There’s probably no way, in a town as basketball crazy as Los Angeles, for a six-foot preteen Black boy to avoid unwanted attention. When the artist Mark Bradford turned 12 or so and shot up to nearly his current height — he stands at a gangly 6-foot-8, with a body reminiscent of Kevin Durant’s — he drew a scrutiny he wasn’t used to. Middle-school coaches would pressure him into playing basketball, but he found the sport’s aggressiveness unappealing. When he decided that the game wasn’t for him, those coaches reacted with a refrain that Bradford remembers to this day: “If I were you, I wouldn’t have wasted that gift.” It was the first of many times in Bradford’s life when his desires would fail to line up with how the world viewed him.
His mother’s hair salon was a more comfortable space than the basketball court: There he would customize clothing for his mother’s regulars, style wigs and, of course, learn to do women’s hair. Sometimes he would climb up into the salon’s windows and pose like a mannequin for unsuspecting passers-by. But by the time he hit puberty, other people began to register his queerness. “When kids go through puberty, they start to group up, and the group that I got associated with was the weaklings or the sissies,” he told me in late February, the first time we met in his Los Angeles studio, a massive hangar tucked away in a sprawling warehouse complex. “And that meant that you were also much more privy to violence.”
Disturbed by the social disarray that had befallen South Central — South Los Angeles, in today’s sanitized parlance — his mother moved Bradford, who was about 11, and his younger sister to the Westside beach town of Santa Monica in the early ’70s. But a tonier environment did not equal greater comfort. No matter where he lived, he was too noticeable. When he walked the streets, people would lean out of cars to call him a punk or hurl racial slurs at him. “When I would leave the apartment,” he remembered, “I would walk to the right but not to the left, because I knew there were people two blocks down that would be a little more tough on me.” Navigating the city meant navigating other people’s assumptions about what, and who, he could be.
Outside Bradford’s Los Angeles studio, yet another winter storm was blitzing the city, and the rainfall beat an endless patter on the roof. Together we ambled through the space. The tall, white walls were covered in reference photos, artifacts that served as inspirations for his latest show, “You Don’t Have to Tell Me Twice,” which opened this month at Hauser & Wirth in New York. There were covers of novels like Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian”; a map of William Faulkner’s fictional Yoknapatawpha County; stills from ballroom drag performances; a photo of a plaque commemorating Blackdom, a homesteader colony in New Mexico where Black farmers settled around 1909. The show uses these artifacts to probe how American fantasies — like Manifest Destiny — enable certain kinds of racist and homophobic violence. The work in the studio felt like Bradford’s attempt to marry the historical to the personal and to probe the ways in which a man who grew up feeling deeply unsafe might survive.
As he recounted his childhood, Bradford, who is now 61, was equally pensive and chatty. Because he is one of the nation’s most visible artists — he was awarded a MacArthur fellowship in 2009, and his art has been acquired by institutions like the Museum of Modern Art and the Tate Modern and collected by the likes of Eli Broad — he spoke to me about his personal story with the silver-tongued eloquence of someone who has figured out how to publicly discuss his life without giving much away. Dressed in a white camo puffer jacket, he often paused theatrically, raising his face to the ceiling, putting a finger to his chin or folding his arms as he lapsed into thought. Occasionally he acted out his memories, pantomiming with a vaudeville comedian’s elastic physicality; sometimes he circled me while he spoke, so that I had to turn around and around if I wanted to maintain eye contact.
When you’re looking at a Bradford canvas, part of what you’re seeing is the perspective of someone who has learned in both his life and work to dance in the gulf between what society expects him to be and the fact of his interiority. It’s like bullfighting: a matter of learning how to court and withstand the world’s attention in ways that won’t get you gored, how to inhabit one’s subjectivity in ways that don’t confuse the shadow for the act. “It is very difficult. I will always grapple with being in this body,” he told me. “As an extremely tall Black man, a queer man, all this stuff walks into the room. And then here comes Mark, trotting in. Sometimes Mark is more present than those other parts. Sometimes those other parts are more present than Mark.”
