The Town,
The County,
The Desert,
The Drop

Mark Bradford on history, painting and unstable places

Mark Bradford, You Don't Have to Tell Me Twice, 2023 © Mark Bradford. Photo: Joshua White. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth

  • Jun 15, 2023
  • Ursula: Issue 8

In preparation for the exhibition “You Don’t Have to Tell Me Twice,” Mark Bradford’s first show of new work in New York City since 2015, on view through July 28 at Hauser & Wirth on 22nd Street in Chelsea, Bradford sat down with Randy Kennedy in his studio in Los Angeles to talk about ideas that gave rise to the show. These are condensed and edited portions of their conversation.

Randy Kennedy: Maybe we could start talking about this new work with some basic background, which is your long-standing interest in embedding your abstraction deeply within the facts and documents of the world—among them the histories, particularly the racial histories, of Los Angeles, Tulsa, New Orleans and other places; parts of the Constitution; the story of Pickett’s Charge, the turning point in the Civil War.

Mark Bradford: Yes.

Kennedy: And in this new work, it seems to me that while you’re still deeply grounded in the world, the lines of thought you’ve been following lately have led you in more speculative directions. There are, in a sense, three places inhabited in this work—a fictional place, Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, the Mississippi setting for almost all of his novels; a second place, which did exist but does no longer, a ghost town, the town of Blackdom in New Mexico, which was homesteaded in the early 1900s by African American families fleeing Jim Crow; and finally the desert, the reality of the desert but also the idea of it, particularly the Chihuahuan desert, which covers parts of northern Mexico, West Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. And then there’s actually a fourth place in this work, so to speak, which we’ll talk about later, which is really the place of yourself, your own history, approached in a way you’ve never quite done before. How did all these things start to come together?

Bradford: It really began with me starting to research ghost towns. About three years ago, I was asked to be part of a show that had to do with the Great Migration. And I started to do some research, to think about the idea of Black migration at the turn of last century, the early 20th century. And in a way I always return to the merchants, merchant culture, because it’s what I’m part of, the son of a hairdresser and once a hairdresser myself. So it’s just ingrained in me, local businesses, local merchants. And I was thinking about how a merchant would think about migration, finding a place to continue to ply a trade. With the ghost towns, it became something about places where people had gone to set up new lives and had gone with a certain amount of hope and expectation and then it just didn’t take, you know, for whatever reason. I had lists of lots of unincorporated towns, tiny places that were around for a little while, a few decades. And then—this is the way my brain works—thinking about those towns and about charged spaces and history, I remembered Faulkner’s, Absalom, Absalom! And I started thinking about Faulkner again, for the first time in a long time, his greatness and, of course, also all the ways his version of the South is problematic. But it was more about a fictional place where real-world problems can be looked at, experimented with. I’ve always felt the same way about Samuel Delany’s great science-fiction novel, Dhalgren, this fictionalized space that he imbued with so much thinking about how the world works. But Faulkner’s county and these ghost towns just became huge rabbit holes that I went down.

Kennedy: Then what brought the desert into it? I grew up in West Texas, on the edge of the Chihuahuan desert, and it’s always seemed to me that of all the places on the earth besides maybe the ocean, the desert is the most liminal, imaginary space that we have. Of course, people live in the desert, but it’s one of those places that doesn’t seem designed for human life, sometimes barely even for animal or plant life. It’s often brutal, and it’s a place where people disappear, or go to disappear.

“The town was called Blackdom, which sounds like a very contemporary reference. I was thinking: ‘Okay, but we weren’t called Black until the ’60s, so how did they come up with the name Blackdom?’ It must have been their thinking of the idea of a kingdom. You know … Welcome to Blackdom, a Black kingdom, a Black heaven.” —Bradford

Bradford: Right, it’s like the Arctic, except it’s not remote. The desert started to come into it all, I think, because I was looking at the history of Blackdom, which is such a powerful name and an interesting history. You have a group of Black families escaping Jim Crow, all those repressive laws. They took an opportunity to get out of the South and that violence and find a better life. But they chose New Mexico. And I was like, “Oh, that’s odd. New Mexico, the desert. Why is that?" You would think they would have gone to Northern or Western cities. But W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Crisis and other magazines for Black readers advertised opportunities like this, land opportunities, and I’ve always been obsessed with going through ads like that, figuring out how movement and commercial settlement happened in real time. So with Blackdom, I started thinking about how they were on the edge of a desert, how that desert united Mexico and the states that had once been Mexico. And, I don’t know, there was just something about the desert that had that “Go West, young man!” feel to it, the ring of Manifest Destiny in my ear, which really interested me.

Kennedy: Did the idea of the desert interest you in a visual way as well, for the ways it could work with abstraction?

