The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2023

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JUNE 2023 Issue
Art In Conversation

Mark Bradford with Katy Siegel

Portrait of Mark Bradford. Pencil on paper by Phong H. Bui.
Portrait of Mark Bradford. Pencil on paper by Phong H. Bui.
On View
Hauser & Wirth
You Don’t Have to Tell Me Twice
April 13–July 28, 2023
New York

There is a sense of mutual trust and affinity when Katy Siegel and Mark Bradford are in conversation, as they have been for more than a dozen years. They first met in 2009, when Siegel was working on an essay for Bradford’s early career survey exhibition; in 2017, Siegel was co-curator of Mark Bradford’s exhibition for the US Pavilion at the Venice Biennale with Christopher Bedford. On the occasion of Bradford’s current exhibition at Hauser & Wirth, New York, Siegel joined the artist at the gallery shortly after the installation was complete. In the conversation below they discuss the evolution of Bradford’s latest body of work, how he maneuvered through COVID closures, and what it means to imbue works of art with hope and faith.

Installation view: <em>Mark Bradford: You Don’t Have to Tell Me Twice</em>, Hauser & Wirth New York, 2023. © Mark Bradford. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Thomas Barratt.
Installation view: Mark Bradford: You Don’t Have to Tell Me Twice, Hauser & Wirth New York, 2023. © Mark Bradford. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Thomas Barratt.

Katy Siegel (Rail): So good to be here together with the work. Let me ask you first, how have you been? We were in your studio a few months ago, but how was your COVID era?

Mark Bradford: I kind of immediately went into lockdown—I definitely had to work a little bit more by myself in the beginning. But since I’m a studio artist, I didn’t really change my day-to-day habits that much. In LA when it really hit, there was the message, you’re supposed to stay home. Well, I wasn’t going to do that—I was going to go out to get supplies, go to Home Depot, and stand in line there, six feet apart. I accepted the risk of going about my life getting supplies, going out to get signs in the streets, and going out to get paper. But even so, things did run out and you couldn’t get any more products, so I would just have to shift the colors that I was working with. Actually, now that I’m thinking about it, I was lucky with the work in this show: I had a lot of cans of soup in the cupboard, but a lot of papers that I would normally use ran out, a lot of materials were on backorder. So I had to start using other colors that I wouldn’t normally think to use—brighter colors actually.

Rail: I can see that in the work, that there are color combinations and value contrasts that I recognize, but also a lot of moments that aren’t what I think of as “Bradford colors.”

Bradford: I had to use what was in the cupboard.

Rail: And you made it work, of course.

Bradford: I’m always going to make it work, but yeah, I didn’t want to put other people at risk. So I used what I had, and did a lot of working by myself; as the rules eased, a few people came back, but it’s a small studio. And I just worked—I mean I didn’t go out to restaurants, I didn’t go to openings, I didn’t go to movies. I just worked.

Rail: Did it give you more time in the studio because you didn’t have other obligations?

Bradford: Yes, without distractions.

Rail: This feels like a very intensive studio show. There’s a room—in the back of the ground floor—with five paintings that look totally different. We can tell they’re by you, although we also see you pushing yourself in new directions. And each one is different from every other. It’s really unusual to see paintings in different styles by the same artist, across a broad spectrum, in one space, in one year. And without distance, not as a joke about style or genre, but just really wide-ranging, studio-based experiment.

Bradford: I’ve been working on the show for three years. Three years. It kind of piggybacked on the Great Migration show and the show I did at Serralves, coming off of what I learned from those experiences and then diving into this body of paintings, this moment.

Rail: Even for three years it feels really intense, like you’ve worked through a lot of materials and pushed yourself very, very hard. If it was partly the long, focused stretch in the studio, with fewer outside obligations, what else drove this body of work?

Bradford: Well, all you heard, and all you felt was literally, “the sky was falling.” It was so much the unknown, unknown, unknown, unknown—it reminded me a little of the AIDS crisis. The difference was that this time, with the COVID body, these were bodies people cared about. People didn’t care so much about the AIDS body, especially in the beginning. It just felt like there was so much negativity around, and so much of the unknown. Going to the studio and working gave me a sense of being grounded. I said, “Well, if it might all burn up tomorrow, I’ll just go work today.” I stopped questioning when lockdown was going to stop. I stopped asking when we were going to stop wearing a mask or when we could travel, and I just stayed intensely in this moment, whatever the moment was. I stopped obsessing over the future. And I didn’t romanticize the past. I just stayed in the moment.

