I only discovered Mark Bradford in the last month or so, and what a discovery it was. His lush, elaborately textured, apparently non-representational but highly evocative paintings are sumptuous, a banquet for the eyes and mind. His paintings are suggestive of landscapes as seen from an airplane, maps, old chipped and eroded walls which have been painted over many times, and torn billboards showing the remnants of previously torn billboards underneath. They go further than much of the traditional Abstract Expressionist paintings in that regard – they are not only paintings for the sake of painting, but strongly and deliberately evoke other imagery. They are, for people who have an eye for non-representational beauty, among the most gorgeous abstract paintings that have been made [note that technically speaking, they are power-sanded conglomerations of paper]. If anyone wants to argue that he’s the greatest living abstract painter, I wouldn’t disagree. I’d probably cast my vote for Gerhard Richter, though, if he’s still alive [just checked, he’s 85] because he did some amazing abstracts. But some critics will argue that Bradford’s work is not abstract (or non-representational) at all.
As great of an accomplishment it would be to make first rate Abstract Expressionist paintings – and it is more than enough – that is not why Bradford is being championed in the media at present. But before we get into that, have a look at some of his paintings and formulate your own impression, that is, if you don’t already know the back story.
Because I like Bradford’s paintings so much, I am interested in how this artist is packaged for an art-world audience. The way he is presented is entirely predictable, disappointing, and misses the point. Here I will analyze an example of art criticism, from ArtNet – Mark Bradford Is Our Jackson Pollock: Thoughts on His Stellar U.S. Pavilion at the Venice Biennale – and how it positions Bradford as a significant artist.
The first thing one notices about the title of the article is the obvious comparison of Bradford and Pollock, tacitly acknowledging that Bradford is to a great degree an Abstract Expressionist.
The article begins with a picture of Bradford himself. This one:
Now we have lots of context: he is a black man representing the States at the Venice Biennale. We are going to look at his work not directly, but through that lens.
The author, Andrew Goldstein, asserts Bradford is just what we need right now, “a new Very Important Artist”. The key word here being important. This is an extremely telling word, and brings me back to the tortuous hours-long critiques in grad school where we always discussed work in terms of importance. There’s another perspective in which importance is irrelevant to art, or at least extraneous, and I tend to favor the latter over the former. However, in today’s art-world, the latter doesn’t exist. So, why is Bradford important? Is it for the qualities of his paintings I already enumerated? Uh, no. Either I, or Andrew Goldstein completely missed the point. If I had to bet, I’d bet that I missed the point, because it only takes more people to agree with him for me to lose an argument, and he writes for Artnet, and I write for my own blog. But let’s do find out why Bradford is an important artist.
Goldstein first must establish the link between Bradford and Pollock. His mistaken take on Pollock is worth quoting in full:
In fact, you could even say that Bradford is our Jackson Pollock—and not just because his well-known process of machine-sanding layers of street posters to make an abstract painting mimics Pollock’s technical invention of the “drip.” (The Affichistes, Jacques Villéglé and Raymond Hains, already went down that path in the 1960s.) Instead, Pollock’s real groundbreaking contribution was bringing a whole other category of endeavor—the whole theatrical performance of “action”—into painting, expanding the medium’s very definition in a way that’s influenced countless artists.
Pollock’s contribution, we are to understand, was bringing the theatrical performance of “action” into painting. Was it now?
This is the same survey of art history 101 mindset that sees the Impressionists’ contribution to art as taking the easel outside and painting in open air. This is akin to saying that Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was great because he composed it while deaf, or that Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises is a great American novel because he typed standing up. Congratulations, you passed the quiz. But in all of these instances, the greatest achievements of the artists in question could thus be appreciated without ever seeing, reading, or listening to their art.
The grand mistake is to value art primarily for its extrinsic, rather than its intrinsic properties. Instead of assaying what the art itself communicates, we focus on what we can communicate about the art. We contextualize the art and ignore the context that it proposes. Art is seen as a series of advancements in a linear progress of human development, and hence art is important if it can be delineated as a rung in the ever ascending ladder of art. Thus a critic will make an argument about why a work of art is not good, or great, but rather important.
Goldstein concludes his argument:
Bradford is doing that too, expanding painting by bringing social practice into his artist’s studio by tying his work as a painter specifically to his work with foster children and other at-risk communities.
