From Curls to Canvas: Mark Bradford at the Modern in Fort Worth

Mark Bradford exhibit at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth (Courtesy Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth)
Once a hair stylist, the artist mined the beauty parlor in his early work.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE L ast week, I wrote about the Kimbell Art Museum and the Modern Art Museum in Fort Worth. Side by side in a midsize Texas oil and cattle city, they fashion an unexpected and stellar “Made in Fort Worth” culture brand. The city’s got serious money but also good taste and civic pride. A third museum, the Amon Carter, is nearby and specializes in American art. With so much art and a great symphony, too, Fort Worth is a destination.

When I was a museum director, I learned that visitor surveys and obsessing over visitor experience have only so much value. As people, we’re all unique, and our moods change, too. There’s so much variation that sculpting a visitor experience or catering to a nonexistent generic visitor can become a waste of time. When our personalities and moods encounter art and architecture, a singular museum experience is born.

When I visited the Modern in Fort Worth, I craved serenity. If serenity, contemplation, and reverie topped my agenda, the Modern’s beautiful Tadao Ando building supplied the stage, and the museum’s curators supplied the exhibition. Mark Bradford: End Papers opened at the Modern on March 8, days before the Chinese coronavirus shutdown, and without the crisis, it would have run through early August. The Modern’s open again, and it has renegotiated the loans so the show can run through the fall.

The Capodimonte show at the Kimbell next door gives the visitor Neapolitan baroque and blood, drama, and flesh. End Papers is California Cool and unmistakably American.

It’s a beautiful, elegant show — kudos to the Modern for lowering my blood pressure, by the way — but it’s satisfyingly sound, too. It has a big name, a theme, a purpose, great art, and a good story. Bradford (b. 1961) is one of the best American artists working today. His work is mostly abstract and big, with sweeping spaces that have both density and bounce. His materials are paint and collage, though he makes sculptures, videos, and drawings, too.

I first discovered Bradford’s work in a group show of Southern California artists at the Orange County Museum of Art about 15 years ago before he was famous, before his one-man extravaganza at the Venice Biennale, and before his paintings went for millions. His art appealed to my own taste for a complex, subtle palette, smart handling of materials, and subjects that looked like an abstract aerial street map. He seemed a new master of the modernist grid, but his thoughtful calibration of forms and color have an Old Master feel.

I read his artist’s statement, which began with “I grew up in a hair salon.” How could I not read more? You can’t beat it for annihilating art-history jargon. The best American art, after all, treats everyday life. The best artists are entrepreneurial when it comes to materials.

Bradford was raised by his mother, a single parent, who started, owned, and operated a small, successful beauty salon in Los Angeles, not a salon to the stars but for average people. After school, Bradford was in the back of the shop and soon became a hairstylist himself. He worked in his mother’s shop, saved money, traveled in Europe in the 1980s, and in 1991, at 30, enrolled in CalArts. For his first serious works, he chose a material that said something about him. He chose end papers.

Yes, end papers. With natural curls, I never thought much about permanents. I’ve always gone to barbers, for a 15-minute haircut, and for years went to the same barber who cut my father’s and grandfather’s hair. It wasn’t exactly “get the bowl cut” caliber, but it was a nice clean-cut look. That said, we all have in our heads the image of a woman, head industrialized by big curlers and metal rollers, crowned by a big metal cone, baking for beauty. A permanent is a profile in both courage and vanity.

An end paper is a thin, translucent sheet used with a hair roller and solution to curl hair. Bradford uses end papers in lieu of conventional oil-paint brushstrokes. I’d call it a stroke of genius.

For a permanent wave, the stylist wraps wet hair around a curler and then wraps an end paper to keep the hair flat and to evenly distribute the permanent wave solution that’s applied like paint over the hair. They’re sold in small boxes of 1,000 — cheap material — in different pastel colors. Put on an opaque surface like a canvas, an end paper can look like a rectangle of thinned paint. End papers are mass-produced, but each end paper is different, though almost always the differences are infinitesimal. They can have a dull finish or a touch of sheen, too.

Bradford treats each end paper with hair-dye solution to get the color he wants. Some of the end papers in On a clear day, I can usually see all the way to Watts, from 2002, are deeply saturated. Others are mottled and look like miniature Helen Frankenthaler drip paintings. Much as end papers absorb curling solution, they absorb color, but their absorbativity — yikes, I’m guilty of the mortal sin of inventing art-history jargon — doesn’t stop there. Whether the palette is solid and assertive or gauzy, the blocks draw the viewer deep into the picture. The shapes are irregular enough to look like pieces of a puzzle, and the viewer is invited to puzzle out a mystery. Nothing is obvious.

Bradford starts with a basic grid to anchor the composition. 45R Spiced Cognac, from 2001, is a textbook minimalist grid, something from Mondrian. His first experiments with end papers had a problem, however. The material — the end papers — appeared too immaterial. He solves the problem by burning the edge of each end paper with a little blowtorch. The burnt edge creates a line. Depending on how he manipulated the torch, the line could be wispy thin, aggressively straight and precise, or thick and irregular, like a velvety burr. The color could be brown or black.

