Mark Bradford on Painting with Paper –

Portrait of Mark Bradford, 2020.
With the kind permission of Hauser & Wirth. Photo by Sean Shim-Boyle.

End papers, small rectangular sheets of translucent paper that protect hair during the perming process, form the basis of the early works of art by Los Angeles-based painter Mark Bradford. While working at his mother’s beauty salon, Bradford began incorporating the papers into abstract paintings, creating a layered scrim through which the paint oozed out. Interested in shared materials, the artist has picked up items from across Los Angeles – including fragments of posters, broadsides, and billboards – to address civil unrest issues. His painting Kingdom Day (2003), which uses advertising and other imagery, references the 1992 edition of the annual Los Angeles parade in honor of the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. To ease racist tension, it is reminiscent of the first year after the fatal shooting of black teen Latasha Harlins by a Korean shopkeeper in 1991 and the brutal flogging of Rodney King by police, a Korean-born parade was born. Grandmaster appointed. A selection of Bradford’s final paper paintings is on view in a solo exhibition spanning two decades at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas through January 10, 2021. In conjunction with the exhibition, Bradford created a poster installation for the Museum’s Modern Billings program in downtown Fort Worth. The project was shown from the beginning of May to mid-July and contained three pictures of the late “Mr. LaMarr ”from the photo archive of fellow hairdresser Cleo Hill-Jackson. In addition, an online exhibition of Bradford’s quarantine paintings is currently on the Hauser & Wirth website.

On the subject of matching items

Metro images.

What originally made you want to include theses in your abstract paintings?

I love to be a painter! I’ve always been intrigued by the history of abstract painting, especially in relation to the New York scene in the 1950s. With one foot in the studio and one foot in American culture, I’ve found alternative ways to approach abstraction. When I finished graduate school, I had a crush on sources of comfort. Graduation papers are a very tactile material that I spent a lot of time with when I was working in the salon doing perms. In addition to being a source of income, the salon provided strength and inspiration to be a painter in the art world – like taking an old friend with you when you go to a new and unfamiliar place.

I was interested in unpacking these two concepts. The way I layer end papers like a grid over the surface of my paintings is great for a conversation about abstraction, but the end papers also serve a purpose and come straight from the world I lived in. I don’t see my abstract paintings and the inclusion of graduation papers as two exclusive impulses. In my practice they always went together.

View of Mark Bradford's exhibition

View of Mark Bradford’s End Papers exhibition, 2020, at the Modern Art Museum, Fort Worth.

How has your use of graduation papers evolved over the course of your career?

Well it has become my origin story. There was a moment, maybe during my second or third show, when I felt that the narrative of working as a hairdresser in South Central was dwarfing other parts of my job. But I thought the narrative would change as I matured in my process.

I didn’t think much about the materiality of the graduation papers until I started experimenting with other types of paper. End papers are similar to tissue paper and are very absorbent and translucent. When painting, it was much easier to achieve layers of paint due to the properties of the final papers. When I started adding more opaque materials like billboard and poster paper, the images looked flat. Then I started dipping paper in water. I thought that if the pulp dissolves, maybe a little light can come through. This addition really changed my practice. To this day, I still use water because it’s the only thing that pulls the paper apart and makes it flow like paint.

Every time I encountered a problem with the material, I developed a new visual vocabulary. It reminded me of working in the salon and using pictures to give women the hairstyles they wanted. I think tenacity is also reflected in my art practice. Even if I put a picture down for a year or two, I never give up.

As I went through the show at Modern, I enjoyed seeing all of the works in one room. I remember working on each of them and all of the things that I struggled with. Some were a little more turbulent than others. But they all represent a moment through which I kept moving. I am glad I entered the art world with these paintings.

Mark Bradford, Kingdom Day, 2010.

Mark Bradford: Kingdom Day, 2010, mixed media collage on canvas, four panels, 120 by 480 inches total; at the Museum of Modern Art in Fort Worth, Texas.
© Mark Bradford.

Some of your work has reexamined important events in American history. Can you talk more about this recording?

I’ve been thinking about what a city looks like after riot and how abstraction could make that something more meaningful. The painting Kingdom Day combined elements of Abstract Expressionism with a celebration of Martin Luther King as part of a Kingdom Day Parade in Los Angeles, which is strongly supported by the Korean community. The pictures that I originally abstracted showed the parade princesses. It was just one of those times when you can see how politics, culture and race can grow together.

Mark Bradford, Dancing in the Street, 2019.

Mark Bradford: Dancing in the Street, 2019, video, 2 minutes and 50 seconds.
Courtesy of the Fort Worth Modern Art Museum. © Mark Bradford.

My newer video, Dancing in the Street [2019]uses the theme song by Martha and the Vandellas. Some people believe the song was a call to action while others claim it was just a great Motown number. I took footage of the group’s performance and projected it onto buildings in an LA area that was known for rioting in the 1960s. It looked like ghosts dancing on the buildings, really bringing the past and present together into one coherent moment.

Both works follow a similar impulse as the pouring out of support and protests behind the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s important to include charged landscapes and the protests that are going on right now. It’s been like that forever. We just look at it differently.

How have events like COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter protests affected your current practice?

At the beginning of the pandemic, I had a lot of triggers because it kind of reminded me of the AIDS epidemic. It was great to see so many mobilize for positive change in that moment and find creative and interesting ways to make their voices heard. I’ve learned to be fluent and to keep doing work. I want to say that I’m not on Pacific Standard Time, I’m on Pandemic Standard Time – and I giggle when people send me calendar invitations for upcoming events.

View of the installation project

View of the 2020 Modern Billings installation project featuring the late Barber Mr. LaMarr from the Cleo Hill-Jackson Archives in Fort Worth, Texas.
Courtesy of the Fort Worth Modern Art Museum.

Commitment to your surroundings and your community has really driven your work. How did this affect your recent Modern Billings murals in Fort Worth?

This project started as a proposal. As I was working on this, I brought some of my hairdressing friends into the conversation and it became a kind of collaboration. My friend Cleo has a great photo archive. The pictures feel beyond a time capsule. I love the snapshot of this fabulous hairdresser, LaMarr. He always had this great essence and was always ready for billboards. I have a feeling he’s looking down from the sky with some golden lamé wings and saying, “Well, of course, darling.” Best of all, it wasn’t prepackaged and sold – these images are just the authentic LaMarr and Cleo. I didn’t feel the need to change it. It felt like a moment just to share because you never know.

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