Rail: Of course, that’s what being in the moment is for—it’s what’s best for any kind of making. It feels like letting go of some anticipated near-future world where you knew what things would look like and feel like, let you expand with this work. It really is unexpected.

Bradford: No one had any answers. We didn’t know what kind of art world was going to be there. We didn’t know physically how we were going to have to navigate. So, since nobody had any answers, I just thought, “Well, I’ll just go down the rabbit hole.” I thought, “Nobody’s looking. Nobody really cares.” I hadn’t gotten a call from anybody in so long, because everybody’s running off to the mountains, running off to somewhere, or gone in—everybody was going through every day trying to survive, physically to survive. I guess I had more time to go down the rabbit hole, unchecked, unfettered. And I’m always curious to see what’s down there. You know, I don’t mind going places. And the world felt so topsy turvy anyway. I mean, you could not make up the stuff that was happening on a day-to-day basis.

Rail: Science fiction.

Bradford: It was science fiction. It made me feel like the rabbit hole was nowhere near as crazy as what I’m seeing on television and what I’m experiencing around me. I thought, “You’re never going to match what’s going on!” So I just gave myself permission.

Mark Bradford, <em>Jungle Jungle</em>, 2021. Mixed media on canvas, 136 1/4 x 259 inches, left: 136 1/4 x 75 1/8 inches, middle: 136 1/4 x 120 1/8 inches, right: 136 1/4 x 75 1/4 inches. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Sarah Muehlbauer.
Mark Bradford, Jungle Jungle, 2021. Mixed media on canvas, 136 1/4 x 259 inches, left: 136 1/4 x 75 1/8 inches, middle: 136 1/4 x 120 1/8 inches, right: 136 1/4 x 75 1/4 inches. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Sarah Muehlbauer.

Rail: Is the first painting in the show Jungle Jungle from 2021?

Bradford: Yeah.

Rail: You’ve been known so much as an abstract artist, and, together with a few peers, you’ve shone light on the possibility of a different definition of abstraction, of abstraction as social and exterior. Given that long engagement and also that artistic label or reputation, what let you, or what made you, go towards figuration?

Bradford: Well, I never want to get quantifiably known for something as if, as an artist, that journey that you’re on would never take you to other places. So I always was open to figuration. I just thought that, as I’m staying in my process, if it’s part of what I do, it will come. I was doing some research for the Great Migration show, research about New Mexico. And I really like that kind of open space and these horizons, and I just thought, I would like to make a different type of painting, not just stay with that topographical top-down perspective. So not the literal New Mexico space, but the kind of paintings you could walk into—you could walk into these jungles, right? And not literal jungles, but fantasy jungles. So I just played with a crowded spatial relationship that felt immersive, that you could walk in it, like a child playing.

Rail: This space, it’s physical—that open New Mexico horizon, the press of the plants and animals and heavy air in the jungle. But it’s also a space of imagination that opened up for you.

Bradford: Yeah.

Rail: Could you say something about that space of imagination and how it works for you?

Bradford: You know, it’s interesting because it was really a survival instinct. I started probably when I was about eleven or twelve, and feeling that the outside world was becoming more hostile to the body that I was in, my race and my budding sexuality, I was starting to have a fearfulness when I was out in public space. What that did was it internalized me—I went inside to something that I could control. And so I created these imaginary spaces where I would make stories, and I would build things like castles. I walked down to the beach and I would just sit there, sometimes for six hours, staring at the ocean, but I wasn’t even staring at the ocean, I was building these stories and places filled with people, down to their names and the jobs that they had. And it saved me. Through puberty, it really did save me—it was a safe space for me to go to. I didn’t turn to drugs, I didn’t turn to music, I didn’t turn to sports. That’s when I began to intensely start reading as well. I discovered reading on my own—I just picked up a book at the supermarket and started reading it, and I didn’t even know I could read that intensely. I thought that reading was for smart kids.

Over these last three years, the isolation, and the fear of the unknown, fear of what’s going to happen, fear of “is this planet going to continue to be here?”—there was so much fear. I found myself going back to that time as a child, going back to those experiences and ways of being and making, of creating a space where I can say, “it’s going to be okay.” Out of that space I started to build these landscapes, seeing very clearly how everything would connect—maps and Rousseau and Faulkner and everything else in my head. It was like building my own little world. And it was probably me building something that I could survive in; the interesting thing was, when I was a kid, the places and worlds I would build, they didn’t have much physicality. But this time I actually started building them in my studio, in my paintings. And that was fun. Taking those kinds of maps and those complicated stories I made as a kid and doing the same thing in the studio.

