Mark Bradford found his way to becoming an artist while working in his mother’s beauty shop. The Los Angeles-born artist used layers of the cheap end papers — thin delicate sheets used to protect hair from burning during perming — instead of paint in the early works that would soon earn him an international reputation, eventually leading to the official United States pavilion at the 2017 Venice Biennale, his most important exhibition to date.
Nearly 40 when Thelma Golden selected him to participate in her landmark 2001 “Freestyle” exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem, featuring mostly young Black artists embracing abstraction and challenging dogmas of representation, he has emerged as one of America’s greatest living painters. Yet, technically speaking, he continues to use paper rather than paint as his primary medium.
In “You Don’t Have to Tell Me Twice,” Bradford’s works take over the entirety of Hauser & Wirth’s five-story Chelsea flagship, his first New York solo exhibition since 2015, showing a dozen paintings alongside two works that set the mood, a sculpture and a video piece that find the artist taking stock and assessing his own meteoric rise.
There are no major revelations in the dozen large-scale paintings made in Bradford’s distinctive mode incorporating found paper. There are no misses either. As grand and impressive as ever, he has refined his working method, which manages to mash together the history of allover abstraction, from Jackson Pollock to Gerhard Richter, with the paper he often sources from his surroundings, replicating the familiar visual effect of weathered and exposed layers of wheat-pasted posters or billboard advertisements marking city streets.
Throughout the gallery’s building, subdued tones and silvery metallics dominate. In “Johnny the Jaguar” (2023) the toothsome head of the titular big cat is discernible on an otherwise chaotic expanse that looks like a worn and tangled threadbare tapestry with only a shard of its original composition legible.
The towering assemblage of “Manifest Destiny” (2023) reads “Johnny Buys Houses” in bold white capitals and evokes the specter of gentrification. Bradford’s works often include signs and advertisements ripped from the walls and fences of public space. Here, the work’s flashes of color are provided partly by the remnants of a poster advertising a Foo Fighters concert.
Though it occupies the entire building, the show of only 14 works feels intimate, even modest. The 12 paintings (10 from 2023, two from 2021) are joined by the two outlier works, both titled “Death Drop,” both self-portraits of a sort, which capture the artist looking in the mirror, setting a tone of quiet self-reflection that floods throughout the show.
The first, “Death Drop, 1973” (1973), a newer video work that the artist has dated for its Super-8 film source, captures a quick moment of a young Bradford standing beside a fence in a playground or park, performing a dramatic fall for the camera. But the looping digitized edit slows this fall dramatically.
Bradford’s long figure, slender even in a red puffer jacket, arcs in a parabolic collapse as his hips in bluejeans move and descend down into the fence, only to reverse upward before hitting the ground. He rises until his hands crest in a balletic form above his head, only to then collapse downward once again, looping infinitely in 20-second cycles.
The hypnotic repetition draws attention to marginal aspects of the video, like the menacing shadowy form of a snarling dog on the other side of the fence or the indifferent white man seemingly engrossed in a game of handball in the background. A moment in urban public space memorialized, a kid goofing before a camera becomes choreography.
If the preteen Bradford of the “Death Drop” video never hits the ground, the Bradford of the second “Death Drop 2023” (2023), 50 years later, appears at a glance to never leave it. The larger than life sculpture, stretching some 10 feet long, depicts a fallen likeness of the artist prone and rendered in white, arms dramatically outstretched, his left leg extended and his right bent sharply at the knee beside him.
At first glance it looks like the aftermath of a violent felling. But the title suggests instead a dramatic moment in dance, referring to the “death drop” pose popularized in gay ballroom culture, when the performer drops to the floor in this position only to rise up and then continue to dance onward.
A close look at the sculpture reveals a rhythmic pattern of markings, where the surface of the figure has been worn away, borrowing a technique from his paintings, to reveal hints of color beneath.
Decades into his established style, Bradford continues gluing and layering detritus and primary documents of life and culture onto his canvases. Here the oversize likeness of the artist may sprawl across the floor, but Mark Bradford still stands: a giant.
Mark Bradford: You Don’t Have to Tell Me Twice
Through July 28 at Hauser & Wirth, 542 West 22nd Street, Manhattan; 212-790-3900, hauserwirth.com.