Genius Among Us
Art aficionado Dennis Scholl talks to LA artist Mark Bradford about turning the simple into the extraordinary.
LEFT: Untitled, 2006, mixed-media merchant poster. RIGHT: Untitled, 2009, mixed-media merchant poster
LA-BASED CONTEMPORARY artist Mark Bradford is on a roll. In the last four years he has received the Bucksbaum Award for the best work in the Whitney Biennial, was named a United States Artist Broad Fellow and was recently awarded perhaps his biggest honor yet—a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant. Contemporary-art collector Dennis Scholl sat down with Bradford to discuss what launched his career into the stratosphere.
DENNIS SCHOLL: You recently received a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant. What was your reaction when you found out?
MARK BRADFORD: First you feel very humbled and honored. Then you also feel very self-conscious. Are people going to look at you and your work differently? But then I realized all those thoughts are exactly the same thoughts I have every day when I go into the studio. It’s that complex body of ideas that comes crashing in on you. So I told myself exactly the same thing I tell myself in the studio: Get to work. Get to work.
Was there a breakthrough moment in the work when you knew you had taken it to the next level?
Early on I think I was actually a more figurative painter, aligning culturally and socially with where I was from. Then I decided I just simply was not going to use any more of that—I was just going to find materials that spoke abstractly and spoke larger. I pushed my vocabulary. I’m more interested in what I can learn and more interested in the journey than I am in just sort of being comfortable.
When you first came to people’s attention, you were using end papers from hair salons. From this, you progressed to found paper and twine. How do these materials relate to one another?
I would say what’s been consistent in my work is my love of paper. From the beginning to now, I’ve always used paper. The paper I’m using now is less found material and more manufactured by me—but it’s still paper.
In your latest show you have transformed “merchant posters” by tracing the letters in the posters with twine and then painting and sanding them. Why is that source material meaningful to you?
I actually coined that phrase “merchant posters,” which are signs you find stapled to telephone poles or tied to fences. I think the idea comes from this long history of one-sheet, informal advertising. I became really fascinated with the merchant poster because it points to an immediate environment. I believe although the information in the posters is continually changing, they lay out the chronology of our culture. For instance, all the merchant posters are talking about foreclosures now, but maybe two years ago they were talking about easy bank loans. So they follow culture socially and economically, which I have always found fascinating, and that kind of threads through my work.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JUAN CARLOS AVENDANO (BRADFORD)