One way that Bradford has negotiated these potentially suffocating perceptions is by embracing a certain kind of abstraction. Typically, his art resists figuration — broadly speaking, work that represents the human form through techniques like portraiture and sculpture — in favor of impressionistic amalgams of everything from comic-book panels to maps to salvaged billboard ads. “One of the ideas that I’m really interested in promoting is that we, like any other people, can and should be allowed to be private and not have to explain our stories through figuration,” he said in an interview with Anita Hill that appeared in his 2018 namesake monograph. “We should have the right to be abstract. Why not?”
This insistence on abstraction is a self-protective gesture that also has a political valence. Each painting is an attempt to figure out how to explore the personal, social and historical elements of his experience without being waylaid by other people’s assumptions — about what it means to be a gay Black man who lived through the crack and AIDS epidemics in Los Angeles, for instance. To that end, Bradford’s paintings are flirtations, seductions, an assertion of his right to hold something in reserve even as he invites his audience to participate in a conversation. Each painting is posing a question: What of himself will Bradford offer up this time? The answer will vary, but the very question is an assertion of political will.
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While the nation’s evolving understanding of American racial politics has raised a multigenerational and stylistically diverse set of figurative artists to heightened prominence (think of Kerry James Marshall, Kehinde Wiley, Amy Sherald or Jennifer Packer), Bradford’s success as an abstract painter has been premised on something of a stiff-arm. Rather than foreground his body for audiences to consume and contemplate, his paintings submerge viewers in that body’s perspective: You don’t see him, but you see through his eyes. In doing so, his canvases confound rote narratives and, depending on who’s doing the looking, quiver with feeling. The painter and sculptor Henry Taylor, a friend of Bradford’s — the two attended the California Institute of the Arts together in the ’90s — likened his paintings to the music of the jazz greats. “It’s like Coltrane,” he told me over the phone. “He’s not telling me nothing. You got to hear it, and you got to feel it.” Bradford’s paintings duck and feint with a boxer’s evasive eloquence, playing a game of hide-and-seek that produces a charged emotional resonance. Looking at his canvases, for me, produces a feeling like the disorientation of waking up from a dream in which the familiar — the landscape of Black Los Angeles, Black masculinity, the history of capitalist exploitation, environmental catastrophe, racial violence — had been pushed to the very edge of legibility, made uncanny.
So when the artist and I walked into the studio’s back reaches, I was startled to find photos of a younger Bradford taped to the walls — behind-the-scenes footage from Super 8 films that he made with childhood friends. In one photo, he and a few playmates use a bathtub to stand in for an airport runway. In another, a 12-year-old Bradford — the boy who was getting slurs and bottles hurled at him in Santa Monica — is dressed in a red puffer jacket, twisting his upper body and arching his back as if at the start of an exaggerated fall. In the home movie that still is pulled from, Bradford pretended to die after being shot. In the middle of the room sat a cutout of an adult Bradford, posed like his 12-year-old self, arms splayed out, his right leg twisted beneath him.
This was preparation for a life-size sculpture of the artist himself, which appears in the new show — an autobiographical piece that is direct and personal in ways that Bradford has rarely attempted in his career. Standing there, I realized that I was witnessing a high-wire act: an artist who has used abstraction to resist representation’s strictures wrestling with a new way of telling his story.
No matter where an artist falls on the spectrum between figurative and abstract painting, Black art has always tried to straddle the gap between the two rather than choosing a side. Look at the way Barack Obama leans forward with his arms crossed in Kehinde Wiley’s 2018 presidential portrait, conveying a sense of guardedness. He’s present but not fully there, a tension Wiley heightens by having the chair that Obama is sitting in levitate. There’s a suggestion of a certain something more that the eye cannot process. In this way, Black art endeavors to answer the question: How do you tell a story without telling on yourself?