Mark Bradford burning end papers. (Courtesy of Mark Bradford)

Bradford’s material might be new, but the strategy isn’t. Cézanne’s brushstrokes are unusually big and invariably square, rectangular, or cone-shaped. That’s why his paintings look like they’re made from small building blocks. They’re representational — mountains, farmhouses, and people — and geometric and abstract at the same time. Cézanne’s blocky brushstrokes helped launch Picasso toward cubism.

There are about 35 works in the show, most 72 by 84 inches, but one, Los Moscos, from 2004, stretches to 16 feet. Most of the Modern’s galleries are big, so they accommodate Bradford’s work perfectly. The art is simply interpreted, without the crush of curatorial spin. The work has the physical and psychological space to engage the viewer’s mood.

Bradford is a colorist without peer. In Jheri Now, Curl Later, from 2001, different blocks of gray, salmon, and muted white naturally soothe. It’s a cool, cerebral palette. Bradford never allows his little blocks to flow evenly. He likes Agnes Martin, but he’s not Agnes Martin. Jheri Now, Curl Later is tonal and reminded me of Whistler or Inness, but there’s no precisely measured procession across the surface.

Bradford’s blocks move across the surface, sometimes slowly where the palette is tonal or pastel, and sometimes with a hop, skip, and jump. Sometimes there’s a traffic jam, and sometimes, as in You remind me of a friend of mine, from 2002, there’s a dense jumble of end papers that looks like a car crash. Bradford sometimes applies words — “click” or “juice” — to advise a bit of snap to the eye’s movement. Some read like landscapes, but the grid clearly makes them the province of the man-made and usually the city.

On a clear day, I can usually see all the way to Watts, 2001, by Mark Bradford. Mixed media on canvas. (The Bluff Collection. © Mark Bradford)

On a clear day, I can usually see all the way to Watts is a mix of turquoise, sky blue, azure, and white, but the burnt end-paper edges are densely packed and laid side by side to create a long, insistent line running from left to right. The look is a big California sky. Gonna Man looks like a figure, with a build-up of lots of burnt end-paper edges. High Roller Kat’s Gonna Pay for That, from 2003, is moody and jazzy. It’s a nocturne with a nightclub palette. There, the end papers don’t meander. They syncopate. The titles, the labels tell us, represent snippets of conversation we might hear in a hair salon, or they give us a clue for where the artist is going.

There’s no parallel for Bradford’s medium, but the choice of end papers comes from the CalArts teaching philosophy as well as the 1990s zeitgeist, both mind openers for a hairstylist-turned-artist. CalArts, as an art school, has always promoted new media, whether it’s video art, conceptual photography, or performance art, all of which came into their own in the 1990s, often at the expense of traditional painting. For Bradford, this zeitgeist allowed him to pick a medium that’s biographical.

The catalogue begins with a quote from the sculptor John Chamberlain. “Oil paint is European,” he said. “But America is about other stuff, the things we invent and the things we use. . . . That’s why American art looks different.” My academic specialty is American art, and though it’s early 19th century, when American art was operating on Old Master fumes, I usually look at what living American artists are doing today and ask, “What’s American about that?”

The hood is moody, 2003, by Mark Bradford. Mixed media on canvas. (The Collection of Anderson Cooper. © Mark Bradford. Photo: Timothy Doyon)

Bradford’s work is also biographical in that he’s from Los Angeles. He’s fascinated by aerial views, and one of the iconic Los Angeles views for me is the approach to LAX from the east. Past the San Gabriel mountains, heading to the airport, there’s a long passage of suburban and urban sprawl, a glass hive unfolding in grid form. The grid’s there at night, too, but the forms are spots and lines of light. The vast dimensions of the end-paper pictures make even more sense. Los Angeles is, of course, a car town. It’s best experienced in a car. Movement is governed not by feet but by the gas pedal and grids of streets in a flat landscape.

The catalogue is great. It’s co-published by the Modern and DelMonico Books, an imprint of Prestel. There’s a short essay by Michael Auping, the curator of the show, high-quality illustrations of the objects in the show, including nice details, and then Auping’s interview of the artist. I think close-ups of the works in the show are essential. They’re gorgeously presented so the reader can understand Bradford’s process and refinement.

The book’s paper is lovely. The pearlescent paper used for the text pages has a sheen like the end papers Bradford uses, and the Day-Glo pink color of the headings has a beauty-parlor look. The book has an unusual three-quarters dust jacket that looks like a basic end paper. It’s slightly transparent, revealing the detail from one of Bradford’s paintings in the show.

Auping is a good, straightforward writer who seems to abhor art-history jargon as much as I do. His essay is great art history without pretension, and he demystifies technique. I’ve read and seen many interviews with Bradford. He’s charming, honest, and thoughtful, a good talker simpatico with Auping. Art historians, especially contemporary art specialists, can make art so boring. They can be dogmatic, possessive, and opaque, as if deliberately barring the viewer from making sense of art. Sullen and solemn, they take the joy from art. The Modern’s catalogue is a high-scholarship book, but it’s beautiful and scrutable as well. I’d call it supremely effective.

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