Mark Bradford staked his first claim in art history using what can be purchased from Amazon.com for less than $5 per thousand. End papers, which he learned to use as a hairdresser in his mother’s beauty salon in South Los Angeles. Mark Bradford end papers are an essential contemporary art artist-medium pairing.
End papers–small sheets of translucent paper which protect hair from overheating in the process of using curlers to create permanent waves–took Bradford all the way to the 57th Venice Biennale in 2017 where he represented the United States. They took him to a MacArthur Fellowship Award–the so-called “genius grant”–in 2009. After first considering them as an art-making material after picking up a used and discarded one off the salon floor, they’ve taken him to exhibitions around the globe, eight-figure auction results and inclusion in the permanent collections of the nation’s top museums.
“When I found out his paintings were made of end papers, and what end papers were, and that he had been a hairdresser, I got the point that these were biographical paintings, abstract portraits of sorts, using unusual materials that told us where he came from,” curator and art historian Michael Auping told me about his initial encounter with Bradford’s work during a 2001 exhibit at the Studio Museum in Harlem. “At least I thought they were abstract, they looked like beautiful color fields that Agnes Martin or Robert Ryman might do; their titles—Dreadlocks caint tell me shit and Enter and Exit the New Negro confused me and mesmerized me–made me look into what their content might be beyond just formal beauty.”
Mark Bradford End Papers
Part painting and part collage, the colored End Paper works feature grids containing various hues vibrating across the surface. The papers are often buried in the surface of the paintings.
“He was deliberately making me think about the different contexts of abstraction–that abstraction was not without content and could relate to different elements in society,” Auping said. “Richard Serra’s COR-TEN steel and Carl Andre’s steel plates, or Dan Flavin’s standard flourescent light tubes, came out of industrialized America, associated with male iconicity/power; Bradford’s End Papers came from his mother’s beauty salon with a predominately black clientele and with women’s work–I was being informed of an unfamiliar, more complex context.”
Abstract, yes, but with a definitive sense of place.
“Beauty salons and barber shops are community centers, of sorts, for the Black community, a place where ideas are discussed freely,” Auping said. “Beyonce’s mother, Tina Knowles, also ran a salon where Beyonce made up dances for the clientele, Mark made paintings, the beauty salon was a place to experiment, to find out how you were going to express yourself.”
Find out he did, using an ordinary material to extraordinary effect.
It would not be difficult, in fact, to imagine Bradford using end papers as representative of himself.
Mark Bradford art imitates life
Bradford was born in a boarding house. He was born on the margins. The life of a gay, Black man in South Central L.A. would be seen by many as cheap. Disposable.
Like end papers.
But Bradford knows it’s more important where you’re going than where you came from, or even where you are. Bradford’s life started humbly, but has landed him firmly onto the stage of global art superstardom.
He has become great. Beautiful. Historic.
He has transformed end papers similarly, placing this seemingly valueless material alongside Carrara marble, gold leaf or jadeite in art history’s highest ranks.
“These small, translucent sheets of paper are remarkably seductive materials and when combined with hair dyes, create an elusive and vibrant space,” Auping explains. “Initially, you look at the surface of these paintings as giant collages, and then you start to look into them, through the papers and the unusual hair dyes–it’s a unique reinvention of Color Field painting, as the small, oddly dyed papers pulsate across the surface of the painting.”
As with almost all great art, close inspection of Bradford’s work reveals much more than initially meets the eye. These paintings are stories. The stories of his life.
“As they developed, their content reached beyond color and form, the small, differently colored papers started to create a pixilated effect, like an aerial Google map of Los Angeles, which is a chaotic mass of streets, freeways and neighborhoods,” Auping explains. “The End Papers were the beginning of what I would call ‘social papers’ he would later use to create personal landscapes of inner-city L.A.”
Bradford’s “social papers” related more obviously to his biography and his neighborhood. From the end papers, Bradford began using merchant’s posters, broadsides and even billboards he found in downtown Los Angeles to make his paintings.