Over the course of his career, Bradford has tried to answer that question by borrowing and unsettling the principles of Abstract Expressionists like Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. As the conceptual artist Charles Gaines, who taught and mentored Bradford when he was a student at CalArts in the ’90s, explained to me, Bradford’s art rejects the Abstract Expressionist idea that art can be reduced to the media — the canvas, the paint, the found objects — that give it form. “Those guys, if they see ripples in a lake, they’ll tell you that they’re caused by the physics of someone’s hands moving back and forth,” he told me, “not by a person drowning.”
Bradford charges the reverence for form and materials with a sense of life as it’s lived in South Central. “At the end of the day, I’m an abstract artist. But the question I’m proposing is: If you’re pulling from source material that lives in the world, is it ever truly abstract?” Bradford asked in the studio. “The answer, I would say, is no. Race, gender and class will always cling to the material.”
You can’t look at his early paintings, made from endpapers used to perm hair, and not consider the social life they emerge from — a young Bradford standing in the window of his mother’s salon. Take 2002’s “Strawberry,” where he singed, dyed and arranged endpapers to form roughly articulated, unstable rectangles that referred to and upended the history of the modernist grid. Visually, though, they recalled an aerial view of a chaotic urban landscape, all color and movement; paired with its title (a slang term for a person who exchanges sex for money to buy drugs), the painting gestured toward the social and emotional meanings that suffused Bradford’s constructions.
He experimented with other ways of playing with social history, too. In 2003, he made the video short “Practice,” which talks back to all the coaches who wanted him to play basketball by giving them what they wanted, taunting them a little in the process. Alone on a court, he’s hooping while decked out in the Lakers’ storied purple and gold — except the colors grace a goofy skirt that makes it nearly impossible for him to score a basket. His celebrated merchant posters, made from local advertisements that he salvages from his neighborhood and then effaces so that multiple layers surface simultaneously, tell a history of predation via something as commonplace as payday-loan advertisements. In 2008, he completed “Mithra,” a huge tongue-in-cheek Noah’s Ark created from plywood panels, which he erected in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. His 2015 show “Scorched Earth,” at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, began with an installation made by excavating over 100 layers of paint in the museum’s lobby wall, as if in search of something previously hidden. The excavation yielded a map of the United States, with data on each state’s population of AIDS patients circa 2009, etched into the wall. These pieces acknowledge the fact of someone drowning in the lake — or the community flailing in the wake of managed decline. Like Bradford, the work is both forthcoming and circumspect, effervescent and haunted, alternately playful and possessed of a deep moral seriousness.
The clearest precedent for this work might be the experimental assemblages of 1960s and ’70s Black Los Angeles. Noah Purifoy and Judson Powell’s 1966 group show, “66 Signs of Neon,” turned the wreckage of the Watts riots — drippings from melted neon signs, for example — into art that gestured simultaneously at the anger that instigated the riots and a sense that the neighborhood itself was a work of art, if you looked in the right way. Their friend John Outterbridge, inspired by both Southern California and his childhood in North Carolina, used fabric, cloth and found objects to construct absurdist portraits, as in his “Rag Man” series. Betye Saar turned domestic items and racial kitsch — a figurine depicting Aunt Jemima, for example — into art that recalled and revised the history of enslavement.
This was all happening practically in Bradford’s backyard, but it wasn’t something he was tuned into. Though his mother encouraged his creativity, he didn’t connect that to fine art. “ ‘Creative’ was just a state of being,” he explained. “It wasn’t a means to an end.” He made friends with other kids in his Santa Monica apartment building, putting together a small community. Inspired by the blaxploitation films that stormed the movie industry in the 1970s, he shot his own Super 8 adaptations with friends. While the genre flooded theaters with images of hypermasculine, hypersexed and hyperstraight men — “Shaft” or “Super Fly”’ — Bradford wasn’t much interested in them. Instead, characters like Foxy Brown, Black women who muscled their way into the spotlight by any means necessary, caught his attention. “I kind of related to it because I was like, well, I don’t think I’m going to be able to be the main character, but I really do like Pam Grier,” he said. The salon and the apartment became spaces in which he learned that if he was going to survive the world, he would have to imagine other ways of living within it. “I was lucky. I was able to create these spaces where I could be the subject. I wasn’t ridiculed. I wasn’t beat up. I wasn’t a punk. I wasn’t a tall man who didn’t want to play basketball, who was a failure. I was Mark, doing his thing.”