Now you may get the joke of the title of my article: Mark Bradford: Political Action Painter. Why, he’s not just an action painter like Pollock, he’s also a political action painter. Outside of the canvas Bradford has used his success as an artist to start a non-profit organization supporting social causes, and has pledged funds to an organization that teaches prisoners job skills. Fantastic! Would that more rich artists of all stripes would do more of the same.
I would call this the back story, which I do find noble and interesting, but if it can’t be seen in the art, I don’t consider it a part of it. If we are judging a pizza-making contest, should we consider the social activism of the chefs as equal or more important than the slice of pie on our plate? And if the slice is delicious, does propping it up with extra information undercut it?
This is not to say that Bradford doesn’t infuse social commentary into his paintings, sculptures, and installations. He does. But it’s fairly subtle, and if you don’t know that’s what he’s doing – while also making wall-sized non-representational paintings – you could easily miss that element in much of his production.
I tested my theory out on my girlfriend. I produced a screen-show of his paintings without telling her anything about him. She insisted on clicking through the screen show herself and at first just focused on which ones she liked the most. She’d say things like “I’d buy this one” (forgetting for the moment that neither of us could afford to even fly out to see one in person). Then I asked her what she could tell me about the artist. The only thing she could really say for sure was something about the paintings which then reflected back on the artist, “they’re not political”. So, she admired them, but didn’t think they were political at all. That was my same initial reaction.
Only the paintings with discernible words, such as those that are composed of posters from East L.A. offering loans, mortgages, and other such things would provide a clue to that any pointed social criticism were at hand.
Tracking down a good image with text to share where the social message is evident, I happened across another misleading article, this one titled, How to Understand the Paintings of Mark Bradford, the United States Representative to the 2017 Venice Biennale, in Artspace.
First the pic, then the rhetoric:
The first two lines say, “Rebuild South Central Without Liquor Stores”, and the second says the same thing in Spanish. This painting, from my perspective is not as strong as the other ones I shared. The composition and colors end up serving aestheticising a one-liner. It looks more like an advertisement.
Mark was born in 1961, which makes him about 4 years older than me. If his art school education was anything like mine, if you didn’t have a political message in your art, you were irrelevant, and the last thing you could do was Abstract Expressionism. In fact, I only recall one person in my whole art school education attempting to get away with doing fully non-representational work. Nobody showed any interest in his paintings that I can recall. For this reason alone, it is completely understandable that an artist would feel compelled to instill a political message in his work. A little research and I discovered Bradford went to Cal Arts, a very cutting edge school. I wanted to go there but it was too expensive.
But, check out how this article on how to understand Mark’s work, by validating it in a postmodern/identity politics paradigm, inadvertently shits on it. I’m quoting the whole paragraph to give contest:
The resulting pictures are deceptively abstract. They are intricate and layered compositions, paper patchworks that conceptually weave a variety of urban threads. One might perceive nets, grids, and maps, yet it is difficult to draw, let alone close, a final circle. As such, they remain open to interpretation, up for grabs to viewers, critics, and collectors alike. Fully abstract they cannot be, since there is nothing autonomous, sublime, otherworldly, or detached from real life about these pictures.
Notice that the work is said to conceptually, as opposed to visually, weave a variety of urban threads. It’s important that contemporary art succeed conceptually, and while one can argue that Bradford’s works are conceptual, it’s only in an exaggerated context in which ALL art is automatically conceptual and political. Even more obvious the author does a sleight of hand to avoid addressing whether the paintings successfully weave in urban truths visually.
But the big dump came in this sentence: fully abstract they cannot be, since there is nothing autonomous, sublime, otherworldly, or detached from real life about these pictures.
We really have to do back-flips through flaming hoops to dissuade people from perceiving obviously non-representational works as “abstract”. In doing so, the author of this article went so far as to boldly declare the work is devoid of anything autonomous, sublime, or otherworldly.
By autonomous the author means that the work can’t be separated from the mean streets (calm down, it’s a movie reference) of Los Angeles, because it is often and largely composed of posters and whatnot gathered from the local environment. Conversely, if we were to make a case that art succeeded autonomously, we would be saying that it didn’t need any exterior purpose beyond itself to justify its existence or merit: think art for art’s sake. Sadly, this is unintentionally communicating that Bradford’s paintings don’t succeed without the sociopolitical trappings.
Sublime, which these paintings are also said to not at all be, refers to: such excellence, grandeur, or beauty as to inspire great admiration or awe. . Sublime also means convert (something inferior) into something of higher worth. Are we to understand that Mark’s artistic endeavor added nothing to the accumulated scraps of paper he collected? The beauty of his works does not inspire us at all, and that’s a compliment?!
