LOS ANGELES — “I’m adjusting to life on Mars,” says the artist Mark Bradford, as he folds his frame into a chair positioned a prudent nine feet from my own, and unpeels his mask from behind his ears. Yes, he says, his glasses fog up, too.
Since mid-March, when California’s governor, Gavin Newsom, issued a statewide “stay at home” order, Mr. Bradford has kept a low profile. Throughout the nationwide unrest that flared after the killing of George Floyd, he remained silent. While Mr. Bradford, 58, is one of the more visible figures in the arts community in Los Angeles, he is not on social media. But with three new paintings on the wall in front of us, he’s finally ready to talk.
We are sitting beside a giant, rusting grain hopper in a room walled with layers of flaking paint, exposed brickwork and pockmarked concrete, up metal stairs three stories above the main courtyard at Hauser & Wirth, Los Angeles. On a wood, steel and rubber contraption ascending through a chute in the ceiling is a sign: “NOTICE. ONLY MALE PILLSBURY EMPLOYEES MAY USE THIS MANLIFT.” Mr. Bradford explains, gleefully, that this was so no one could see up their female co-workers’ skirts.
Between 1941 and the mid-1960s, the Pillsbury Flour Mills Company operated in this space, and before that, the Globe Grain & Milling Company. When, in 2014, Hauser & Wirth acquired the complex of industrial buildings and renovated it, the grain tower was left unfinished, a fond relic of the building’s past.
The space has been used before to display art for private clients, but its hazardous access conditions mean it has never been seen by the general public. But as we are endlessly being reminded, our current moment has no precedent. Mr. Bradford’s online exhibition “Quarantine Paintings,” which opens Tuesday, came into being through exceptional circumstances.
“When everything just closed down six months ago, I think I went into survival mode,” the artist reflects. He canceled appointments. He told his team of seven studio assistants to stay home. (He has avoided having to furlough or lay off any of them.)
But Mr. Bradford is not a homebody. Ordinarily, he says, he eats out every night. His art, made via the accretion and subsequent abrasion of layers of paint, paper and other media, usually depends on him gleaning materials from the streets of Los Angeles — the city that has become the de facto subject of his work. The abstract paintings (“Q1,” “Q2” and “Q3”) hanging on the scarred walls at Hauser & Wirth are recognizably Mr. Bradford’s, if only because their melting grids evoke, as with many of his past works, L.A.’s sporadically erratic street plan.
He made them — along with several others in the same series — alone in his studio, preparing the canvases with glued-on pieces of string and layers of colored paper before attacking them with an electric sander. Usually, assistants do the painstaking preparatory work, which Mr. Bradford does not relish, but for the first time in years, he had to do it himself.
Slowing down is not something that comes naturally to Mr. Bradford, so making these paintings felt therapeutic. “I’m a scared artist. When I started out, the only way I knew how to go from scared to not scared was to work really fast. I’d get to a place where I’d kind of built a shaky house, but at least it was a house.” Often, he says, he rushes paintings and accidentally destroys them by sanding through too many layers. He has to build them up over again. This material rawness gives his work a sense of emotional vulnerability, although paradoxically, he says, “I’m actually always trying to cover up.”
They are smaller, too, than most past works. His last exhibition with Hauser & Wirth, London, in October 2019, included paintings that were over 19 feet wide. The “Quarantine” paintings are on 6- by 8-foot stretchers — a format that Mr. Bradford, who has an extraordinarily wide arm span, can easily handle himself. The scale, and the delicacy of their surfaces, gives the paintings a newfound intimacy.
Paintings finished, he loaded them into a U-Haul truck and drove them over to the gallery. He could have had them photographed in his studio, but he wanted to see them out in the world. “My work doesn’t come out of being a hermit,” he says. “My work doesn’t come out of isolation.”
Meanwhile, Mr. Bradford continued his habitual walks around the city. On South Central Avenue, he observed a number of small immigrant businesses that were shuttered by Covid-19, and the ways in which the home-printed merchant posters — which he has previously incorporated into his paintings — were changing. He started a new collection of these signs, and pinned them to his studio wall: “Covid drive-throughs,” barbers who offered to cut your hair in your backyard, signs calling for essential workers, signs offering to buy your house. Mr. Bradford views them as economic litmus papers for the poorest parts of the city, as companies laid off workers and stimulus checks ran out.
For Mr. Bradford, who represented the United States at the Venice Biennale in 2017 and who first showed with Hauser & Wirth in 2014, it has been a long time since he was poor. But his childhood in a boardinghouse in West Adams, then a low-income African-American neighborhood southwest of downtown Los Angeles, never seems far away. When he sees small businesses struggling to make ends meet, he asks himself, “What would I have done?”
Protests over racism and police violence; looting; military vehicles patrolling city streets; curfews: Mr. Bradford has seen them all before.
In 1992, when riots swept through Los Angeles, Mr. Bradford was 29 years old and working in his mother’s hair salon in Leimert Park. (He enrolled for undergraduate studies at the California Institute of the Arts later that year.) When a curfew was enforced by the National Guard — as happened again this summer when protesters took to the streets over police violence against Black people — Mr. Bradford and his mother refused to close the salon early, the evening being their busiest time.
“We didn’t stop, we just put up black paper and kept all the shutters up. The customers came in from the back,” he says. “For me it was just a risk that I was willing to take.” Mr. Bradford empathizes with the contractors with whom he stands in line, spaced six feet apart, waiting to enter Home Depot — where he buys many of his painting supplies. “You see so many people making economic decisions,” he says.
The past six months have seemed familiar to Mr. Bradford in other ways, too. He lived through the AIDS crisis before it had a name, when the gay community in the early 1980s was told that there was nothing that could be done. He lost count of the number of doctors, he says, who told him, simply because he was a gay man, “‘Get your business in order.’ I’m 20 years old! What business do I have at 20?”
The language around Covid-19 — “the obsession with the number of people that are passing away, the graphs and the death tolls” — is very triggering of that time for him, he says. “What’s different is that it is not moralized in the same way as AIDS was. There was an ethical or moral idea that these were bad people.” Not until famous people started to die — Rock Hudson, for example — did the public take notice.
During Covid-19, the world has been forced to weigh one life against another — to reckon with unanswerable dilemmas about the price of preventing sickness and death, about who should get the last ventilator, about whether an older person’s life is somehow worth less than a child’s. “No, it’s all wrong,” Mr. Bradford says. It is surely no coincidence that the Black Lives Matter movement came sharply into the foreground of public consciousness during this time.
As with AIDS, the struggle for racial justice in this country depends on visibility. Once something becomes visible, Mr. Bradford says, it becomes everyone’s problem. “So, if you choose to turn away from this moment, I feel that’s your choice,” he says. “But one thing you cannot say is, you didn’t know.”