Sarah Lewis Honors Mark Bradford

Sarah Lewis Honors Mark Bradford

The following is an excerpt from a tribute speech to Mark Bradford by Harvard Professor and author Sarah Lewis. Bradford was honored at the Hammer's 12th annual Gala in the Garden last October.

Mark Bradford joins Anita Hill in conversation at the Hammer on Sunday, August 2 in conjunction with his current exhibition Scorched Earth.

Mark Bradford elevates us. He raises everyone up to his height. It is not a coincidence in other words that Mark is tall, that at a graceful 6’ 8” he towers over everyone in this room. His work has a heightened gaze—a grasp that leaves nothing out. He masterfully presents us with a question: what we have failed to see but is constantly around us, in our communities, in the lives that we share and create on common ground, and what will we do once we’ve seen it? 

He has expanded the boundaries of what constitutes painting and abstraction itself, with paper—paper he has walked the world to find on posters, billboards, album covers, and maps.

When Bauldelaire wrote about a city-walker in 1851, he could have been speaking about Mark Bradford when he said, “Everything the great city throws away, everything it loses, everything it disdains, everything it breaks, he catalogues and collects. He makes a selection, an intelligent choice… for the god of Industry to chew over and transform into objects of use or pleasure.”

The MacArthur winning artist creates works with a sublime, deliberately rundown quality, with titles that make me blush, like Sexy Cash and ones that make us think back on history like Mississippi Goddamn, with compositions no less singular than the work of Robert Rauschenberg with his combines from found objects. As Mark once said, “I think if Rauschenberg were pulling from the streets now, he and I would be fighting for the billboards.” 

Where does someone as extraordinary as Mark Bradford come from? If we were to seek him out as a young man, we would have found him in his hometown of Santa Monica, going to the Los Angeles airport arrivals desk, looking as people emerged from airlines like PanAm from places like Kenya from Indonesia and watching their dress and how they would greet their loved ones. He would turn himself into a creative anthropologist with the expert tutoring of his mother, a woman whose entire life was an artistic practice, as he’s said. His first defiant act was to not play basketball and take advantage of his height, but to apprentice himself in his mother’s beauty shop. There he learned calligraphy by painting the signs for her services. PRESS AND CURL, $25, JEHRI CURL, $45. The signs weren’t perfect. The letters would get slimmer at the end as he ran out of room on the board. His mother would tell him not to worry—that when she raised prices he would have another chance, not realizing that one day, Mark would turn the entire salon and the adjacent businesses into his studio. As a young man, Mark turned into a cartographer, sending away for maps of places like Lebanon and Egypt, marveling over streets that he would soon walk in his twenties before coming back to Los Angeles and showing us what a capacious gaze, tenacious spirit, and full embrace of humanity can do with paper and a limitless imagination. 

Mark Bradford and Sarah Lewis
Mark Bradford and Sarah Lewis

Mark digs up from densities. If I were to write like Mark Bradford, I would be able dreg up words to show the direction of our world with sterling sentences just as Mark presents views of the world from above, around, down, and below with a single slashed, sanded, collaged and decollaged painting. 

If Mark had done all of this alone, it would be far more than enough to warrant our enthusiastic acclaim. Yet there is much more.

Mark knows that the fight and struggle to honor the dignity and humanity of every human being cannot be waged without pictures, images, and culture.

This is exemplified in his landmark foundation, focused on the transformative power of art for changing lives. It is called Art + Practice, conceived and founded with Allan DiCastro and Eileen Harris Norton, working in partnership with the Hammer Museum, based in Leimert Park. The structure of the foundation, comprised of three parts—artist-in-residence studios, a technology lab and classroom, and an exhibition space, all designed to serve foster youth at a decisive moment, when they are on the cusp of independent, full adulthood.

How many impactful moments have begun, collectively and within ourselves when one image changed our sense of the world entirely? Thinking of the potential of this foundation—the haven it offers for reflection and for action—reminds me of what happened one night when the power of art transformed one boy just 16 years old. He was seeing Louis Armstrong play and knew that there was genius coming out of his horn. This is what aesthetic force can do—offer us a new way forward and an alternate route to choose.

Thelonious Monk once said, “A genius is he who is most himself,” and Mark Bradford lives out the wisdom of this truth. He models utter conviction and self-possession, unshakable integrity, and grit. He is committed to mastery and not merely success. Mark is brilliant, he is fun, he is a navigator. His work and endeavors helps us find our way. 

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Tags: mark bradford, sarah lewis, gala in the garden