Bradford: Yeah. One thing was that very rarely do I ever deal with flora and fauna in my work. I’m always a city boy, you know? Everything’s urban or gritty. But the desert started making me think about the natural world. And it made me think of Henri Rousseau, the way he painted his imaginary jungles and forests in that amazingly flat, perspectiveless way that played with abstraction. And so I approached these paintings of the desert in a pretty Rousseauian way, with my imagination: This is what I think the flora and the fauna of the Chihuahuan Desert would look like, the plants, the animals, the creepy crawlers, especially the predators. I did some research about birds and animals and plants and apex predators but I also just started imagining colors and shapes and sizes. So it became this fantasy place that I had never visited. I mean, I had driven through New Mexico on my way to Albuquerque and Santa Fe a couple of times, so I wasn’t unfamiliar with driving there from Los Angeles. But mostly what I got from those drives was the flatness and the sky. You can’t tell up from down sometimes. It’s amazing to think about Blackdom being there, those Southern families who put down roots in the middle of such emptiness and isolation.

Kennedy: They lighted out for a place that was still almost the frontier, that had been the frontier not many years prior to their arrival.

Bradford: Right, Blackdom hit its zenith around 1908 and was essentially abandoned by the early 1920s because of water shortages. But if you go back just a little bit further from its founding, in the last half of the 19th century, that was still Manifest Destiny at work, relentless expansionism—to go west and take all the land and resources you can grab and pillage and burn as much as you need to. Get the gold. Butcher anyone who gets in your way. I was thinking that the history of the South and that history lay on top of each other in many ways. There are a lot of African American people who are mixed with Indigenous people in the history of the West and its conquest. I’ll tell you another thing that really fascinated me about Blackdom. One of the ads promoting the town and trying to get new settlers in The Crisis said: “Looking for 500 Negro families.” At the time, that's what we were called, Negros. But the town was called Blackdom, which sounds like a very contemporary reference. I was thinking: “Okay, but we weren’t called Black until the ’60s, so how did they come up with the name Blackdom?” It must have been their thinking of the idea of a kingdom. You know, like kingdom of heaven. Welcome to Blackdom, a Black kingdom, a Black heaven.

“Johnny the Jaguar came on the Mayflower. It should have said ‘Johnny Buys Houses’ on the side of the Mayflower when they hit Plymouth Rock.” —Bradford

Kennedy: In this work, there are a couple of recognizable characters running through the pieces, one being the figure of the jaguar, which was once the apex predator in the Chihuahuan desert.

Bradford: The jaguar is now endangered there. But at one time it did roam as the king of that land, so in my imagination, he’s still roaming. He’s the apex predator, and he came to stand in for all kinds of predators throughout history. The jaguar immediately became tied up in my mind with the figure in a commercial sign that I started seeing in L.A., a predatory housing buyer. The sign said, “Johnny Buys Houses.” I was immediately fascinated by it because very, very few times with those kinds of signs do you see someone’s name mentioned. It’s usually just a business behind the predatory systems, but “Johnny” was the first time the merchant posters became personalized, in a sense. They became familiar because it sounded like your neighbor. “We buy houses. I buy houses. It’s never “Randy buys houses” or “Mark buys houses.” And when I saw that I was like, “Oh, Johnny.” This is a figure I can think about, do something with. When you're dealing with people who are desperate, who want another life, an escape, that’s when the predators and speculators show up, to get people at their most vulnerable. And so there was Johnny, and then in my mind he became Johnny the Jaguar. And I let him roam. He was roaming in Yoknapatawpha County in the embattled post-Civil War South, and he was in the desert, and he was chasing me, too, when I was a kid and figuring out that I was gay and getting beaten up. I made him Johnny the Jaguar, Johnny the Speculator, Johnny the Bully. Johnny the Jaguar came on the Mayflower. It should have said “Johnny Buys Houses” on the side of the Mayflower when they hit Plymouth Rock.

Kennedy: You’ve been collecting those kinds of urban advertising posters and using them in your work for a very long time, right?

Bradford: Since the riots in 1992. Because that’s when you really saw them start. When everything burned down, there were so many vacant lots. Cyclone fencing went up. And when the fencing went up, people said, “Oh, hey, wait a minute. We could use these as a place to do our local advertising.” The first wave was in the African American community, African American merchants advertising to African Americans. The second wave came with immigration in the late ’90s and early 2000’s, people coming from Mexico and Central America. That’s when you saw more handymen services, labor notices. And then the last wave has been the predators. “We buy houses. We buy your houses. We prey on your distress.” In some ways, the land that ended up being sold to those families for Blackdom had to have had elements of the predatory in it. It wasn’t a place with enough water. And the families eventually had to leave it, to disperse. It became just one of those historical markers that say: “Here once stood...” But there’s nothing there at all anymore. You just have to project your imagination onto the tumbleweeds. I liked that it was part of the Great Migration into the Southwest, into New Mexico, because that just opened up the narrative even more for me.

