In the spring of 1921, white residents of Tulsa, Okla., burned down the city's black district and murdered scores of African-Americans — men, women, and children. Historians have called it "the single worst incident of racial violence in American history." Revisiting the Tulsa race riots, Mark Bradford created Scorched Earth, an exquisite work. Like Picasso's Guernica, the 1937 painting that depicted German atrocities on Spanish soil, Scorched Earth is a raw account of human tragedy — except that Bradford doesn't depict on-the-ground suffering. Our view is from thousands of feet in the air, as if viewers were in cirrus clouds looking down at the charred remnants of earthly hell.
The recipient of a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant," Bradford prettifies and abstracts race relations, sexual identity, drug addiction, and other complicated subjects. Pieces like Scorched Earth come alive with grids, squares, rectangles and other shapes fit for a Gustav Klimt robe. Bradford's forms excite the senses, and from a distance, you want to be enveloped by them. On closer inspection, though, the tapestries' harder truths are unavoidable.
"I'm always revealing what's underneath," Bradford told me during a preview of his San Francisco retrospective, which is being co-hosted by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. "It's almost like being an archeologist — this idea that, at some point, all you can see are the tips of the pyramids. The sand has covered them up. I like this idea of retrieving lost memories."
This excavating and retrieving can be seen in the material itself. For much of the paper he incorporates in his art, Bradford scavenges in his South Central L.A. neighborhood of Leimert Park, a historically black area, where he acquires billboard signs and poster boards that have adorned poles, construction sites, and other overhangs. These finds reach their apotheosis in Bradford's Rat Catcher of Hamelin series, a rebuke of the insensitive campaign L.A. authorities mounted to search for potential victims of a serial killer. The suspected "Grim Sleeper" kept hundreds of photos of women in provocative poses. After arresting him in 2010, authorities wanted to know if those women were alive or dead, so they spotlighted the images on billboards and a website. Bradford considers the campaign exploitative — a kind of "public voyeurism" that would never have occurred if the women were white. The giant collages composing Rat Catcher of Hamelin feature scraps of those same billboard photos, along with wording like "Can you help?" Bradford literally cut the campaign to shreds.
Choose any of Bradford's works at SFMOMA and YBCA, and the pattern is the same: Style and substance, in perfect harmony. (Many notable artists would flunk this standard. Sorry, Damien Hirst.) At a time when the issue of race is more widely discussed than ever in the United States, the art world needs Mark Bradford, but it would be a mistake to pigeonhole him as "the race artist." In the multimedia work Pinocchio Is on Fire, for example, Bradford uses the character to address conformity and Bradford's own history: The dark environs of Pinocchio represent the kind of nightclub that Bradford would escape to in the 1980s, when AIDS was decimating the gay community.
The truth is, Bradford could never really escape anything. His height (he's 6-foot-8), his skin color, his sexuality, and his gregariousness inevitably make him the center of attention wherever he goes. When people first meet him, he says, "There's this constant projection of what they would do with my body. They say, 'Oh, if I were you ...' It's this constant fetishizing of me. And about the millions of dollars they would have made [in sports] with my body."
Not surprisingly, Bradford has a piece at SFMOMA, a black basketball titled Kobe I Got Your Back, which connects NBA stardom with issues of race and identity. Bradford is an ideal pundit — someone who has taken the history of art (he cites Rauschenberg among many influences) and merged it with his own aesthetics and experiences (including working in his mother's hair salon) to formalize abstractions both timeless and topical. And Bradford is just getting started: After barely graduating from high school, and then living in Europe for 10 years, he stumbled into art and got his bachelor's and master's degrees in his mid-thirties. "Mark Bradford" is the first major museum survey of his paintings, sculptures, and multimedia work. It's a chance to see an artist in full stride. A chance to see someone who — at the Istanbul Biennial and other international venues — is now representing the new American melting pot. Bradford makes it easy to revisit old wounds, to bear witness to events that seem as fresh today as they did years ago.