Mark Bradford is an activist and abstract artist who tends to get described with a lot of adjectives — tall (he's 6'8"), black and gay; he's been both a hairdresser and a MacArthur Fellow.
"What's most important to me is that I'm an artist," Bradford says. "The rest of it is just — the rest of it is just who I am."
Bradford makes huge works of art that have garnered huge accolades. In 2017 Bradford represented the U.S. at the Venice Biennale. Now his work is on view at The Baltimore Museum of Art.
"Mark Bradford is one of the — if not the — best painter working today," says BMA curator Katy Siegel. "That is a huge statement but I stand behind it."
His Spoiled Foot installation is a looming, bulbous construction, suspended from the ceiling. It's covered with pieces of shiny colored paper, soaked, bleached, pockmarked with a pressure hose. As I walk around it, it takes up more and more space.
Bradford says he wanted the viewer to feel "as if the center of the room was no longer available."
It's a beautiful, uncomfortable and haunting work of art inspired by real-life horrors — "the mold that you saw permeating New Orleans after Katrina, or the skin disease that was one of the first signs of the AIDS crisis," Siegel explains. "He pushes you to the walls" — and he makes you think.
Bradford had a happy childhood, growing up one of three kids raised by a single mom. He says he doesn't buy the idea that kids who grow up without a dad are missing out. "Who cares?" he says. "You just need one person to love you."
His mother owned a hair salon in South Central Los Angeles. He'd watch women come in after work, studying for their degrees as they sat under the dryers.
In his Odyssey series, he uses salon endpapers — used for perms — to cover large canvases. He's painted the small rectangles with a deep purple hair dye, and fastened them with silvery staples.
"Everything that goes on in the hair salon — intimacy, gossip, stories told between women, struggles with power, labor, all of that — is embedded in hair dye and endpapers," Siegel says.
The works glow like satin ribbons. Bradford weaves the struggles of black history into his works of art. He joins social meaning and formal beauty together, on canvas.
The final piece in the Baltimore show is 3 minutes and 17 seconds of silent video — a young man walks down a street in South Central, away from the camera. In long yellow shorts, a white undershirt and sneakers, he struts, swinging his arms wide.
"He is this fabulous, brave figure, who does not hide who he is," Siegel says.
The man is someone Bradford knew from around the neighborhood. "I always just liked the way in which he owned the sidewalk," Bradford explains.
There'll be catcalls, ridicule hurled at him from passing cars. He keeps walking. Bradford knows what that's like. The memory fuels his art and his social activism. He works with foster kids in South Central and Baltimore — and profits from his work go to projects that help young people.
His exhibit Tomorrow Is Another Day will be on view at the Baltimore Museum of Art through March.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
The artist Mark Bradford grew up in Los Angeles. He was a MacArthur Fellow and a hairdresser. Last year, he represented the U.S. at the Venice Biennale. Now the Venice art is on view in Baltimore. Bradford's work and life are pretty unusual. By age 15, he was 6 foot, 8 inches tall. He's 56 years old now and still the same height. NPR's special correspondent Susan Stamberg went to the Baltimore Museum of Art to see Mark Bradford's creations.
SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: My arm is getting so tired holding this...
MARK BRADFORD: I know. I'm sorry. I am...
STAMBERG: No, you do not have to squat.
BRADFORD: I'm tall.
STAMBERG: I'm tall, too, but this is new for me. I have to raise the microphone so high to get to you.
BRADFORD: No, I...
STAMBERG: He's a large man, makes huge paintings and has big ideas. BMA curator Katy Siegel is an enormous fan.
KATY SIEGEL: Mark Bradford is one of, if not the best, painter working today. That is a huge statement, but I stand behind it.
STAMBERG: He makes art we've not seen before.
Oh, this is what it looks like.
A big bulbous construction suspended from the ceiling covered with pieces of shiny colored paper soaked, bleached, pockmarked with a pressure hose. As I walk around it, it takes up more and more space.
Almost touching the wall on my right side now.
BRADFORD: I wanted you to feel like as if the center of the room was no longer available.
STAMBERG: I did - uncomfortable. Mark Bradford was inspired by horrors he and we have known.
SIEGEL: The mold that you saw permeating New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina or the skin disease that was one of the first signs of the AIDS crisis.
STAMBERG: Awful, but Bradford's work is beautiful, also menacing.
SIEGEL: He pushes you to the walls.
STAMBERG: And makes you think. Mark Bradford is one of three children his mother raised by herself. No father around. His childhood was happy, he says. The family is close. He does not like the view that kids who grow up without fathers are deprived.
BRADFORD: Who cares? You just need one person to love you.
STAMBERG: His loving mother owned a hair salon in South Central Los Angeles. Mark grew up there. Local women came in after work and sat under the dryers while they studied for degrees.
SIEGEL: Everything that goes on in the hair salon - intimacy, gossip, stories told between women, struggles with power, labor - all of that is embedded in hair dye and endpapers.
STAMBERG: Endpapers used to straighten African-American hair or for perms. Bradford uses the small rectangles in some paintings. He covers large canvases with the painted papers held down with silvery staples.
SIEGEL: He used a nice and easy hair dye, very deep dark purply hair dye instead of paint.
STAMBERG: The works glow like satin ribbons. Bradford transforms the darkness and depth of black history into fine art. He brings social meaning and formal beauty together on canvas. The last piece in the Baltimore show is a video, 3 minutes and 17 seconds, no sound. You see the back of a man in baggy yellow shorts, a white undershirt, sneakers, walking down a street in South Central. He's walking away.
Do you know this guy?
BRADFORD: I do. I know him. He's somebody who just walks on his way from the store to his house every day. And so I always just liked the way in which he owned the sidewalk.
STAMBERG: He struts down the streets swinging his arms wide. He's young and black and gay in a bad neighborhood.
SIEGEL: He is this fabulous brave figure who does not hide who he is.
STAMBERG: There will be catcalls, ridicule from passing cars. He keeps walking. Mark Bradford had that experience coming up. The memory fuels his art and his social activism. He works with foster kids in South Central and Baltimore - puts profits from his paintings into projects to help with education, earning money. Activist, artist - Mark has lots of labels.
All right. Somewhere I read that you are a black, working-class, gay, abstract painter from Los Angeles. What in that lineup is the most important, or do they all have to go together?
BRADFORD: What's the most important to me is that I'm an artist. The rest of it is just - the rest of it is just who I am.
STAMBERG: At the Baltimore Museum of Art through early March, Mark Bradford's exhibit is called "Tomorrow Is Another Day." I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.