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Issue 237

Mark Bradford Contemplates Movement and Mortality

At Hauser & Wirth, New York, Mark Bradford shows new paintings alongside video work and sculpture that probes histories of race, land and migration

BY Zoë Hopkins in Exhibition Reviews , US Reviews | 30 MAY 23

In Mark Bradford’s swirling, disquieting Fire Fire (2021), danger is braided with childish whimsy: flames mingle with verdant, vibrant life. The scene is alight with thick, gold paint, which ripples against passages of smouldering black. Layered above this inferno, however, is a pastel landscape bountiful with flora and fauna. The title, an echo, calls out across the gallery to its visual counterpart, Jungle Jungle (2021), which responds with a frenzy of saturated, bold colour dripping tendrils of gold paint. These twin works are displayed alongside four related paintings on the first floor of ‘You Don’t Have to Tell Me Twice’. Sprawling across the entire building, Bradford’s eloquent abstractions, alongside sculpture and video work, negotiates the artist’s personal history as well as broader histories of race, migration and land.

A triptych with a dark brown ground; yellow highlights and almost figurative colourful shapes over
Mark Bradford, Fire Fire, 2021, mixed media on canvas, 346 × 688 × 6 cm. Courtesy: © Mark Bradford and Hauser & Wirth; photograph: Sarah Muehlbauer

The awesome monumentality of these dense, topographical paintings, which evoke the splendour of European tapestry, is redoubled by the spectacle of their content. In Johnny the Jaguar and Two-Faced (both 2023), we encounter literal jungles of paint: here, brightly coloured animals, tangles of unruly plants and scenes of primordial power struggles are conveyed with an explosive, almost psychedelic abstraction. The species in these canvases are all indigenous to an area of the New Mexico desert once known as Blackdom: an autonomous, 20th-century settlement Black homesteaders founded after fleeing the Jim Crow laws that limited their freedom. Yet, instead of speaking directly to Blackdom or to the forced, racialized movement that precipitated its formation, Bradford shrouds the details of this history in the allegorical language of ecology, generating a link between mythic animal struggles and concrete human ones.

A high contrast canvas with a stricken surface: black ground and veins of pink
Mark Bradford, Johnny the Jaguar, 2023, mixed media on canvas, 305 × 285 × 6 cm. Courtesy:  © Mark Bradford and Hauser & Wirth; photograph: Joshua White / JWPictures.com

In Death Drop (1973), the artist’s body becomes a story of movement and flight, of a Black existence at once buoyant yet weighted down. A rare autobiographical gesture for an artist whose work is largely concerned with sociohistorical issues, the work is a looped clip from a home video featuring a 12-year-old Bradford. His body recurringly ascends and descends in slow motion, caught interminably in the precarity between float and freefall. Mouth agape and arms outstretched, he seems to have been struck by a violent blow as he collapses. But, on his ascent, he lifts into resurrection, appearing to call out to the heavens. Permanently drifting in ecstatic suspense, Bradford’s body oscillates between death to transcendence, gesturing towards its own mortality and then rising above it.

A still from a film: a young Black boy in a red jacket, arms raised, as if mid-fall, in front of a fence, a tree
Mark Bradford, Death Drop, 1973, film still. Courtesy:  © Mark Bradford and Hauser & Wirth

Four canvases on the fourth floor, including the titular You Don’t Have to Tell Me Twice (2023), suggest steely landscapes with their rough textures in grey, beige and white – a striking shift from the brilliant hues that dominate the paintings on the first floor. They have been weathered by a combination of chemical oxidation and etching, which with proximity becomes legible as a vast sprawl of numbers. These are paintings-cum-ledgers: charts detailing the distances between American railroad hubs during the Great Migration that, again, surface histories of Black movement and geography. Yet, the empirical objectivity of numeracy is muddled, drifting in and out of legibility as it dances with – and is occasionally overwhelmed by – the rhythmic tactility of Bradford’s style. The narrative of racialized struggling and fleeing that lingers behind these numbers is literally coated in the manoeuvres of the artist’s hand.

Two large pale paintings with rough surfaces behind a sculpture of a figure, all in white, in a death drop pose
Mark Bradford, ‘You Don’t Have to Tell Me Twice’, 2023, exhibition view. Courtesy: © Mark Bradford and Hauser & Wirth; photograph: Sarah Muehlbauer

Bradford’s subjectivity is amplified again in the middle of the gallery, where his massive self-portrait sculpture – also titled Death Drop (2023), mirroring the video installation downstairs – stretches across the floor, limbs splayed in imitation of the eponymous dance move. Held in tension between dancing and dying, the sculpture seems to have absorbed the total force of this exhibition’s historical critique – and to have collapsed beneath it.

Mark Bradford, ‘You Don't Have to Tell Me Twice’, is on view at Hauser & Wirth, New York, until 28 July

Main image: Mark Bradford, Johnny the Jaguar, 2023, mixed media on canvas, 305 × 285 × 6 cm. Courtesy:  © Mark Bradford and Hauser & Wirth; photograph: Joshua White / JWPictures.com

Zoë Hopkins is a writer and critic based in New York, USA. She received her BA in art history and African American studies at Harvard University, Cambridge, USA, and is currently working on her MA in modern and contemporary art at Columbia University, New York. Her writing has been published in Artforum, The Brooklyn Rail, Cultured and Hyperallergic.