Otherworldly means transcendent, as in a work of art offering some sort of vista that is above or beyond workaday reality. A level of visual complexity alone may elevate our perception above the dreary ordinariness of the daily grind, but, alas, we are living the reign of the urinal, in which anything above and beyond the naked quotidian is denied, and mocked. THIS, we are told, while an authority points at a brick, a pile of dung, or infuriatingly innocuous substance is all that there is. All hail the shovel, the comb, the bottle rack. Thus, it is an accolade to brand Bradford’s work as never getting beyond taxiing in the runway.
Another way to look at his work is that it succeeds in the same way that classic Abstract Expressionist paintings succeed – I believe that – in which case they succeed as independent creations without external context, and also transform the mundane into the transcendent. Why remove that like a tumor? Additionally, he infuses a sociopolitical element that adds another dimension. We don’t need to be so reductionist that in our fervor to justify his art in terms of postmodernism/identity politics we deny all the other ways in which it succeeds.
It’s obvious why in today’s intellectual climate there would be a push to contextualize Bradford’s work as primarily, if not exclusively about identity politics and a moral agenda, but let’s not shoot the artist in both feet and box him in as an ideologue merely peddling a worthy cause.
Back to Andrew Goldstein’s article. Next he unveils the identity of Bradford (or rather a cardboard cut-out of it), which, in postmodern/identity politics criticism is essential information, if not the first and foremost criteria for assessing any artwork:
Today, Bradford is comfortable in the corridors of power and wealth, and unhesitant to speak his mind, but his upbringing as a young gay black man in America was that of a quintessential outsider.
Let me just get this out of the way. Mark Bradford’s art doesn’t need any marginalization points. His work is excellent not BECAUSE he is black and/or gay. This kind of context in which an artist gains authenticity or street cred (in this case literally) because of his presumed marginalization is the flip side of the coin that says he is good FOR a black, gay artist. He’s great either way.
Goldstein continues to milk the identity politics, even though it’s completely unnecessary for people who love art more than, or independ of, political righteousness:
The notion of what it means to navigate as an outsider, as a gay black man in America, is the central conceit for Bradford’s pavilion. For the artist, the Palladian building itself, with its striking similarities to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, stands for White American Government.
Riiiight. This is the thing where Bradford is in the uncomfortable position of representing America in the Biennial when America, and particularly the Orange Führer, doesn’t represent him. Goldstein doesn’t argue this specifically, but other articles I’ve read did. Everyone get their knee-jerk political spasms out of the way. First off, dude is making carloads of cash from the white American oligarchy. Can you both be the pride and joy, celebrated multi-millionaire artist of a country, and at the same time be the victim of the system? And at the same time a gay, black man represents the US in the Venice Biennale, and this year’s Whitney Biennial’s theme was social justice and other far left political agendas (much of which I agree with), we will be reminded ad nauseum (such as in this article in the online art-rag Hyperallergic) that the contemporary art world is a white supremacist institution. If you haven’t heard that phrase repeated over and over, you don’t read Hyperallergic, and aren’t familiar with the recent controversy over Dana Schutz’ painting of Emmet Till in the Whitney Biennial (another instance where the identity of the artist was the most important factor in interpreting her work).
Could we perhaps admit that the art world would be MORE of a white supremacist institution if it didn’t select a black man to represent it, in which case there might be some gray areas? This isn’t to say that there aren’t bigoted, ass-backwards elements in America, or that we Americans don’t have a president that makes George W. Bush retroactively look like a dream candidate… Rather, it should cause a bit of cognitive dissonance when we are celebrating black artists BECAUSE they are black, to the point of denying their work succeeds autonomously, while simultaneously maintaining that black artists don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of getting any recognition in the art world. My sense, incidentally, is that the art-world is more prone to be overtaken by the ultra wealthy, conceptualists, and political ideologues, and that it is vulnerable to being a business primarily interested in its own self-perpetuation.
Finally, Goldstein, after making all the necessary genuflections in the direction of political correctness, acknowledged the undeniable beauty of Bradford’s paintings, while never using the accursed word beauty in his article (if you don’t know, beauty is now a bad word in art):
After the rotunda, you’re greeted by a suite of supernally lovely large abstract paintings—the sanded-poster works for which Bradford is best known. They are bold, dynamic, replete with ingenious ways of marking the canvas, magisterial.
