Mark Bradford, Photograph by Sim Canetty-Clarke.

“Your work brought the social into the studio – brought the world into the studio. And that brought your work into the world,” said Hans Ulrich Obrist, the Artistic Director of London’s Serpentine Galleries, opening the Artist Talk with Mark Bradford at the Hammer Museum in LA. The American artist was discussing the evolution of his practice which, since its genesis, has been intricately linked to local communities and social issues.

From the very beginning of his career as an artist, Bradford’s work reflected the society in which it was made. Graduating from California Institute of the Arts in 1997, he spent three days a week working as a hairdresser while trying to establish a studio practice. The job paid $100 a day – a far cry from the $200,000 he estimated he owed in school fees. “There was no backing, no gallery,” he recalled. Though he recognized he “needed to make mistakes” to grow, finding inexpensive materials proved challenging. That barrier, however, sparked an “epiphany”: instead of paint, he created art from the city around him, working with cheap paper, bed sheets and low-cost materials from the beauty store that supplied the hair salon.

It was partly through these materials that Bradford’s work came to address social issues. “What made sense to me,” he recalled, “was turning my gaze outward and bringing in things from my environment that were potent. I would bring things into my studio that had an urgency and some pain but, in grappling with them, I would find something beautiful.” Throughout his career, he has collected and repurposed “Merchant Posters” – brightly colored adverts for debt relief, food assistance, and foreclosure prevention that target the lower income residents in cities throughout the United States. He cited Oscar van Young as an early influence – an artist whose work he encountered exploring free museums in the dead hours before nightclub openings. Young, he commented, “never separated politics from the world.”

As Bradford has risen to fame in the art world – representing the US at the 2017 Venice Biennale, and exhibiting in major museums – he has remained acutely aware of social issues. “To be honest with you,” he told Obrist, “I think that I never fully left society […] I can be Mark Bradford in the art world, but as soon as I step outside the art world, I’m a black man, and everything that goes with that – good and bad.” He is conscious that “the black body is always political.” It is in response to this, partly, that he has sought to collaborate with the education departments of museums that show his work, seeking meaningful opportunities to engage with audiences that might not otherwise choose to visit art spaces – even if that means being open to critique.

It was Bradford’s desire to take art into communities that led him to establish Art + Practice in 2013, working with philanthropist Eileen Harris Norton and activist Allan DiCastro. Based in California’s Leimert Park neighborhood, the organization encourages engagement with the arts, providing free access to museum-curated contemporary art, and supporting the needs of local foster youth. “We [museums and artists] don’t have to always ask people to come to us,” said Bradford, who ensured that the building felt “embedded” in the neighborhood. While many of the young people Art + Practice supports may go on to work in the arts, Bradford’s primary focus is to provide “emotional, psychological, and scholarly scaffolding.”

So what does the future hold for Bradford? In addition to exploring publishing, the artist admitted he “would like to get more involved in contemporary arts education and creating more access for people who cannot afford Ivy League Schools.” Existing projects, he hopes, will continue to reap rewards. In addition to Art + Practice, Bradford has been supporting ‘Process Collectivo’ – an ongoing, six-year project that aims to increase employment opportunities within prisons and the city of Venice, launched when he exhibited at the Biennale in 2017. The collaboration, he said, has been “amazing” – and is nearly self-sustaining. It is art’s potential to give back that drives Bradford. He and Obrist agreed: “the 21st century should be about generosity.” 

Mark Bradford spoke to Hans Ulrich Obrist at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles as part of the Artist Talks series co-hosted by Fondation Beyeler and UBS. Artist Talks is a program organized by the Fondation Beyeler and UBS in which internationally renowned contemporary artists speak about their work. The talks have an open, dynamic format and range from traditional artist’s talks to moderated conversations between artists and prominent figures from the art world. The Artist Talks are held at the Fondation Beyeler in Riehen/Basel and at other art institutions in Europe, Asia, Latin America and the USA.