Kennedy: And Johnny is like some kind of Western figure walking around out with the guns on his hips, Johnny Ringo.

Bradford: Exactly. Johnny the Cowboy. He’s out to get you. He’s a predator in a place full of predators, especially the Southwest. You think about the plight and suffering of Indigenous people in the Southwest, the kinds of hyperviolence that Cormac McCarthy gets at in Blood Meridian. And you think of the suffering of Black people in Faulkner’s South. How do we grapple with places that have these horrific histories? Maybe I do it through abstraction and in other ways in the work. I think back to the series I did when I made paintings based on part of the United States Constitution, a document that has so much blood on it.

“I purposely chose spaces that were fuzzy, that were never there or that existed no longer because to me, in 2023, living in this world, being part of this world, being aware of what’s happening around me … I almost had to create an alternate universe to be able to deal with the reality.” —Bradford

Kennedy: There’s of course a lot of actual history in these new works. But there also seems to be a high quotient of the fictional or the fuzzy in terms of the historical record, which maybe gives you room to move around in these themes, themes that you've explored for a long time in your work?

Bradford: Fuzzy and floating are good words for it. I purposely chose spaces that were fuzzy, that were never there or that existed no longer because to me, in 2023, living in this world, being part of this world, being aware of what's happening around me, it is very hard to turn away from. It’s hard not to acknowledge what we’ve been living in—Trump, the pandemic, what George Floyd’s murder showed and set in motion. It’s troubling on every level, politically, emotionally, psychologically, socially. It is just a troubling, troubling, troubling time. And it’s so real that I almost had to create an alternate universe to be able to deal with the reality. Does that make sense?

Kennedy: It does. It’s a fantasy land in which all these things exist, all the history is there, but you need to be able to look at it in a way other than square on. Like that line from Emily Dickinson: “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.”

Bradford: Right. I wanted to use my subjectivity to create a site where I felt like maybe I could control it and I could move through it. And so I’m going between this site that I create and the reality that I see around me every single day. It was difficult to make work these last three years. And I guess I wanted to make work. And it’s interesting because this is the first time in my work that I ever brought my childhood imagination into the equation. When I was about eleven or twelve years old, just entering puberty, I started to build these little imaginary places, scenarios and dioramas, and I would film them with a Super 8 movie camera. It was me creating a space that I could control and that I could move around in. Because the world at that time for me was becoming hostile. I had less and less agency in the world.

Kennedy: I’m wondering if this direction in the work might also be coming from the fact that you’re an artist who is now very well-known and widely shown and written about and so expectations begin to get built into that, into your reputation. Maybe people expect you to address things in a certain way, especially about Black life in America, and you don’t want to find yourself being boxed into creative corners.

Bradford: Well, I don’t want to be someone who is just responding to the news, to current events, to historical fact. It’s a lot more complicated than that and difficult to explain, to attach words to.

Kennedy: Could we return for a minute to you talking about your creative world when you were young, the ways you responded to the world starting to come at you?

Mark Bradford, Jungle Jungle, 2021 © Mark Bradford. Photo: Mark Bradford studio. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth

Mark Bradford, Manifest Destiny, 2023 © Mark Bradford. Photo: Joshua White. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth

Bradford: Well, you know, it’s puberty, right? Which is hard enough in any case. And in my case, I’m understanding that I’m gay, and I’m suddenly becoming this very tall, very skinny kid who stands out in a crowd, six foot seven. I got classified as a sissy. Sissy was the word then. So sports was off the table, along with so many other things. Any interactions with little heterosexual men were off the table. I was much more susceptible to being beaten up and chased. And so I retreated into myself and started making things. I created safe spaces where I could be my own subject, because in puberty I felt like I had become an object of other people’s opinion. I was becoming an object either of disappointment or of ridicule, because of my sexuality. In my own world, I could make my little films. I could call my own shots and play who I wanted to play. I could read books that I wanted to read. Just sit all day on the beach and read books and make movies with my friends.

Kennedy: You’d set up some sort of a tableau or scene or characters ...

Bradford: All of it. For one thing, I was fascinated by airport crash movies. And so with refrigerator boxes I created the entire inside of an airplane, with flight attendants, and it crashed. The stars were all girls around my age. In the crash scenes, everyone’s screaming and falling on the floor. I also loved Blaxploitation films like Foxy Brown, with the Black woman in control. I liked Wonder Woman, all these women in control and kicking ass. So I made my own versions of them. That was kind of my bridge between ages thirteen and sixteen. And then at sixteen, I was old enough to start getting into nightclubs. Then nightclubs and the dance floor and dressing up became another space where I could express my creativity.

Kennedy: When you were making those films, did you have an audience of friends for them, or were they were mostly for you, for your family?

