousands more homeless.

The all-white Tulsa National Guard unit was called in to respond to what had been reported as a “Negro uprising.” There are conflicting reports about the actions taken by the Tulsa units of the National Guard; black survivors say they dropped a bomb on Greenwood. The arc in the upper left of Bradford’s composition, could reference an attack from the outside, as an organized mass of white rectangles starts to surround the painting’s black and blackened center. The title, is a term frequently used to describe the punishing destruction of war, “I took that moment in history because we’re talking so much about war over there,” Bradford said. “It’s always war that’s happening in the Middle East, not about war on our soil. So I was interested in the ways in which wars reshape territory and reshape land.” 

Other artwork titles express personal and pop culture influences: Enter and Exit the New Negro, 2000 - challenges the status quo and celebrates new opportunity, Burn Baby Burn, 2002  – Bradford’s simply looked out of his LA salon’s  window and described his environment; Black Venus, 2005 – an exploration of an LA neighborhood of wealthy black professionals and Pinocchio Is On Fire, 2010 a new multimedia work conceived for this exhibition. The persona of the recently deceased soul legend, Teddy Pendergrass, is the foundation for this installation which explores various key moments in the history of the black community in South Central LA from the 1980s to the present.




Constantly pushing the bar, Bradford’s more recent works have evolved from personal experience driven themes and from the use of found materials. “…in Europe, you see it a lot, they would use these “blanks” to cover up political posters and signs that they didn’t want, or just to cover up something they didn’t like,” he said. “So I thought I would print some blanks and then create these sorts of drawings.” The titles for Luma, PAL and NTSC, all 2010,come from various forms of moving image technology. Luma is the brightness of the black-and-white information in an image. PAL and NTSC are the world’s most common systems for delivering television signals. These graphite drawings are made from “blanks,” sheets of newsprint he had printed with varying shades of gray, which recall the colors of drawings made with graphite pencils. Bradford glues sheets of various shades together and then uses a sander to expose the hidden layers and create pulsing, dynamic movement across the composition.

The drawings are each approximately the size of a standard U.S. newspaper sheet and maintain a newspaper’s unprinted margins. They also call to mind television static. Bradford mimics the appearance of multiple methods of information delivery, but erases the specific content.

‘Visually stunning, psychologically charged and intellectually bracing,’ are the words Wexner Center Director, Sherri Geldin, used to describe Bradford’s work. We concur. Until August 15, 2010, you can see and experience “Mark Bradford”  for yourself. -END-


Strawberry, 2002, Photomechanical reproductions, acrylic gel
medium, permanent-wave end papers, 72 x 84 in., Photo: Bruce M. White





Mark Bradford 2017

Kerry James Marshall