When the MacArthur Foundation gave Mark Bradford one of its genius grants in 2009, it confirmed what Bradford's fans had known for years: The abstract artist was doing work that mattered far beyond the art world. Exhibitions of Bradford's large-scale canvasses -- matted with old billboard paper and other fragments that he reconfigures into textured worlds of squares, lines, shades, and streaks -- open Saturday at SFMOMA and YBCA in "Mark Bradford."
The retrospective dazzles with its pastiche of colors and Bradford's exploration of complex subjects that rarely get star treatment in major museums' painting galleries. Strawberry, for instance, refers not to fruit but to women so hooked on drugs that they sell their bodies for a snort of cocaine. Bradford's "Rat Catcher of Hamelin" series is a commentary on L.A. authorities' search for a serial killer of black women. And Mississippi Gottdam offers a look at the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, complete with pages of books and other printed work that Bradford found in New Orleans.
Bradford frequently delves into issues of race, identity and stereotyping. On Wednesday, when he held court in the galleries at SFMOMA and YBCA for a preview of his retrospective, Bradford said he likes to get into the "deeper problems" and "complex issues" that are below the surface of public conversations. It's the arresting grids and patterns that draw you to canvases like Strawberry and Mississippi Gottdam. It's the deeper meanings that keep you standing there and studying them. This combination of style and substance is what led the MacArthur Foundation to call Bradford's canvasses "rich in texture and visual complexity ... (He) is developing a visually arresting means of representing in two dimensions the dynamism and depth of the sites and streets he excavates."
Those streets are often South Central Los Angeles, where Bradford has his studio, in the same neighborhood that his mother had a hair salon where he worked as a kid. The S.F. retrospective, which is the first major museum survey of Bradford's paintings, sculptures, and multimedia work, features 39 works at SFMOMA, and seven at YBCA. It's a disproportionate division, perhaps, but YBCA is displaying the most extensive series in the exhibit (the four-panel Rat Catcher of Hamelin series) and the most gigantic of Bradford's offerings: A 20-foot-tall section of the vessel from his Mithra project, a post-Katrina work originally constructed and placed in the Lower Ninth Ward, the site of so much devastation in the 2005 hurricane.
"I looked at it as a vessel that held the possibilities that life would continue," Bradford said Wednesday as he stood beside the section of vessel at YBCA. "It's (related to) the story of Noah."
Humbly, Bradford calls the vessel a "sculpture," but that's like calling the Eiffel Tower a "work of iron." Words alone can't convey the strength of Bradford's creations, though museum curators did their best. Gary Garrels, SFMOMA's Elise S. Haas senior curator of painting and sculpture, called Bradford "extraordinary" and said it was a privilege to showcase his work at the museum. For the next three months, those who aren't familiar with Mark Bradford have a chance to judge his work for themselves.
"Mark Bradford" runs through June 17 at SFMOMA, 151 Third Street (at Howard); and Saturday through May 27 at YBCA, 701 Mission (at Third St.), S.F. Admission at SFMOMA is $11-$18, and at YBCA it's $5-$7.