Bradford: Mostly for me and the people that starred in them. I always knew that parents would find it kind of odd, so I never showed much to them. The parents of the girls would have probably been like: “Why is he having these girls dress up like this? Wait, you’re going to have my daughter in a bathing suit running down the street? With a cape? And she’s eight!?”

Kennedy: Right.

Bradford: And I would have been like, “Yeah, and she's going to be fabulous!” But they wouldn’t have gotten it.

“What really caught me looking back at my adolescent film as an older adult was this very vulnerable body falling through space. You see it repeated over and over again in the news: young Black males falling, falling, falling, falling.” _—_Bradford

Kennedy: The particular film that is included in the exhibition contains the dramatic still that you’ve had enlarged, of you performing the motion of a fall from what seems to be a gunshot. And even though it was clearly a part you were playing, it reads now—as it probably read then—as stark shorthand for violence in general against Black people in America.

Bradford: In that movie, I was actually playing the bad guy, and off camera there’s a girl standing with a gun. You just can’t see her in the frame. There was no slow-motion capability on those home movie cameras in the ’70s. So I had to do it all myself by moving in slow motion, like the Bionic Man, slow, slow, slow, with my body. And we could only do one take because there was no editing with those cameras. You mailed off the film and waited to find out what you’d gotten. I remember when I was doing it a Doberman from the next house over jumped on the fence and kind of pulled my jacket through the fence, but I had to keep my composure because I was dedicated to the craft. And what really caught me looking back at my adolescent film as an older adult was this very vulnerable body falling through space. You see it repeated over and over again in the news: young Black males falling, falling, falling, falling.

Kennedy: How long had it been since you had seen that film?

Bradford: At least twenty years. And when I looked at it again, I was very uncomfortable. There was something about it, that singular gesture. It kind of reminded me of the Little Red Riding Hood story. And that’s a very dark fable, let me tell you. I saw my jacket as red and thought of myself as being highly aware of the predators all around me at that moment in my life.

Kennedy: And those frames of you falling then led you to start thinking about the history of the death drop as a dance move, as a performance move, which figures into the show?

Bradford: Not really at that time. God knows I did enough death drops myself when I was spending time in clubs. But actually what happened was that I was thinking about the Great Migration train timetables that I was using as the basis for other paintings. I really love that kind of early numerical mapping, showing places and bodies and travel and trains in graphic form. In looking at those, I started to think about other migrations within the Great Migration. I started thinking about queer migrations, people who had to leave their own families and their communities and go to Europe or elsewhere to be able to be who they were without fear. I started thinking about Bayard Rustin, the great civil rights leader who was kind of forgotten in the history of the movement because he was gay. I started thinking about James Baldwin and Audre Lorde and other gay Black Americans for whom the Great Migration meant something very different. I thought about women on the run from abuse and discrimination. And then, when I started thinking about a show, I thought: “Let’s put something else in this show. Something other than a painting, something unexpected.” And I just knew it had to be about the death drop. In the gay community, that dance move is a very layered, complicated thing.

Kennedy: It’s such a dramatic, creative act that’s also simultaneously an evocation of death.

Bradford: The historical origins of that move are very difficult to trace in club and vogueing culture, and the use of the name “death drop” isn’t something that’s widely agreed upon. But I’ve always seen in it at least some symbolic reference to death and violence. And to me, it’s important to think about that context right now, because violence and discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community is still very, very prevalent.

Kennedy: And on the rise right now.

Bradford: On the rise all over. And at a certain point I started to know that I didn’t just want to have only paintings in this show. The paintings would have been fine by themselves, but they would’ve looked almost like a Rothko Chapel. It felt too modernist, too clean in a way, for me. So putting this uncomfortable object on the floor and connecting it with the film I made when I was young became the answer. It’s a very personal thing, putting my face, my own body in a show. It’s probably the first and only time I’ll do it. But it felt right. It’s me. I’m personalizing the Great Migration to talk about my own migrations, in a way, my exoduses, my predators, my nomadism, my memory. I think about the social fabric and the community in which I understood who I was in the ’80s. AIDS decimated it. It was gone. It is gone. And so the idea of memory and place and belonging to a chosen family is something I had to rewrite. In this show, I’m doing it with my body. For this one, it had to be me.

Mark Bradford: The Underdogs” is on view through August 6 at the Museo de Arte Zapopan (MAZ) in Mexico.

Mark Bradford is known for his large-scale abstract paintings created out of paper. Characterized by its layered formal, material and conceptual complexity, his work explores social and political structures that objectify marginalized communities and the bodies of vulnerable populations. After accumulating layers of various types of paper onto canvas, Bradford excavates their surfaces using power tools to explore economic and social structures that define contemporary subjects. Bradford engages in social projects alongside exhibitions of his work, bringing contemporary ideas outside the walls of exhibition spaces and into communities with limited exposure to art.