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Mark Bradford, a rapidly rising Los Angeles artist known for his evocative, often apocalyptic abstract paintings, will bring an enormous site-specific installation to the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. For a solo show coming to the museum in November 2016, Bradford will create a painting that occupies the entire circumference of the building’s second-floor inner galleries.
At 397 linear feet of wall space, the commission will be a monumental undertaking for both the artist and the museum. The painter will be working without any intercessory support—no canvas, no paper—applying materials directly to the museum’s walls.
While other shows have put the museum’s cylindrical galleries to work—from Andy Warhol and Hiroshi Sugimoto to Douglas Gordon and Anselm Kiefer—this is the first time an artist will tap the museum’s entire second floor for a single project.
“I want it to feel as if it can’t make up its mind on whether it’s deconstructing itself or constructing itself,” says Bradford. In recent years, he has also done major commissions for the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, Prospect.1 in New Orleans, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
The artist is known for explosive abstractions that draw heavily on the urban condition. His rise has been meteoric: In addition to significant museum shows and appearances at the Whitney Biennial and Gwangju Biennale, he was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2009, when he was just 47. (The artist is now 54.)
Bradford’s paintings touch on the black experience in a variety of ways. “Scorched Earth,” his first solo show in Los Angeles (which concluded its run in September), referenced black stand-up comedy, HIV diagnoses in the U.S., and the L.A. uprisings in 1992. Bradford uses common, fugitive materials, building them up into dense configurations and then tearing them down to create topographical abstractions. If Julie Mehretu‘s fine, controlled paintings depict the ascendant complexity of globalization, then Mark Bradford captures a freewheeling system in collapse and disarray.
“I can see the tactile-ness,” Bradford says when asked about his plans thus far for the Hirshhorn commission. “I can see people walking into the spaces of this disjointed circle with these openings. I can feel it.”
He says that the Hirshhorn piece will likely be another “pull painting,” a technique developed by the artist that involves building up layers of colored paper and then sanding, cutting, peeling, and stripping away material to reveal a wall drawing. (MATRIX 172, a 2015 project pictured above, provides an example.)
“It’s not about fetishizing the brush movement on the canvas,” Bradford says. “It’s more like pulling a tugboat across the surface.”
News of the commission comes after the Hirshhorn’s announcement this week of a $2 million gift toward its “Future Fund” from Joleen Julis and her husband, Mitch Julius, new trustees appointed by Hirshhorn director Melissa Chiu in October 2014. The gift will fund one-half of a $4 million initiative to redesign the museum’s lobby space and Sculpture Garden—a dream held by other directors of the Hirshhorn in the past. (Read more about Chiu in City Paper‘s September profile.)
Bradford’s “fresco” will be the largest site-specific painting ever made for the museum. Among Hirshhorn commissions of any kind, it will come second only in scope to Doug Aitken‘s SONG1, the video piece projected onto the surface of the Gordon Bunshaft–designed building in 2012. Bradford travels to D.C. next month to begin planning.
“It’s a lot of grass to mow,” he says.
Second photo: Mark Bradford’s Elgin Gardens, 2015