Rail: That makes so much sense, looking at the paintings—they have a rich sense of imagination, of the fantastic. Rousseau is front and center in Jungle Jungle. I’m so used to knowing you as an artist who deals with materiality and the outside world; you’re super pragmatic, always about, “I’m going to work with what’s there, work with the mess, make it work.” So there’s something so beautiful about seeing you let your imagination run wild. The work feels playful. It’s also tough, and it’s deep—you’ve allowed yourself a wide emotional register, and it takes us somewhere else.

Bradford: I gave myself a little bit more permission, for the little boy to play. Being hard is a survival mechanism. But it also can become a trap. I think that in this show, and I can’t tell you exactly why—was it just because of COVID or just because of the isolation?—all I know is it felt right to make a deeply personal show. There were times in the past when I would feel a little bit embarrassed, or maybe embarrassed isn’t the right word, maybe self-conscious, like I didn’t want to reveal too much. That’s that feeling I get when I see a young person and you can just tell they’re a little bit different, and you can see them in their own little world and you just look at them and you want to protect them. You want to hug them and tell them everything’s going to be okay. I do have that feeling now. You put a show out like this and you almost want to protect little Mark, but I remember I’m big Mark too.

Rail: That’s what Joan Mitchell used to say, something like, big Joan’s job is to take care of little Joan so she can make those paintings. Big Joan takes care of business, and little Joan is free to play.

Bradford: I like that, big Joan and little Joan; big Mark and little Mark. You can see that in this new work: there’s a feeling of playfulness and joy, but there’s also a real vulnerability—it’s in Jungle Jungle and it’s in Johnny the Jaguar (2023). I definitely have always had impulse in my activist work; a vulnerability that comes when you’re working with other communities and you fight for them. But in my work, I’ve always kept some distance.

You threw me when you asked about COVID. Because I took a minute and thought, “Well, was it COVID Johnny?” I don’t think so, that brought a collectiveness to what we were all experiencing, even if very differently. For me, Johnny was personal. When I saw that sign, “Johnny buys houses” I was so surprised: I collect merchant posters, and they always read, “We buy houses,” or “I buy houses,” or “Call this number”—it’s always impersonal. So when I saw this sign reading “Johnny,” he put a name to the face that personalizes the terror. Right? You know you’re going to lose your house. And we’re definitely going to take advantage of you, but at least you know who it is now. So Johnny became something I played with, as the character that was tracking me through everything. I researched the apex predator of the New Mexican landscape when it was fertile with animals, and it was the jaguar. So Johnny became the jaguar. Johnny was the bully of the film upstairs, making the little boy making the films feel too scared to go outside. Johnny was AIDS. Then migration. Johnny was the reason driving people to escape the South—getting away from Johnny. I let Johnny take many shapes. And I played through the whole show with Johnny. We all have a Johnny in our lives.

Rail: When we were getting ready for the Venice Biennale, under the new presidential regime, you used to say that about Donald Trump: “There’s always been a Trump in my life. Like, it’s not news to me.”

Bradford: You know what? It’s true. Donald Trump is Johnny—he does real estate too.

Mark Bradford, <em>Manifest Destiny</em>, 2023. Mixed media, dimensions variable. © Mark Bradford. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Thomas Barratt.
Mark Bradford, Manifest Destiny, 2023. Mixed media, dimensions variable. © Mark Bradford. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Thomas Barratt.

Rail: That Johnny painting, Manifest Destiny (2023), is monumental, the biggest real estate painting you’ve ever made, and the last of your billboard papers. It feels like a billboard and a tombstone at the same time.

Bradford: That’s exactly what I thought. And I was thinking of New Mexico, I thought about Blackdom as this kind of space, this township founded by people who fled West, fleeing Johnny.

Rail: Blackdom—could you tell us a little bit about that reference? I know you had an intense experience with Jessica Bell Brown and Ryan N. Dennis’s Great Migration show.

