BUFFALO — Many published interviews with the contemporary artist Mark Bradford focus on his youth and the geography of Los Angeles, but not his conversation with Abstract Expressionism. The senior curator at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Cathleen Chaffee, noticed that in nearly every interview with Bradford he acknowledged Abstract Expressionism as an inspiration that started during his student days at the California Institute of Arts. Given the large collection of Clyfford Still paintings at the Albright-Knox — second only to the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver — Chaffee conceived the idea of Bradford producing new work in conversation with Still. Bradford’s new work in the exhibition Shade: Clyfford Still / Mark Bradford persuasively argues that the Abstract Expressionist movement can and should be approached from a social and political perspective to fully reveal its revolutionary nature.
Still said “the figure stands behind it all,” a comment that has been discussed in both literal and metaphoric terms. The figural representation of agricultural workers in his pieces from the 1920s and ‘30s is edited down to a vertical line by the ‘40s, which Still referred to as a “lifeline.” He and his peers placed the human condition at the heart of inspirational content for Abstract Expressionism in the aftermath of World War II. However, is there another way to read Still’s statement about the figure? In a journal entry from 1956, Still writes, “The painting is an act, a part of the artist’s life. I won’t let it become an object. I won’t let The Museum of Modern Art put it through the meat grinder. They’re afraid of anything that’s alive. They want scalps on their walls.” In an interview with Hyperallergic, Chaffee noted that, “to die, they [the paintings] had to be alive at some point.” Still’s possessive nature regarding his work and observers’ frequent descriptions of his painted forms as tears and sinews, highlight the possibility that his paintings are not of the figure, but that they are living bodies.
The shift in the interpretation of Still’s work matters to Bradford. According to Chaffee, Bradford sees context as socially and politically branding everyone and making its way into the work. In preparation for Shade, he researched Still and was affected by his laborious process. The grinding of pigments, the large scale of the work, the tools, and even the background of growing up on a farm during the dust bowl highlighted that Still “came up the hard way,” in Bradford’s words. In reverence, Bradford restricted his own process. Working with black paper almost exclusively, he built up layers on a canvas, soaked and removed them in different increments. Color is drawn out of the black paper, staining the canvas beneath. Paper mills have a formula for each color, but black is created by an indiscriminate amount of ink added until black is achieved. Consequently, Bradford’s process can result in gray, lavender, blue, or green stains, as seen in “Shade” (2016) and “Legendary” (2016). Sometimes the black paper adhered to the canvas and tore. Bradford added bleach to portions of the black paper, and its corrosive effect produced yellows and browns. For example, in “Opulence” (2016), the surface of the canvas is raised through the accumulation of paper. Black paper and blue stains slam into yellows and browns like dead leaves under ice. The bottom of the frame looks scorched with caramel-colored chips fluttering across the surface. Black is not just black, but a variety of cool and warm colors. In an artistic process that is uniquely Bradford’s, he arrives at the same place as Still, who considered the color black to be warm and generative.
Shade features more than 20 of Still’s paintings, and each contains the color black. In one gallery, four predominately black paintings face three colorful works on the opposing wall. For example, “PH-90” (1948) has a tawny red, produced with a cross-hatch texture on the top half of the composition smoothed out to vertical palate knife strokes at the bottom of the frame; the right side of the painting is green with black forms emerging. “PH-266” (1949) is predominately green, with black wisps that give the green the appearance of being darkened by saturation; a shiny red form tears through the center of the image and rusty brown sinews branch out from it; yellow and salmon-hued forms cling to the action from the edge of the frame. The color is abundant, as is the energy of the overall work. When the viewer swivels around to face the black paintings, the silent confidence of the dark group is a defiant challenge to the busyness on the other side of the room. “PH-110,” at the center of the grouping, contains three or four different shades of black. A thin, craggy blue line runs the length of the painting. If black is recessive or negative space, why does the black reduce the painting’s yellow peninsula or the slashes of blue to a minor role? With Bradford’s diptych “Duck Walk” (2016), he pushes the claim of black as warm and positive space. The left panel is mostly black, with golden flames that scratch at all the edges of the dark form; the right panel is white with black cracks. The viewer can practically hear the chilling sound of a frozen lake cracking on the right, as opposed to the heat of the smoldering black embers on the left.
In Chaffee’s essay from the exhibition catalogue, “Light Out of Black,” she recounts one of Still’s many visits to the Albright-Knox in the 1960s. Touring the collection with Seymour Knox, the museum’s patron, Still paused at Paul Gauguin’s “The Yellow Christ” (1889), in which Christ is rendered in bright, canary yellow. Knox recalled Still considering the unnatural hue used by Gauguin and then wondering aloud whether people were ready for a black Christ. Within the context of America’s Civil Rights movement, the end of school segregation, and the 1955 lynching of Emmett Till, Still’s question could not have been purely formal. “Still was absolutely talking about the social fabric of the US,” Bradford says an interview in the exhibition catalogue. “I don’t believe he or they were neutral in Abstract Expressionism … the entire encounter implies an understanding of black as color inseparable from the political context of the bodies it is used to describe.”
Still’s “PH-47” hangs in the first gallery of the exhibition. The bottom half the painting is a deep blue that gives way to black and a little red toward the top of the composition. The subtle variation in the blue’s tonality produces an untraceable pattern. To its immediate left is a doorway that reveals Bradford’s “Mississippi Gottdam” (2007). Bradford laid a sheet of silver leaf over a layer of found paper from New Orleans and used a sander to recover portions of color and text. The effect is an undulating surface, like waves with bits of refuse floating on the surface; nothing interrupts the waves’ boundless sense of space. It is the endlessness of the image that is gut-wrenching and humbling. This sightline’s juxtaposition of Still and Bradford’s pieces highlights a more powerful reading of both works; the capacity of the human spirit to seek hope while under the oppressive weight of despair. Still’s desire, as expressed in gifts to museums, for his paintings to be shown without the distraction of other artists is not always best practice; sometimes a second voice can reveal more. Placing Bradford and Still in direct dialogue shows that Abstract Expressionism’s relevance is not limited to an understanding of American cultural development after WWII. The movement and its makers were not removed from the political turmoil and racial conflicts in their lifetimes.
Editor’s note: The Albright-Knox Art Gallery paid the author’s accommodations and travel expenses.
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