Mississippi Gottam, by Mark Bradford

I’ve been a fan of Mark Bradford for a while (and most recently was completely knocked out by the Bradford in the permanent collection at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles), but the current show at the Boston ICA offered me new insights into his work. Because there are so many ways to enter into his work, pick any of many lenses—political, sociological, race-based, gender, abstraction, counter trends, arte povera, inner city aesthetics. So maybe this is a show that needs several viewings to appreciate the density of meaning and form that Bradford is pursuing.

In his review, Silent and hidden, in the open, Sebastian Smee does a very good job of describing my experience of seeing that many pieces hanging together:

Imposing and even quite grand at a distance, Mark Bradford’s paintings, like the sprawling cities they evoke, suggest ruins up close.

They are ruins — the ruins of other modes of communication, other forms of speech. One over the other, Bradford layers old billboard signs, maps, and street posters. They’re salvaged, shredded, stripped, glued on, and rubbed back.

Working intuitively, he converts all these materials and more into works of art that are dense with history, freighted not only with political and social readings but with an abiding, poignant silence.

It’s the silence that gets under your skin. To wander around Bradford’s superb survey show at the Institute of Contemporary Art is to oscillate between the desire to get up close and even to touch (the impulse to run your fingers over their corrugated surfaces is almost impossible to resist) and a growing sense that you are in fact looking on from unreadable distances, like a general watching a chaotic battle from the top of a distant knoll, or an uncomprehending politician flying high over a disaster zone.

These works are deeply moving and lush even though there is nothing lush about the materials Bradford uses to make them. These are collaged/decollaged assemblages of posters and signs–layered, tattered, worn, wrinkled. His works are majestic and yet fragile, complex and yet direct, deep and yet very attentive to the surface.

Bradford is articulate and open about his way of working and where much of his imagery comes from. He is elementally connected to his neighborhood in Los Angeles (his studio is now in the space that was once his mother’s hair salon where he worked when he was young), strongly influenced by being African American and gay, and deeply moved by the powerful thinkers he was exposed to when he studied at Cal Arts—Michel Foucault, belle hooks, Cornel West. His manner is gentle and unassuming. There’s little of that “look at me!” energy in his tall, lean and understated presence. Which is deeply refreshing.

As for Bradford’s place in the flow of things, Smee is astute in addressing Bradford’s decision to move towards abstraction AND towards painting, two problematic issues for those who follow art fashion (which is a fair term since the art world in its upper registers more closely resembles the highly trend-based world of fashion and celebritism):

On the face of it, the decision looks gloriously perverse. The ’80s seemed to sound a death knell for abstraction. Few artists were interested in it. Its possibilities seemed played out. People were hungry for content, for representation (in all its senses), for the righteousness and punch of politics.

Bradford was part of this. How, with his background, could he not be?

But identity politics can be cruelly deterministic — not to mention hostile to the uncensored movements of the mind, to art. As he began making major work in the early 2000s, a big part of Bradford sought to shake off the expectation that, as an artist, he would hit all the predictable notes.

Hence, perhaps, his attraction to abstraction.

Despite its utopian beginnings in Western Europe and the Soviet Union, abstraction in the United States has tended not to mix with politics. Even abstract artists with a strong political bent have kept art and politics determinedly apart: Ad Reinhardt, for instance, was politically active as a citizen, but there’s not a trace of politics in his monochrome paintings.

I’ll be back for another visit before it closes in mid-March.