Artist Mark Bradford discusses his use of materials, his interest in abstraction, and his thoughts on having Amendment #8 in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
MARK BRADFORD: The materials that I use and have really always used have always been paper. The tools of civilization, how we build and destroy ourself, are the materials that I'm really interested in, and paper is one of the main ways in which information is displayed. Paper in itself is simply a bunch of fragments held together by a binder. I always saw it as pigment dried in a binder and cut into eight and a half by eleven blocks. Just in my head I thought, "Oh, well, you just have to wet it so that it can move like paint."
What constitutes a painting, and who are the gatekeepers of that?
I'm sure that me being a painter was a very political gesture for me. If you're Black and from South Central, you have a lot of identity stuff that you could just fall right into. I just thought I was going to do abstract work, but it was going to talk about race, class, culture, and all these things, but I was going to do it from an abstraction place, which gave me freedom. Then I was going to look outside. I wasn't going to do this kind of hermetic, interior, close the world off, which is historically what we understand abstraction as being. I was going to have a relationship with the world and with politics because I was interested in those things.
I was really starting to get very interested in the foundations of our country. The Amendments, or the Bill of Rights, are still what we go to. Interesting enough, it is on paper. I mean, it is one of our historical documents, one of our most important documents are on paper. We put paper in the photocopier, so it's both precious and not precious at all. It's both protected by security guards and shredded.
So "Amendment #8" is actually part of the "Bill of Rights" series. There are certain fragments that cling to the edges of the composition. Certain words flow in and out, they're legible and not legible, they hint, but in some ways that's how we really do understand the dense documents. We will never fully understand. They're so dense, but we pull, and we glimmer, and we dive, and we project onto these documents. At the time of the Constitution, certain people weren't even human, women didn't have rights, so we moved them forward as the country moves forward. We amend what we excluded in a way.
What better place than the Smithsonian to have an Amendment painting? It just fits; it makes sense. If you look at what's going on in the media at the moment with Black male bodies and me being a Black male and doing an Amendment painting and sitting in the Smithsonian—that's just super layered.
Smithsonian American Art Museum (8th and G Streets, NW)
The Smithsonian American Art Museum is home to an extraordinary collection of artworks by African Americans with more than 2,000 objects by more than 200 artists. From William H. Johnson’s vibrant portrayals of faith and family to Mickalene Thomas’s contemporary exploration of black female identity, SAAM’s holdings reflect its long-standing commitment to black artists and the acquisition, preservation, and display of their works.