Mark Bradford often talks, metaphorically, about standing in the world on both of his feet. One of those is his art practice, a two-decade-long creative output of monumentally large and masterfully layered paintings that have garnered the L.A.-based artist global acclaim and soaring prices (two of his works sold for nearly $5 million each at auction last year). The other is his social activism, centered in South Los Angeles, where three years ago he and his partner, Allan DiCastro, co-founded Art + Practice, a nonprofit that mounts museum-quality art shows and facilitates programs for foster youth.
Now, the openly gay African-American artist, 55, is bringing that same balanced stance to Venice, Italy. Bradford is representing the United States in the 57th Venice Biennale while launching a six-year initiative to help incarcerated residents of the city, working with a social collective, Rio Terà dei Pensieri, that helps prisoners reintegrate into society. “In addition to being the most significant abstract painter living, in my view,” says Christopher Bedford, director of the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) and co-curator of Bradford’s Venice Biennale exhibit, “he is also a very committed change agent. Much of the money he generates from selling his paintings he channels back into helping others.” A new retail store run by the collective will sell items made inside two prison workshops in Venice, including a Bradford-designed bag made from recycled Biennale posters from years past.
His Biennale exhibit, titled “Tomorrow Is Another Day,” is already earning him rave reviews; a recent Artnet article on his installations proclaims him to be our generation’s Jackson Pollack. Instead of entering through the grand front door of Thomas Jefferon’s Monticello, visitors enter through a side door, like one Jefferson’s slaves would. But in an interview, Bradford was emphatic that his art isn’t meant to be taken as a universal representation of the black experience. “I’m black, but just because I’m black doesn’t mean I’m representing the whole black race,” he said. “I don’t believe in a univocal representation of nationhood either. That’s impossible. That’s not what I’m about.”
In previous shows, he’s explored such topics as race riots (red rivers of paint coursing through a map-like landscape) and the devastation of AIDS (with images inspired by the cells of the AIDS-related cancer Kaposi’s sarcoma) while keeping to his preferred mode of expression, abstraction. His show at the Biennale, which runs May 13 to Nov. 26, is inspired by the architecture of the 5,000-square-foot U.S Pavilion building itself.
“Mark refers to it as the White House. The fact that Jeffersonian architecture, of course, has an interesting relationship to slavery in the United States makes it weighted and weighty for Mark.” Also look to see a continuation of the exploration Bradford made last year in paintings like My Grandmother Felt the Color (which was recently acquired by the BMA). It’s made using custom-printed black paper, which Bradford then bleaches to reveal the different hues that were mixed to create the deep shade. “The actual painting looks technicolor in the end,” says Bedford, who is bringing the Bradford show to the BMA in 2018. “Mark would say black is all colors.”