Mark Bradford: Collettivo Biennale
Jan. 27, 2017
“I’m excited and I’m going to stay excited,” says the Los Angeles-based artist Mark Bradford, who is representing the U.S. at this year’s Venice Biennale, while talking at the bar in Lafayette, a downtown New York restaurant. He’s going to stay excited for six years, to be precise. A painting and sculpture installation of his intricate and mesmerizing work, Tomorrow is Another Day, will be on display through November in the Biennale’s American pavilion, and he has also dug into the city with a second, more long-term project, Process Collettivo, that is purely his own.
Bradford is in New York this week to talk about both this initiative and his pavilion show, presented by the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University. At a lunch full of journalists and admirers, he brings his considerable charisma to describing what drives him as a blue-chip artist who is genuinely in the world.
To prepare for the exhibition, Bradford explains, he walked all over Venice looking for something to spark his interest, and found it in Rio Terà dei Pensieri, a cooperative that works with a small prison on Giudecca island and employs inmates to make things like bags from recycled signs and posters sold weekly on the street. “When you think of Venice, you do not think of a women’s prison,” he says. “That is just not the luxury brand Venice is.”
But it answered his mission not just to present art, but to make art accessible to people in need and help them in practical ways. He committed to “adopt” the cooperative so that it can expand, house it in a retail space supplied with computers to help the prisoners work on rebuilding their lives, and design a limited-edition Mark Bradford bag to sell during the Biennale—all funded by him, with profits going back into the cooperative. “I wasn’t happy just doing the pavilion,” he says. “I wanted to stand on both my legs in Venice.”
Those legs are long and powerful. The exceptionally tall (and good-looking) Bradford—he is just under six-foot-eight—became a phenomenon in the art world some dozen years ago with his large-scale, richly layered and collaged paintings. Their use of materials such as endpapers and industrial paint intermittently sanded down—as if to reveal urban excavations—was matched by his own involvement with his environment.
For many years Bradford was an artist who doubled as a hairdresser at his mother’s salon, Foxyé, in south Los Angeles (hence the endpapers). In 2014, after he had begun to make serious money from his paintings, he created a foundation, Art + Practice, in several buildings in the Leimert Park district with his partner Allan DiCastro and the philanthropistEileen Harris Norton. Here, spaces are offered for art studios, exhibitions, and job-readiness programs for children transitioning out of foster care.
Moving seamlessly between different cultures comes easily to Bradford. “While I was having shows in the art world, when I got to the hair salon I at least ought to know what Whitney Houston is doing, what Michael Jackson is doing,” he says. “I had to engage.”
He’s also used to scaling obstacles. Growing up, he says, “a lot of people didn’t like me—for being gay, for being black, for my views.” But he never turned away. “You find ways to navigate that,” he says, refusing to feel sorry for liberals complaining about the Trump administration. “We’ve all had Trumps in our lives. Oh, you don’t like me? You don’t approve of me? There’s a long line,” he says, gesturing far behind him. “The mainstream needs our voices and our ideas. I’m going to pull up a chair and take a seat at the table.”
He smiles good-naturedly. “You stay there long enough they get used to your ass.”
La Biennale di Venezia 57th International Art Exhibition opens May 13 and runs through November 26, 2017.