Some of that current work found a natural home in this year's Whitney Biennial, whose "Day for Night" theme, according to press notes accompanying the exhibition, was "not merely a selection of important works, but important works that reveal overwhelming evidence of certain artistic responses to a broad range of aesthetic, social, political and cultural phenomena." The exhibition itself garnered typically mixed reviews, but Bradford--whose large-scale "Los Moscos" (2004) and an untitled canvas (2005) were included--earned nearly universal raves. He also won the 2006 Bucksbaum Award, a $100,000 prize given by the Bucksbaum Family Foundation and the Whitney Museum to an artist whose work is shown at that year's Biennial. ("I thought, 'C'mon! For real? Really?' " he says when asked about his reaction to winning the prize. "Then I went back to work.")
But his greatest professional triumph might have been catching the eye and earning the praise of Thelma Golden, director of the Studio Museum in Harlem and a former curator at the Whitney. Bradford considers her "a legend, a true historical figure." And he says with a laugh, "I'm forever grateful to Miss Golden for getting me from behind that pressing comb." An art world celebrity and force to be reckoned with in her own right, Golden is a huge champion of Bradford's work. She included his end-paper collages "Enter and Exit the New Negro" (2000) and "Dreadlocks caint tell me shit" (2000) in the breakthrough "Freestyle" exhibition of 28 African American artists at the Studio Museum in 2001.
"When I saw Mark's paintings," Golden says by phone from her office in Harlem, "I was amazed by the very elegant but raw quality. They felt very emotional, very immediate. But also so beautifully considered. . . . After that, I came to know his photographic work, the performative work and the way in which Mark really lives his practice."
"Freestyle" not only introduced Bradford and other now hot-ticket artists, but also the controversial term "post-black," which Golden coined to describe their work. The term ignited a firestorm of media debate over what it might mean, and whether it was proof that the art world--and a lot of black folks in it--operated at an intellectual's cool remove from black life beyond museum walls, art gallery openings and academic conferences. That it was slightly tongue-in-cheek was never fully conveyed, and the storm whirled with questions: Who gets to define what black is and what black ain't? What the hell is post-black?
Bradford admits that he "kind of read it a little wrong in the beginning. I thought it meant after formalism, after formal equations. And I think it kind of does mean that. . . . To me, the fact that it was controversial--that was what was post-black. The conversation around the controversy was post-black. Just showing that we, black people, don't speak in a uni-vocal voice, that there is dissent and debate."
But the term is still a flash point, and Bradford sometimes finds himself the object of lingering fury. "Sometimes," he says wearily, someone in the audience at panels or openings "will raise their hand and you immediately know that they have an issue with post-black. You immediately know, and sometimes they're antagonistic. I don't really respond to antagonism, anger or hostility because basically that's [the other person] saying, 'Look, I've judged you and you need to respond to my judgment of you.' Well, no one has that power over me. Are you kidding? That would be giving you the power. And I just don't do that. I understand that you're upset. And you need to understand that I don't care. See, it's not about if people like or dislike post-black. It's that we all find a way to sit at the table, and that the power at the table gets dismantled and dispersed throughout. Because power, to be centered, has to swim in blood"--meaning someone has to be sacrificed. "Not my blood. No way."
Mark Bradford is a very tall man. Tall and thin. Regal but completely down to earth. He has a broad, warm smile and a laugh that spirals straight from the gut. He's wickedly funny (especially off the record) but can toggle quickly into intense, no-nonsense mode. He's a hybrid of intellectual rigor and vigor and Negro mother wit, peppering his conversation with theory-laden vocabulary ("I'm mapping my own subjectivity") and colloquialisms ("I like things that look mammy-made, where you can see the hand in the work"), the effect of which is to remind you that the two are parallel, not polar. His speaking manner is similarly bifurcated, veering from haltingly thoughtful to a rush of words and ideas tumbling over one another so quickly that he can barely keep up with himself.