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Looking for layers

Mark Bradford is considered one of the most important artists of our time. But what makes him special is not on the canvas

By The Washington Post | October 14, 2019 | Category

Geoff Edgers, The Washington Post

With a tug on the pull cord, the power washer comes to life and Mark Bradford, immaculate in a white T-shirt and matching jeans, picks up the nozzle. He blasts water at a canvas made of layer upon layer of glued, colored paper. It's hanging on a wall inside a garage bay at his studio.

Why is the man "60 Minutes" declared one of the "most important and influential artists in America today" working a power washer? The answer is one key to understanding Bradford.

A couple of years ago, as he walked around the city, the artist, who notices everything, spotted workers sandblasting graffiti. He watched them and then took note of what was left behind, the traces of paint that remained. Bradford liked that look, so he bought his first power washer. And while the act of spritzing a wall with a hose may look random, it isn't. This sort of experimentation is why Bradford will joke that "I'm in grad school forever." 

His studio is full of failed tests - a mound of papered basketballs, an LA street grid marked by caulking. The artist who recently had a work sell for $12 million estimates that he tosses out more than half of what he starts. The piece under the hose, though, is coming together. Bradford particularly likes how the black paper is peeking through the other layers of colored paper. He references Miles Davis, the late trumpeter, as he describes his process.

"When he does improvisational jazz, it is so structured around this history of what he knows," Bradford says. "There is improvisation, but I know what I put under there. I keep exacting notes. Every time I put on a different piece of paper, I take a picture and it goes into my database. I know exactly what color I put on yesterday. So when I'm sanding, I know it's a dark gray."

Bradford, his shaved head now speckled with scraps of wet paper, reaches up to show a section of the canvas he's drawn to. As he moves, he cuts a striking figure: trim, all in white and 6 feet 7 1/2 inches tall. Virtually every article written about Bradford notes his height. But what sets Bradford apart is more than physical. It's how he approaches the world. 

When he sees or hears something unexpected, he doesn't walk away; he walks toward it. He asks questions, sparks conversations and takes the time to listen. That curiosity, whether through meeting people or the books he devours, drives Bradford's work. No other contemporary artist has so effectively tackled the thorny and intertwined issues of race, sexuality and politics and used them to connect the chapters of America's complicated history. 

As an artist, Bradford's quest has inspired the sprawling, multidimensional paintings built of everything from discarded movie posters to window caulking. In his life, it has directed him to a social mission that's just as special, a nonprofit he founded in 2014 called Art + Practice.

"What makes him so inspired to me is that he's been able to take some of the ideas of social justice and equity being proposed within the painting and found ways to enact them in the world at large," says Christopher Bedford, the director of the Baltimore Museum of Art. "It doesn't mean that he's changed. It just means his means have changed."

Mark Bradford is one of our era's most important artists. You have to look beyond his canvases to see why. Image: Photo for The Washington Post by Carmen Chan

There's nothing revolutionary about an artist creating a foundation. But the nonprofits set up by Andy Warhol, Joan Mitchell and Robert Rauschenberg, to name three, were created to launch after the artist's death. Bradford, 57, founded Art + Practice for immediate impact. He provides as much of the organization's $1 million annual budget as needed. And he does it his way, generally declining grants so that the nonprofit can remain independent and flexible. 

Ford Foundation President Darren Walker remembers advising Bradford, after a visit to his studio: "You should seek funding from foundations for this work. You should really have someone write grant proposals, and you can raise money to pay for these programs you're running.

"And he said, 'When I sell my next painting, I'll just put aside enough money for the next year.'

"Who turns down an opportunity to apply for a grant from the Ford Foundation?" Walker marvels. "I think what it means is he, first, has the financial resources to self-fund and that, secondly, money from donors comes with strings attached and those strings might inhibit his creativity and the kinds of innovation he wants in his programs."

Art + Practice differs from most other arts nonprofits in two other important ways. While many museums try to reach people in underserved communities by bringing them to galleries outside their neighborhoods, Art + Practice is about making things better right here. In this case, here is Leimert Park, a neighborhood in South Los Angeles established in the 1920s and once a key cultural center for African American artists and intellectuals. This is also where Bradford worked as a hair stylist in the 1980s and eventually opened his first studio. 

Leimert is not SoHo. Drugs, violence and the Rodney King-related riots in 1992 left the area battered. But the neighborhood has been undergoing a revival and, next year, it will be a stop on the city's new light-rail system. This is where Art + Practice opened its 3,000-square-foot gallery in 2014, a space programmed in partnership with institutions including the Broad and the Hammer Museum at the University of California at Los Angeles. 

And, second, there is the "Practice" side of the nonprofit. Notably, it has nothing to do with art. Art + Practice partners with First Place for Youth, a Los Angeles-based organization, to help foster children transition into adulthood, providing job training, housing and a rent-free office for First Place.

The foster mission emerged the same way as many of Bradford's ideas. One day, while walking through Leimert Park, he noticed a group of young people hanging out in the plaza. He did what he usually does when he's curious, whether at a comic book store or on a street corner. He walked up to these strangers and peppered them with questions. Why were they here? He learned that they were foster children who, at 18, had "termed out" of their group home and had nowhere to go.

"Here's a constituency of people who did not ask for any of this, who did not ask to be so marginalized," Bradford says. "And then the support system is just pulled out from under them. Some of them have gone from group home to group home and not of their volition."

The beauty of the relationship, First Place's leaders say, is that Art + Practice offers support without pretending to be the experts. 