After this scant acknowledgement that the art could appeal independently of social context, he ruins it by doubling back on postmodern/identity politics.
Looking at their patterns, you’re alternately put in mind of operations on the cellular level and the mysteries of the cosmos. This is the way Bradford thinks in his social practice as well.
It’s all about social practice and social justice. All art must be filtered through this one strainer. And you know what’s great about it if you are an art critic? You don’t really need to know much of anything about art, music, film, theater, or art form of choice. You don’t need to know the history or have participated in the medium to any extent yourself. You only need have mastered a couple years of critical theory, postmodernism, and identity politics as part of your graduate education (I speak from experience) to evaluate any and all art. There is only one criteria, which is ultimately morality. All art is judged on moral grounds, and morality is defined along the lines of political correctness. Art critics are now professional proselytizers for a certain set of largely foregone conclusions, and promote works which can function as props in promulgating their agenda (or they feign this in order to promote shows as paid marketers). The purpose of art is reduced to serving the cause. The artist is a comrade or vigilante. Never mind for the moment that the cause is imploding, in which case the believers are becoming ever more desperate in their attestations of it.
When the overzealous, literalist, some say weaponized extreme of postmoden/identity politics inevitably face-plants as a new strain of ideology not sufficiently unlike McCarthyism, this brand of art-criticism that completely subordinates art to political agendas will splat on the pavement with it. When did being a firebrand goody-two-shoes become synonymous with being an artist anyway? It almost makes one want to jettison morality altogether in the name of rescuing art.
I think the articles devoted to legitimizing Bradford by insisting his art is primarily a vehicle for positive social change are rightfully elevating his philanthropy and social practices, but wrongfully denying the intrinsic quality and worth of his art. If I were teaching a contemporary art class and the topic was Mark Bradford, I’d surely tell the students where he gets his paper, and what his social commitments are. I’d show an interview with him in which they could figure out for themselves his race, gender, and personality. In his case the background story is, as I already said, interesting and compelling. Further, he’s an outspoken, eloquent, and personable fellow. But I would do this only AFTER showing them his art.
I don’t think one needs to spend more than a few seconds with a good example of a Bradford painting to see that it is a visual feast, and intended as something to be looked at for a much longer spell, and perhaps repeatedly if one had the opportunity. But the majority of criticism makes looking at the paintings largely unnecessary. We merely need to be able to recognize his style, and then more importantly be able to ascertain the argument as to what he’s doing and why it’s socially important. But it’s painfully obvious to me that if you aren’t accessing his paintings through your eyes, through looking at them, rather than via the intellect through talking about them, you are missing the point by so far that the art itself is unnecessary except as a prop in a template. The overemphasis on the political elements of his art makes his art invisible, which is the worse thing you can do to an artist.
Consider the closing paragraph in a 2010 article on the artist in The New York Times:
Meanwhile, he said, he was attracted to the paintings of Jackson Pollock and writings by the Abstract Expressionist guru Clement Greenberg, both out of fashion. “I found myself wanting to be a part of the history of Abstract Expressionism,” he said, “and then at the same time rejecting a lot of what it stands for.”
He accomplished his goal. And, by the way, I just found that quote while editing all my typos and other errors. Patting myself on the back for being right about that part of my argument, at least. There’s the evidence. He comes out of Abstract Expressionism.
Those of us who have been immersed in the art world to some degree know that you simply can’t be an abstract painter today and expect to be taken seriously. I don’t agree with this. It merely means people can’t imagine how working abstractly can be done in a new and vital way. It’s that cynical, self-defeating, anti-art, prankster stance, that maintains it’s impossible to be original or do anything artistically to create something that transcends soul-crushing banality which has somehow become gospel.
In any case, Bradford’s work isn’t simply abstract, there’s a bit more going on, and it is discernible to the viewer, but not in a literal and overtly political way. Rather, it’s in the realm of what one of the writer’s flatly denied, which is that the paintings evoke maps, landscapes from above, housing complexes, walls, and so on – it is greater than the sum of its parts and conjures reality beyond the clinically literal and polemic. On top of that there’s the story of the artist’s background and taking posters pregnant with meaning from the street to use as a fundamental painting material. But this sense that fully abstract work is hopelessly antiquated is largely why I believe people are bending over backwards to package Bradford’s work as vehemently political, in which case we end up celebrating the packaging and throwing away the gift.
All you critics and ideologues can talk about the work and how important it is. I prefer to look at it.