Mark Bradford created one of the most talked about displays at the Venice Biennale earlier this year. The artist from South Central LA piled up stones and gravel outside the US pavilion, to make it look like Monticello, the plantation in Virginia owned by Thomas Jefferson, the third US president. Bradford made visitors enter via a side door, as plantation slaves would have, and filled the inside with his abstract expressionist art, inspired by everything from the rise of Trump to police violence and Black Lives Matter. The result, he says, was his “most urgent exhibition to date”.
His pavilion’s full title, Tomorrow Is Another Day, echoed Vivien Leigh’s last line in Gone With the Wind – but his latest work confronts the American civil war more directly. Pickett’s Charge, which will spread itself around the walls of the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington DC for the next year, is a monumental 400ft linear work inspired by the Gettysburg Cyclorama, French artist Paul Philippoteaux’s vast 1883 depiction of the final assault in the Battle of Gettysburg, often seen as the war’s turning point.
“I became really fascinated by the romanticism around the civil war,” says Bradford, who started researching the project three years ago. “I’d never really investigated it. I’m black, the civil war was a good thing, the north won – that’s all I knew. I thought it was going to be textbook, ‘OK, this was bad and let’s move on.’ But it wasn’t cut and dried.”
The more Bradford dug, the more he realised the period is still being fought over. There’s a debate raging in the US about whether Confederate statues should be removed from southern towns and cities, while the highest office in the land questions whether the south’s fight to preserve slavery was wrong. In October, Donald Trump’s chief of staff John Kelly said the Confederacy acted in “good faith” and “made their stand where their conscience had them make their stand”.
“I think it’s a complex and uncomfortable conversation we need to have,” says Bradford. “Then we begin to talk about race in this country in a very fundamental way – who founded it, who built it.”
Being uncomfortable is a state in which Bradford seems to thrive. Since he emerged from CalArts with a masters in fine art in the 1990s, he has made it his business to seek out awkward places within the art world. “That’s why I wanted to go into abstract painting,” says Bradford, who loved the work of African American abstract artists Norman Lewis and Jack Whitten. “‘Oh Mark, don’t go there. We’ve unpacked it, we’ve theorised the paintings. Leave that alone.’ I thought, that’s exactly where I’m going to go because you guys have canonised it. It was a political act. I’m always hearing, ‘Mark, that’s not appropriate.’ I didn’t sign up to be an artist to be appropriate. I’m not interested in the status quo.”
Bradford’s use of salvaged materials – particularly billboards and advertising hoardings found near his LA home and studio – made him a rising star at the turn of the millennium. But even as he was finding some success, he still worked in his mother’s beauty salon to make ends meet, and had to overcome early missteps, such as the 2004 Whitney Altria exhibition, which New York Times critic Roberta Smith savaged, saying it “might as well be a group show of untried artists”.
“Every time I finish a work I think it’s the last thing I’m ever going to do,” he says. “That’s it. Back to the hair salon. I don’t have anything else.” The 55-year-old hasn’t worked in the salon since his late 30s, though. He hasn’t had to. Since selling his first work for $3,500 in 2001, Bradford’s paintings now command sums of over $4m. But, he says, a mixture of fear, hope and drive from his days at the hair salon keep him motivated.
“I’m not always inspired but I have incredible discipline,” he says. “I can show up hungover. I can show up full of energy. Jetlagged. Full of doubt. Anxious. Scared. But I show up and I get my hands dirty and I can get going. I’m going to probably die like that – getting to the next piece of work. It’s always the next one for me.”
Bradford isn’t a fan of nostalgia or sentimentality. He’s committed to a work and then, once it’s completed, he moves on. He does talk about his past, though, and his mother Janice who raised him in Los Angeles, moving between South Central, West Adams and the white, middle-class enclave of Santa Monica. They lived in a boarding house at one point, and Bradford didn’t know his biological father – something he’s thankful for.
“I thought if I had a father, he more than likely wouldn’t like the son I turned out to be,” says Bradford, who is gay and was bullied at school. “I could not figure out at six what I had done that was so bad. What sin had I committed that meant everybody had such disdain for me? What did I do? I’d look at the teachers, the look on their faces, the kids on the campus, some of the parents. What did I do that was so bad? And I realised I did nothing, I was just me. And me wasn’t good enough.”
He says that being marginalised and rejected has influenced his art. “That feeds into the work. Pulling things from the streets, pulling things that are thrown away, pulling things that don’t belong in the art world and willing them into it – demanding that these materials sit next to a Monet. That’s part of it.”
The New York Times said Bradford is “if not the best painter working in America today, then certainly the tallest”, while a New Yorker profile started with the line: “Mark Bradford is the tallest artist I know – six feet seven and a half inches, and pencil thin, which makes him look taller.” He’s aware that his height and his race make their presence felt well before he does. “I’m black and I’m really tall and before that I’m gay,” he says. “I’m used to these large shadows looming that I have to navigate around.”
Bradford has also had to learn to navigate the middle-class art world, a place he didn’t immediately like. He’s considered leaving South Central – Bradford’s a fan of Mexico City, Athens and Venice – but it’s the area’s energy that keeps him there. “It’s shifting and moving and eating itself and becoming something different. I love it. The middle class is always bound by rules: you shouldn’t do this, you must do that. It looks nice, everyone’s lawn looks manicured, but I feel like I want to go up there and pee on one of them.”
Bradford may not have urinated on the US pavilion at Venice, but he certainly redecorated brazenly. That and Pickett’s Charge confirm him as one of America’s most decorated and defiant artists, one who is giving abstract expressionism new life nearly half a century after its heyday. “I feel I belong wherever I decide to be,” he says. “I don’t change for the rooms, I make the rooms adapt to me. I’m going to be Mark all the time and I’m going to make the room deal with me. Whatever room I’m in, I belong.”
- Pickett’s Charge is at the Hirshhorn Museum, Washington DC until 12 November 2018.