Bradford: They wanted us to do our own family histories but I had to find my own way into it. For me, I was thinking about people fleeing a bad situation and putting down roots somewhere. So I went to The Crisis and in the back of the magazine I found an advertisement for land in Blackdom, New Mexico, offering escape from the Jim Crow South—escape West, not North. I really liked that—it said everything right there. I can imagine people, from wherever they were from, escaping the Jim Crow South, so I didn’t need to personalize it. I don’t really know that much about my family’s histories, nor have I had any interest in unearthing it. People ask me a lot about it—who I am, who my parents were is a constant question. I’ve never been one to do too much explaining, because that feels like I’m asking something from the viewer. I’m giving him power over me.

Rail: Not everything needs an explanation. Problems need explaining—

Bradford: Yes, and my life has never been a problem for me. So out of that kind of migration, I began playing in my mind. I was reading about Faulkner and his problematic relationship to the South, and that’s true and troubling, but he points to the antebellum South, that space, and in it, he created this whole imaginary place, Yoknapatawpha County, to inflict all of this horror. And so I thought, “Well, isn’t that interesting?” He had maps and diagrams and stories about people—

Rail: Just like little Mark.

Bradford: Just like little Mark. And so I took these two spaces of imagination, Faulkner and Blackdom, that did not belong to me. And then I brought them into the third space of imagination, which is my space. And out of that came the work.

Rail: Can you see the two spaces?

Bradford: I liked that one is a ghost town. And that one was never real, except it is absolutely real.

Rail: The paintings manage to hold those two things together. As always, you make everything material; you don’t just have an idea, you pull meaning out of the material, and that makes the fantastic feel palpable and concrete.

Bradford: You have to keep working with that material long enough to get past the lies, get past the half-truths—you got to keep working, you got to keep squeezing that material. It has to start to bleed. And then I have to be comfortable with what’s left. And oftentimes I’m not.

Rail: Yes, you edit more than anybody else I know.

Bradford: And sometimes I’m not comfortable with what I leave. There’s a few paintings I look at and go, “hmm.” I know when it’s finished. I don’t know if I’m always comfortable with what I’m seeing. But I know when the conversations come to me.

Rail: Because you’re pulling narrative out of material, it’s a very different kind of figuration. We could spend three hours talking about that, and the ways that figuration and abstraction aren’t opposites, how they can both come out of materiality. It’s an embodied figuration, rather than a stereotype, rather than objectified representation. The material speaks for itself. It’s also animistic—the paintings feel alive. They don’t feel dead finished, flat finished.

Bradford: It’s like pulling people onto a raft. I just wrench this stuff out of the surfaces. I like to pull, pull things out. And in some ways, it did feel like I was pulling out animals, and I was pulling out figures, and I was pulling out houses, and looking at the paintings, and asking, “Okay, what is this?” I can tell you it all felt right.

Rail: Sometimes that just happens. The paintings looked startlingly new in the studio. In the galleries, installed, it’s something else. The way that we come on to the second floor, and there’s just that video of little Mark. I’d seen it long ago, on your cell phone, but blown up and projected in that room, by itself, it’s incredibly powerful. Can you tell us what’s happening and how that came to be?

Installation view: <em>Mark Bradford: You Don’t Have to Tell Me Twice</em>, Hauser & Wirth New York, 2023. © Mark Bradford. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Sarah Muehlbauer.
Installation view: Mark Bradford: You Don’t Have to Tell Me Twice, Hauser & Wirth New York, 2023. © Mark Bradford. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Sarah Muehlbauer.

Bradford: I knew I had all those Super 8 films that I made when I was going through puberty. At that moment, I became really fascinated with Black exploitation films, not with the male lead, but with the ones that focused on the women—Cleopatra Jones, Foxy Brown; I was already identifying more with the female lead, because she had to navigate differently than Shaft. And so me and my little group of friends, we would make the films with whatever we had around—in the bathtub, in the yard. I put those films in a box. I never thought about showing them back then, I just showed them to you. I was feeling a lot of external forces that I didn’t understand, I was making these little movies, and most of the time, I forgot all about them.

But now I can see what the films, and that moment mean. That was the moment when I started identifying wolves. Like Little Red Riding Hood. I started identifying the wolves—I started to find Johnny, or my body started attracting him. I would hear something derogatory sexually or something derogatory physically—it was all around the body. So I had this idea: the figure falling is one part of it, but the figure crawling back up is more important. He falls, and there’s a tragedy in that. But it was important that the little boy got back up.

