“Jen! Welcome to Maine!” Katherine Bradford exclaims brightly as she spots me crossing the street. We walk from a café in town to her studio, in a former mill building, and talk about my weekend camping on the coast. She quietly waits while I notice a painting called “The Camping Trip,” smiles, and says, “Yes, that is your painting!”
Throughout our conversation, Bradford turns the tables and asks me questions in her provocative but playful manner, steers the conversation towards other art, and shares her plan to introduce me to two artist-friends in the building (John Bisbee and Emilie Stark-Menneg). I point out her habit of deflecting the discussion away from herself, and she says, “The way I was brought up, you didn’t talk about money, you didn’t talk about being sick, and you didn’t talk about yourself.” Bradford has become a force in the painting world — throngs of fans, friends, and followers show up for her events — and she continually, generously, and genuinely returns the favor. It goes beyond back-patting; she believes in engaging and challenging others.
One reason her paintings have become more and more relatable is that even as she depicts specific motifs (Superman, ocean liners, and swimmers), she relentlessly touches on the biggest themes and forces us to confront them – fear, wonder, vulnerability, hubris, and joy. In her newest work, she even more deliberately sets her scenes in larger, planetary landscape-stages. The characters — bicycle riders, ballet dancers, and swimmers clad in bathing suits, underwear, and floatation tubes — are moving along the surface of the earth, and between underworlds and outer space. The paintings suggest rapture in all senses of the word – enchantment and bliss, as well as imminent demise. They have an unearthly, radiant inner light. Bradford is able to convey activities and essences with what superficially look like the rawest and most direct kinds of scumbled marks, painterly gestures, and abstract forms.
Bradford was born in 1942 in New York City and lives and works in Brooklyn, New York, and Brunswick, Maine. She received her BA from Bryn Mawr College and her MFA from the State University of New York at Purchase. Her work is represented by CANADA, New York, where she was the subject of a 2016 solo exhibition. Recent solo exhibitions were also presented by Adams and Ollman Gallery, Portland, Oregon, and Edward Thorp Gallery, New York. A 2013 survey exhibition was held at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, Maine. She has newly been appointed Senior Critic in the Graduate program at the Yale School of Art.
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Jennifer Samet: Your story of becoming an artist is that you got serious with painting later in life. But I wonder what you were doing earlier on. Did you make art or draw as a child?
Katherine Bradford: You’ve asked this question to all your artists, and they’ve all said yes, and told you wonderful stories about how they drew as a kid. And it makes me feel so bad. I was not an artistic child at all. I was very active. As a teenager I was on a tennis team and I was on a swim team. Is that surprising? Engraved in my memory is the image of people in swimsuits lined up.
My mother was extremely visual. She had Matisse postcards around the sink where she did the dishes. Also, we lived in the town in Connecticut where Philip Johnson’s Glass House is located. My mother would go over there, because she was the daughter of an architect, and then the mother of an architect, and she loved architecture. As a teenager, I remember Philip Johnson walking down his backyard and pointing out a little pavilion that he had built. He said he intentionally made it smaller because he wanted to play with scale. This was the first time I had heard a grown man say, “play with scale,” and I thought, “Whoa. Who is this guy?”
Also, on the coffee table in the living area of the Glass House was a life-size hamburger, which of course was a Claes Oldenberg sculpture. I remember my mother and a friend of hers were sort of giggling about the piece, and I was so ashamed. I stepped away so I wouldn’t be associated with them. I thought they were being irreverent. Even though I was 12 years old, I thought it was a great work of art — witty and courageous. In that town, to have a hamburger on your coffee table was just wonderful! I knew I needed to find out more about this world where people make hamburgers as works of art.
My mother’s father was a prominent architect. There was a family story about my grandparents having Salvador Dalí as a lunch guest in their home. Dalí was rude and sent back the crab salad and asked for a hard-boiled egg. I always wondered – how did my grandfather know Salvador Dalí? It probably came from the fact that that both were immigrants from Europe in the 1930s. My grandfather came over to the United States from France as a young man.
So my mother had been exposed to all of this, and didn’t want us sliding over into bohemian circles. She was trying to protect us and give us the best life that she knew. And it didn’t include being an artist. I think she equated that with alcoholism, drug addiction, divorce, and other dissolute forms of life.