The outside world didn’t reward that creativity. Bradford struggled through school, eventually winding up at a continuation high school. He drew on Willy Wonka to explain the experience: If other students seemed as though they had all gotten golden tickets, Bradford felt as though he had been designated for something lesser. “I was just getting ready to get handed a chocolate bar. There wasn’t no golden ticket. I was getting ready to be thrown away,” he told me. “I was just sensitive and tall and skinny and weird.”
While he was still a teenager, he found safety in Los Angeles’s discos, hubs of queer nightlife like Jewel’s Catch One in Arlington Heights that were spaces of play and imagination. But the onset of AIDS tore that world apart. “There were no cures. No help. No language around it. And you were shamed, and everybody was scared. So you just died. Everybody died.” Amid the simultaneous rise of the crack-cocaine epidemic and intensifying street violence, he felt his life was going to be extinguished. Faced with what seemed like certain death, he fled to Europe as a matter of survival. “I just did not think I was going to make it to 30. Everybody was in agreement that I was not going to make it to 30.”
Bradford eventually found his way into an arts program at Santa Monica College, which gave him studio space to begin making paintings; those paintings earned him entrance into CalArts, where he began his studies at age 30. After a series of fitful stops and starts, Bradford was invited by Thelma Golden, then the assistant director and head curator of the Studio Museum, to contribute work to her 2001 “Freestyle” show, where he exhibited with future luminaries like Julie Mehretu and Sanford Biggers.
With his endpaper paintings, Bradford demonstrated a talent for transmogrifying everyday objects by layering, sanding, gouging, scraping and tearing until they obliquely reflected his peculiar perspective on the world. He described his paintings as a result of wrestling with the personal, social and political history at hand. “The source material comes from the world, and that’s what I like,” he told me. “I drag it into the studio, and I beat it into some form of beauty, because that’s me demanding that even though the world is a violent place, and I don’t turn away from the violence, there’s also a magic and an alchemy that can happen.”
Bradford’s new work emerged from the darkness of pandemic-era isolation, which he found reminiscent of both the AIDS crisis and the violence that threatened him in adolescence. As when he was a teenager, he turned to real and imagined sites of fantasy: Blackdom, where Black homesteaders imagined a life of independence and safety; Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County; and the imagined North that displaced Black people thought might provide some relief from persecution. “I was fascinated by these loaded sites that were not real, but were real. The work came out of these imaginary spaces that had history, and it reminded me a lot of when I was a kid creating these imaginary sites for myself.” The Black vernacular phrase from which “You Don’t Have to Tell Me Twice” takes its name is a verb, he says — an assertion of the right to take one’s leave from participation in your own oppression. The show demonstrates again and again how this assertion evolves alongside increasingly complex versions of exploitation.
In a back room of Bradford’s studio hung colossal canvases, gray and black paintings that resembled rusted signage. They were recreations of railroad distance charts that Bradford, inspired by the migrations of Southern Black people to the North in the early and mid-20th century, began making a year or so ago. While those paintings gesture at heroic narratives of Black perseverance, a new piece, “Manifest Destiny” (initially titled “Johnny Buys Houses”), calls to mind the predatory financial practices that have plagued Black people in cities like Los Angeles. (The provisional title refers to investment groups that have swept into South Los Angeles communities to buy distressed properties in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.) The colorful and thickly layered “tapestry paintings,” some of which he first completed and showed in 2021, conjure a chaotic and lush jungle landscape stalked by Johnny the Jaguar, an apex predator in search of its prey. They recall the late-15th-century Northern European Unicorn Tapestries, which depicted French noblemen hunting and killing a unicorn in an idealized version of the French countryside. The result is a subtle set of works that tells a loose story about an otherworldly being — call it Johnny — who shape-shifts across time and space like a villain in a high-concept comic-book multiverse, chasing its equally wily prey.