Rail: It’s so complicated. The way that your physical body meets the social at that moment, adolescence; things are happening to your physical being, and that can be tumultuous, but it’s really the way that the world meets those changes, that vulnerability, that often makes the time so painful and violent. We’re in a child’s world in some ways, but it’s also filled with social violence.

Bradford: I wanted to exist at that crossroads. I really did. I wanted to exist at that crossroads.

Rail: And what happens when we get to the fifth floor and we see big Mark?

Bradford: Literally, big Mark. The sculpture is called Death Drop,2023 (2023) and it really sits at that intersection of persecution and performance: as a performative gesture, it belongs to a history of ballroom, but he has a jacket on as if he’s outside. So this figure is not in a club, this figure is out in the world, and he’s not in a safe space. That was very important to connect both the video and the sculpture to public space.

Mark Bradford, <em>Death Drop, 2023</em>, 2023. Mixed media sculpture, 120 x 120 x 20 inches. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Sarah Muehlbauer.
Mark Bradford, Death Drop, 2023, 2023. Mixed media sculpture, 120 x 120 x 20 inches. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Sarah Muehlbauer.

Rail: And that’s something that happens in private too, whether it’s a film being made at home, or a ball in a nightclub: performance that comes out of doing something imaginative with real world fear, violence, danger.

Bradford: Exactly. I felt like I just wanted to put my body out there for the first time, I wanted to use my body. I had done it in the Practice (2003) video, just once.

Rail: That was a long time ago. And really, never since.

Bradford: Yes. And this is really me. And that’s why even with the paintings, I wanted to say, “yes, we can think about migrations, but plural”—putting a queer layer on top of the more familiar Black migrations. You think about Bayard Rustin, and you think about Audre Lorde. These people who were part of the movements but weren’t as visible, because of their sexuality. So I wanted to personalize things to open up the conversation.

Rail: That figure of you looks like it’s made of marble. It feels like a monument to those ideas, to queer migration, and the act of being queer in public.

Bradford: Queer migrations have been going on for a long time—I mean, you can look at the early part of the last century, all of the people that left the United States and moved to Paris, that was a migration about intellectual and sexual life. So I was thinking about that, how to open up the story and what that means.

Rail: Can you tell us what the paintings are that are surrounding Death Drop, 2023?

Bradford: They started with a fact: the first recorded timetable measured distances between cities using the train tracks. Literally it was the first GPS. So I did the research, locating cities in the South, and cities to the North; the tables will tell you how many miles from Tennessee to Boulder. I was fascinated by that—all these migrations and all these numbers, and all these people moving for all different reasons.

Rail: You had your own migration.

Bradford: And I had my own migration. I had a migration at twenty years old, when the AIDS epidemic hit, and most of the people that I knew died. I got on a plane and went to Europe, and I got on trains and buses and went all over. I was a nomad. I wasn’t particularly looking for anything, I was just trying to put some distance between me and a really bad thing that was happening. I never even thought about that till right now.

Rail: You were just trying to survive.

Bradford: I was just trying to survive.

Rail: Moving through the show, you feel like there’s someone who is going out in public and then going into the place of his imagination, back and forth. There’s danger everywhere and escape. There’s fear, but also resilience.

Bradford: Yes, hope and faith. I always have faith—all of these things can exist at the same time simultaneously. You can’t dismantle them, they just exist as an organism. I think that’s what being alive is. I’m not that different than little Mark. What I love is the fact that he gets back up. My journey is about the getting up.

Rail: Just like those incredibly gorgeous paintings made out of predators. It’s a powerful story, Mark.

Bradford: You know, I had to take hold of my body and I had to take hold of my life really early, because it seemed like everybody had an opinion of what to do with it. But I managed to keep that sense of play. Maybe now I’m extending that outward, exposing a bit more in this show, but I’ve always been playful. I’m just shy about showing it.

Rail: It’s so lovely to see, because we all recognize the manual play and pleasure in the work. For the past ten years, I’ve watched you play with material and paper with incredible dexterity and invention. So to see your emotional and intellectual imagination now also set loose is beautiful and freeing.


Katy Siegel

Katy Siegel is professor of art history at Hunter College, CUNY. Her most recent books are Since ’45 (Reaktion, 2011) and Abstract Expressionism (Phaidon, 2011); upcoming curatorial projects include Light Years: Jack Whitten, 1971-1973 and The Matter That Surrounds Us: Wols and Charline von Heyl (Rose Art Museum).


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2023

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