However, the way we lived was, in a way, so unconventional, that she didn’t fool us at all. We lived in a big house in Connecticut, in what was considered a wealthy town. But our house was full of all this run-down furniture. We had one of those wood-paneled station wagons, and it had mushrooms growing out of it. We were probably living on family money from a couple of generations ago, so there was an air of not having anything – a threadbare quality to our way of life. My mother and her friends all wore these Shetland sweaters with holes in the elbows. There was a disdain for anything new and showy.
JS: Did you have art teachers in high school?
KB: I went to an all girls’ boarding school. There was an “Art Barn” at the school, which I went to once. It didn’t interest me at all, because it was too far away from the center of things. I think they set it up as a calm refuge from activities of the school, but that was the last thing I wanted. I wanted to be where things were happening, so I became editor of the school newspaper. I’ve always liked being in a group. Community, as much as art-making, has been a constant in my life.
It was the days before “diversity,” and visually, we all looked and dressed similarly – in kilts and sweaters, and the same hairstyle; I took photographs of that. The school had a lot of odd traditions, and I did cartoons about that. I certainly didn’t see myself as an artist, although, looking back, the cartoons are not too far from the way I still paint figures. Running that newspaper provided the same kinds of pleasure as posting things on Facebook does now.
JS: Before you moved to Williamsburg, you were living in Maine and raising a family. Can you tell me about that phase of your life?
KB: I was really in the closet about how deeply I felt about making paintings. And that’s an interesting place to be when you’re eventually going to be living with a woman, and marry a woman. But I had to be in the closet about being an artist. Coming out as a gay person was actually easier for me.
I was living in Maine year-round in the 1970s. I had two children, and an ambitious husband, who basically wanted to be governor of Maine. When I realized the implications of that, I thought, “This is going to be a train wreck.” I didn’t want to get divorced, but I didn’t think I could be the first lady in the governor’s mansion. One day my husband invited some colleagues over for lunch, and I told him I just couldn’t hack it. I didn’t want to be there for one more lunch. So, when the people came down the driveway to our home, I jumped out a window and ran to my studio.
JS: Wow. That is hilarious and amazing. So, you did have a studio at home? What kind of work were you doing at the time?
KB: The barn was my studio. I was doing mark-making paintings. I had not gone to art school or taken any foundation classes. So my idea of painting was to dip the brush in paint and put it on the canvas. That’s still something I advise artists to do – just put the paint on the canvas. If I organized my time well I could get work done in my studio “in patches.” That is a phrase I got from Sarah Braman, who has three boys. You learn how to get right down to work for short periods of time.
JS: Yesterday I was by the ocean, and the Maine landscape started to really look like your work – the view from above, over the rocky coastline, and the people and kayaks all bobbing around in the water. How have the particularities of this landscape and coastline influenced your work?
KB: What interests me the most is the language of painting – how people are able to say things using paint. When I first moved to Maine, I could see Marsden Hartley scenes. They were everywhere. Yet I was also aware of what Hartley had done to the clouds, for example, to make them his own: those vivid, wonderful clouds. Another example is John Marin, who painted the sea over and over again using excited, electric brushstrokes. Milton Avery, when he paints the sky and the waves and the sea, doesn’t do it “correctly” at all. He turns it on its side and experiments with color. You see it in paintings like “Rolling Surf” (1958), and in “Sea Grasses and Blue Sea” (1958) at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. I thought, “That is what I want to try. I like the interpretation and the invention these people are coming up with.”
A world I relate to is the one in Fairfield Porter’s paintings. His figures kind of pose, and don’t relate much to each other. I know that emotional tone. It is familiar to me. Alex Katz was also saying, with his paintings, “This is what it looks like.” I wanted to jump in and be part of that conversation.
Something that people might not realize about Maine is that there are a lot of areas of shallow water on the coast. They are actually called mud flats. There are times of day when there is almost no water. If you are a painter, that field becomes beautiful and important. John Walker makes paintings about it. He has a house on the coast of Maine that has mud flats and he’s really gotten into it. Water, mud, and paint are all very closely related.
JS: It makes me think of how John Walker calls paint “colored dirt.”
KB: I don’t like calling it colored dirt. I think that’s a putdown, because to me, it’s like rivulets of light and color coming out of my hands. It’s akin to an alchemical substance.
JS: You talked to my students this year about your desire to not articulate the figure, so much as suggesting an essence. Can you talk more about this drive in your work?
KB: I learned a great deal from Marsden Hartley’s figures, especially the ones in bathing suits on Old Orchard Beach in Maine, like “Canuck Lumberjack at Old Orchard Beach,” “The Lifeguard,” and “On the Beach” (all 1940). There is a guy standing there in a magenta pink bathing suit, and it’s so beautifully awkward. He made a painting of lobstermen holding the dead Christ: “Christ Held by Half-Naked Men” (1940). The figure of Christ is green and looks wonderfully odd in a loving way.
