An artist commonly regarded in the contemporary-art circuit as being as smart, pleasant and talented as he is tall, Mark Bradford got a late start given the art world's preoccupation with youth. Born in 1961, he attended CalArts, where he completed both his BFA and MFA, in his 30s, and was on the cusp of 40 when his work was selected for inclusion in two exhibitions that amounted to a launch of Bradford's work in multiple hubs of the international art market and exhibition circuit: “Freestyle,” which opened at the Studio Museum in Harlem and then traveled to the Santa Monica Museum of Art, and “Snapshot: New Art From Los Angeles,” which opened at the Hammer Museum and then traveled to the Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami Beach. Earning him those inclusions were works perhaps best described as mélanges of drawing, painting and collage, incorporating wrappers, foils and papers from Bradford's day job as a “beauty operator” in his mother's South Los Angeles salon, as well as other bits and pieces of urban cultural detritus. Simultaneously ethereal, lyrically abstract, allusive (sometimes coyly, sometimes bluntly) and grounded in grit, those works defined a signature that remains present in Bradford's practice, as a matter of aesthetics, but even more so as a matter of sensibility and sensitivity. With overall compositions that variously suggest landscapes, atmospheres, crowds of bodies, architecture and infrastructure, Bradford shows himself a master at making works that are shimmering, lovely and playful, while also woven through with strands of information that lead to tangles of race, gender, sexuality and class.
It's hard to tell whether Bradford's stature is better measured by his record of solo exhibitions — which includes, among other venues, the Whitney Museum of American Art, LA>Mithra, an arklike structure made of shipping containers and scavenged material in the Ninth Ward neighborhood, became a monument of the post-Katrina capital of detritus.
There's also the fact that Bradford has pulled off something of a grand slam of awards, including the Joan Mitchell Foundation Award (2002); the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation Award (2003); the Bucksbaum Award (2006), given to one artist selected from each Whitney Biennial; the United States Artists Fellowship (2006); and the MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship (2009).
But the best indicator of why Bradford has achieved his place in the field is the surprising and engaging work that continues to come out of his Leimert Park studio, which is chronicled in his first career-survey exhibition, curated by Christopher Bedford, at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Cincinnati through August 15 and then traveling to the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, the Dallas Museum of Art and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.