As with a lot of things, Jerry Saltz says it best. On the 110.5 million-dollar Basquiat painting sale, he remarks that having an African-American/American painter enter the ranks of Van Gogh, Picasso, etc- “it’s about time.”
Installation view, Mark Bradford, "Shade" (image from Hyperallergic)
(Here is where I get anecdotal.) I recently attended the Denver Art Museum’s Mark Bradford/Clyfford Still exhibition “Shade.” First off, it is an impressive, well-curated, well-displayed body of work. Before I could enjoy Bradford’s really sumptuous work, I had the displeasure of hearing a few old farts remarking to the docent “I can’t believe this is worth 5 million dollars. I mean, come on.” I took a long breath, and walked away. I wanted to shoo them out for profaning the sacred space of a really-good-exhibition. Which, to me, functions like going to take communion on Sundays- a nice, introspective “I-should-be more-like-Jesus-and-less-shi**y” moment in my week, but that’s for another piece. Right after that impulse, I wanted to badger them with “this is 20-feet by 20-feet! I challenge you to build that, paint on it, lay billboard paper and other things on it, rip them off, and repeat for about a month. And then apply to shows, or find ways to haul or ship the work. And talk about it. And think about it. Of course this painting is 'worth' money! Hiss!”
So, that was a bad start to viewing an exhibition. But, the great news is that the Paintings. Were. Gorgeous. Not pretty, not even beautiful, but powerful like a hurricane or the big balls of trash flotsam that they can leave in their wake.
I didn’t need to see the supplemental video-interview of Bradford, or the contextual, Instragram-like photo collage on the wall behind it to enjoy the work... but it was enlightening. This wasn’t just “hey, these painters paint abstraction on the same-size canvas, let’s have a show.” It wasn’t even “hey, this old white painter used black and this young black painter comments on that.” This exhibition reminds us in blatant terms that while abstraction used to deal with non-figuration, it was born of time in America’s history that was absolutely about the figure—one we might be in “again.”
In comparison to Still’s giant swaths of paint- one moment monumental, another, kinda boring- Bradford’s work is a lightning-struck, dragged-out (or is it “up”?), frenzy. From far away, it could be a peaceful Chinese ink scroll. Close up, it pulses. Bradford recontextualizes abstract expressionism, entering into that white-male dominated zone, and changing it for the good. He is the 2017 U.S. representation at the Venice Biennale, deservedly so.
Mark Bradford, "Realness" (photo from the Denver Art Museum online)
*The author's opinions are her own.