I began as a mark-maker and I wanted to stay somewhat in that vocabulary. I didn’t want to get into the tradition of figure painting or use perspective or shadows. I like spare, simple paintings. I admire Rose Wylie’s work so much. When I want more courage, I look at the way she draws a leg. It is even one step farther than Philip Guston. She’s very personal. She’s invented a way to make paintings and paint figures.
These are very brave ways to make a painting. And that gave me the self-confidence to do that myself – to not try for it to be right, but to make it expressive of something. I think about why we love Judy Garland so much. It’s because she’s so open. She’s so human. She’s not perfect. I think at the end of the day, what people admire and value is personal openness.
JS: Even though you talk about personal openness, I sense that your paintings are not about yourself so much – they are about something larger. Do you agree?
KB: Yes, I’m interested in making paintings that are about something bigger than everyday life – something very universal. I’m making larger paintings now, and I’d like them to be about very broad themes. Some people saw my paintings at Canada Gallery to be about crossing over, about death.
The title of one painting in the exhibition was “Fear of Waves.” I think that painting was about fear, not necessarily of waves, because there’s an absurdity to the fear of waves. It was more about showing people being fearful – running away from something. That interests me a lot. As I told you, running away and being fearful has been part of my life story. It is bigger than the beach.
JS: I know that for your show at CANADA, and since then, you have been focused on the “Swimmer” paintings. Does it feel good to be focusing on one particular body of work, because of public interest? Or is it a limitation?
KB: I like the intensity of a strong focus. Basically what we all want is to communicate. And I see so many people doing things that don’t communicate, or that people don’t care about. So if you can sense that there is someone out there responding to what you’re doing, it’s just a marvelous feeling, even if it’s someone sending you a smiley face on Instagram. It is validating your work on some level.
You don’t really know what will make people respond to a work of art. I don’t know what it is they are seeing, what they are liking, or what they are not liking. And maybe I shouldn’t know.
I do think putting people in bathing suits makes them very vulnerable. They are exposed. I’m not naming what class of American society they are part of. I really want to separate myself from recreational swimming, and people at the beach. That is why it has been helpful to put some of my swimmer paintings in outer space, on a more epic scale. I’m talking about the universe, and these people are somehow way out there. A lot of figures are kind of buoyant and very relaxed. That’s one thing that I don’t associate with myself; I find it very hard to relax. So it’s a fantastical world.
JS: You also told my students about your practice of soliciting advice from artist friends. I was amazed by the stack of notebooks you keep in your studio. You write thorough accounts of the comments and feedback you receive, after having someone for a studio visit. What has motivated you to do this?
KB: I had to take it upon myself to get educated and that was a good way to do it. Those notebooks are very valuable. I flip through those notebooks and they are records of comments from some of the most interesting artists I know.
Chris Martin, for example, has been a fabulous teacher. I feel so fortunate that he would come to my studio very often. I would try to put up my best paintings for him to see. He would walk right past those paintings, and then start digging around in my piles of rejects. He would find one, and say, “Look at this, Kathy. This is a wonderful painting. You see how you drew this horse? You had to invent a way to make the saddle, and it is completely askew. It’s the best – the best of you. With these others, you were just trying too hard.”
I’ve repeated that to so many students. It is how I learned. I had tried to draw a saddle, and, in my effort, I made an interesting shape. It didn’t necessarily look like a well-drawn saddle. That interested Chris. Imagine if I’d had a different kind of teacher, who told me I needed to do life drawing from a real horse?
JS: You talk about paint as this magical substance. What kind of power do you think a painting has?
KB: When I first started painting I was hanging out with hippie painters in Maine. A lot of them were poets also. We would make paintings, hang them up, and then the poets would read their poems. I always associate painting with poetry. It was a comment, an eloquent comment on life. I never saw it as some kind of protest. I saw painting as a celebration. I don’t make paintings out of rage. I haven’t found enough rage in me to do that. It’s important to me to make upbeat paintings. If anything, I’m making paintings about enchantment.
You know, one of the hardest things I’ve had to learn, being an artist, is to own the kind of artist that I am. But at 74 years old, I’ve been painting for quite a while. Thank goodness, I’ve always loved being in the studio making paintings. I like it so much I would even crawl out the back window and run away from luncheon parties to get there.