In six years, Mark Bradford, 45, has gone from being a self-proclaimed “beauty operator” at his mother’s beauty shop in South Los Angeles to navigating the tangled, lucrative weave that is the international art scene. Last week saw the opening of his solo show at the Whitney, “Neither New nor Correct,” featuring paintings of excavated billboards, posters, and other signage found in his Leimert Park neighborhood in L.A. We traced the path that got him here.
1) The Early Years: “I always made stuff but never thought, I’m going to be an artist. I was in charge of painting signs at the beauty shop (PRESS AND CURL $25; JHERI CURL $45). I did home movies. About the time I was 7, I got really into black-exploitation films, so I made my own Wonder Woman, but I made her black.”
2) The First Mentor: At CalArts, he meets artist Daniel Joseph Martinez, known for his I CAN’T IMAGINE EVER WANTING TO BE WHITE badges at the 1993 Whitney Biennial.
3) The First Show: In 1998, he has a solo show, “Distribution,” at L.A.’s Deep River, a gallery started by Martinez and artist Glenn Kaino. “At the time,” says Martinez, “Mark was doing a little bit of painting and sculptural objects that had to do with the manipulation of black women’s hair fashion as sociopolitical commentary.”
4) The Big Break: “When I started working on what became ‘Freestyle,’ this exhibition of emerging artists [at the Studio Museum in Harlem],” says Thelma Golden, “I was going to L.A. and spoke to many people about artists I should see. Christian Haye [director of the Project gallery] suggested I see Mark.”
5) The First Sales: From the 2001 “Freestyle” exhibition, the Studio Museum in Harlem buys Enter and Exit the New Negro. But the first painting that Bradford sells, Dreadlocks caint tell me shit, goes to Eileen Harris Norton, for $3,500. “I didn’t have a dime to my name,” says Bradford, “and Eileen paid me real fast. I would have curled her hair, that’s how broke I was.” Later that year, recalls Norton, “I wanted to do a Christmas card with my kids, and I commissioned him and Daniel Martinez to do it.”
6) Creative Rupture: At the first Art Basel Miami, in 2002, Bradford sets up the installation Foxyé Hair, a beauty shop where he and a team do the hair of visitors. But he soon begins pulling away from this sort of imagery, which is being read as stereotypical.
7) The Setback: In 2003, Bradford shows at the Whitney Altria space—his first attempt at his “new vocabulary.” Times critic Roberta Smith and others aren’t enthused. “I knew when I was putting it up that it wasn’t there,” he says. “After that review, I’d show up to give a lecture and there would be two people.” He gets passed over for the 2004 Whitney Biennial.
8) The New Chance: “Eungie Joo was the curator of the show ‘Bounce’ [at Redcat gallery], and she suggested I work big, but I said, ‘Yeah, but that’s expensive.’ Then she bought the canvas for me, so I said, ‘Aiight.’ She put her money where her mouth was, didn’t she?” “Bounce” includes Los Moscos—one of Bradford’s paintings in the 2006 Whitney Biennial.
9) The Major Recognition: In 2006, he receives the Bucksbaum Award, a $100,000 prize given to one Biennial participant. “When I got the call from Melva [Bucksbaum] to tell me I won, I was like, ‘Girl, shut up.’ I then had to put myself together, because I hadn’t met her at that time. So I said, ‘I’m sorry for calling you girl.’”
10) Today: “I can go to my own opening and the security guard will tell me that I have to go to the security entrance. Generally, when I tell people I’m a painter, they ask me if I have a card: ‘Yes, we’d like this room in this color.’ I still might get cards that say ‘Mark Bradford. Painter.’ If you need a bid, call Sikkema Jenkins”—his New York gallery, where his paintings can now reach $250,000.