"From the very beginning, the whole team has been very humble in letting us decide what we're trying to do and not trying to tell us," says Claudia Miller, First Place's vice president of advancement. "For me, in the fundraising world, it's amazing to have a donor who recognizes our program staff is the experts in this. He's not telling us what to do. It's, 'Tell me what you need. Tell me who you need to be introduced to.' "

Ann Philbin, the director of the Hammer Museum and a frequent partner of Art + Practice, remains in awe.

"It's so multilayered," she says. "There are many artists who have incredible social practices, but this one is, in particular, highly complex, ambitious and very successful."

"Here's a constituency of people who did not ask for any of this, who did not ask to be so marginalized," artist Mark Bradford says of foster children who "term out" of the system and have nowhere to go. Image: Photo for The Washington Post by Carmen Chan

As an artist, Bradford is a reflection of all the places stitched into his past: the hair salon where his mother worked; the boardinghouse about 15 minutes away in West Adams, packed with other single-parent families; the streets of South Los Angeles, unable to resist the crack epidemic taking hold. He was a gay, black man in the age of AIDS. The roots of his life now make up a swirling, cultural stew that Bradford is forever exploring.

The materials are important. Early on, Bradford noticed the end papers, used to set hair in a permanent wave, that would wind up on the floor of his mother's salon. He decided to use those papers in his art; for one thing, they were certainly cheaper than paint. Over time, he has added to his repertoire: colored paper, glue, movie posters, ropes, caulking - basically, anything that he can twist, tug, cut, burn and wrestle until it comes alive. He is known for the sprawling canvases that mix paint and paper. But he is not afraid to explore completely different mediums. In "Spiderman," a video piece premiered at the Hammer in 2015, Bradford performed a six-minute stand-up routine that played off his experience going to an Eddie Murphy concert during the comedian's red-leather-suit heyday in the 1980s. 

What defines Bradford's work, whether it's a snaking sculpture crafted of rope and glue or a swollen growth suspended from a ceiling, is how effectively he uses abstract art to talk about police brutality, women's rights or the way American history is interpreted.

"There is too much under the surface that must still come out, and there are artists, such as Bradford, who aren't going to smooth things over," wrote Washington Post art critic Philip Kennicott in describing Bradford's 2017 piece at the Hirshhorn Museum, "Pickett's Charge," a meditation on a Civil War battle.

As a philanthropist, Bradford is just as deliberate.

It would certainly be easier to hand out grants or satisfy the social service component of his nonprofit by offering foster kids painting workshops, but that's not the point. Art + Practice, he decided from the start, needed to truly serve. That meant that the mission he created with co-founders Allan DiCastro, his longtime partner and a former bank analyst, and Eileen Harris Norton, a friend and art collector, would be linked to Leimert Park.

As a child, Bradford remembered going to museums and getting back in the school bus and returning to his neighborhood. 

"The things I understood in my community were things I saw walking by. I saw the church," he says. "I saw the wig shop. I saw the restaurant. I wondered ... what if there had been a little contemporary art space next to the salon?"

Putting the gallery in Leimert brings art curated by major institutions into the neighborhood. It also means that museum leaders and donors, eager to collaborate with an artist as prominent as Bradford, find themselves coming to exhibition openings in a part of town they would not usually visit.

What's more, Bradford is always thinking of his social mission. Take what happened last year when Bradford came to install "Tomorrow Is Another Day," which he had exhibited at the U.S. Pavilion at the 2017 Venice Biennale. 

As is typical when Bradford's involved, the show wouldn't be about just what was in the galleries. While in Baltimore working on the installation, Bradford heard about the Greenmount West Community Center, a space founded by a former school principal named Kisha Webster in Baltimore. In the two years she had been running the center, Webster had blown through her savings and had her Nissan repossessed. Now she was facing eviction. 

"I had already decided I was going to close the center," Webster says. Then Bradford came in.

"I knew Greenmount was the right place within five minutes," says the artist-philanthropist. "I could hear the kids' laughter, I could hear the joy, and I could see that this was an organization that had a lot of love but needed resources."

He called Walker, whose Ford Foundation was helping fund the Baltimore Museum of Art's Bradford exhibition. He asked that money be directed to Greenmount. Then he brought Webster to meet with BMA director Bedford and other museum leaders.

"I didn't want the BMA to come in for three months and do what I call sprinkle collaborations," Bradford says. 

In the end, the BMA split a Ford Foundation grant, with $150,000 going to create a printing press business to make T-shirts, tote bags and other products at Greenmount. Webster estimates that sales from that business now account for a third of her roughly $300,000 annual budget. 

"I was like, I'll believe it when I see it," she says. "But he called everybody from the BMA. They all got Ubers and came over here. They'd never been over here. Mark does not talk about his philanthropy. He just does it."

One thing Bradford does not do is mix the production and presentation of his art with Art + Practice. There will be no Mark Bradford exhibitions at the gallery, no Bradford murals crafted by foster kids. It is important, he says, that the only direct link between his art and the nonprofit is the money he can provide to fund the mission.

They are both important. But they are different parts of his life. And he needs to protect his studio process. 

"Some days, it ain't great,' he says. "Some days, it feels like wallpaper. Literally. I can show up and turn on the lights and start dipping that paper in water. But if you're not in the room when stuff is not going well, you're going to miss it when it is going well. I can work with incredible doubt, I can work with incredible insecurity, I can work with flashes of confidence where I understand what this work is when it unfolds to me. But I can always work."

Feature Image: Carmen Chan

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