But while those works reiterate and fine-tune ideas Bradford has been honing his entire career, “Death Drop, 2023” — the life-size sculpture whose preparations I saw at his Los Angeles studio back in February — is a disconcerting departure for an artist whose work has rarely featured his own likeness and often eschewed explicit autobiography. It is Bradford’s first foray into figurative sculpture in nearly two decades, a work of raw emotion that confronts the fact of violence and Bradford’s own vulnerability in the face of it. As he spoke of his plans for the show — he wanted this statue in the same room as the distance-chart paintings — Bradford described the whole endeavor to me as a sly tweaking of heroic civil rights narratives that sometimes erase the lives of queer Black people; in a follow-up text, he toyed with the idea of calling it “Drop Dead” as a provocation to those who would read it too literally. Over the course of our conversation, though, it became clear that the pandemic had created an echo between the violence of his formative years and the contemporary moment, an echo that Bradford was still straining to hear. It wasn’t a coincidence that the sculpture was based on footage of his 12-year-old self, an age he likened to Little Red Riding Hood’s being harassed by wolves. During our studio visit, Bradford turned uncharacteristically tongue-tied when he tried to articulate the sculpture’s relationship to that period.
“I’ve always run from death,” he said. “I heard so much about death all through the ’80s. ‘You’re going to die.’ ‘People are dying.’ ‘Let’s take another test.’” The realization of what he had conjured — an exploration not just of Black migration in search of safety but of his own flights, whether to his mother’s apartment or Europe, from the very real threat of death — stopped him short. “To put my body, dying, brings back … ” he trailed off. “What I ran from.” In his own way, it seemed, Bradford was looking for an oblique approach to making work about this in public — a way that felt safe even as he bared a bit more of his mind.
By March, the basic sculpture was complete. Bradford texted me photos of himself painting it in black acrylic paint, staring into his own eyes as he wielded a brush. It appeared so lifelike that the effect was unsettling, as if I were looking at Bradford look at his own death mask.
By the time I saw the statue at Hauser & Wirth’s gallery in Manhattan, though, it had been covered in billboard paper, the painted side facing down so that the statue was a splotchy white. One of Bradford’s studio assistants applied water with a brush, pointing out how each wash allowed the paint on the underside of the paper to seep through. In my head, I compared it with the pictures Bradford had texted. The billboard paper had somewhat dulled the sculpture’s expressiveness by obscuring its features. While its face had once seemed overwhelmingly vulnerable, it now looked like a stoic Greek artifact. Bradford likened it to the Elgin Marbles, assorted fragments of Greek sculpture that were essentially looted and taken to London. The fragments didn’t give all of the story, Bradford said; they made you do a bit of work to figure out what the story was. It seemed a typically Bradford-esque flirtation: hiding something that he would reveal, but only reluctantly, only after a bit of foreplay, and even then not entirely.
We wandered downstairs to the room where the Super 8 footage — Bradford had titled it “Death Drop, 1973” — played on a loop. Rather than have the footage and the sculpture in the same room, Bradford decided to separate the two in an attempt to make the show less literal. Curious about the decision, I asked him whether he thought of his work as a way to hide out in plain sight. He concurred.
“I have the right to go to a racially charged site and decide how much I’m going to give you,” he said. “And how much I’m going to keep for myself.” In the background, the young Bradford tossed his long arms into the air, fell backward and turned his head, staring directly into the camera.
Ismail Muhammad is a story editor for the magazine. He has written about waves of migration to New York, diversity in publishing and the filmmaker Garrett Bradley.