American artist Mark Bradford is well known for his monumentally sized abstractions of the urban landscapes of Los Angeles. Now, for his inaugural show with Hauser & Wirth in Zürich, Bradford is looking towards Europe and the paintings of 19th century French artist Gustave Caillebotte. His new body of work, the Floor Scrapers series, replicates the tactile floor of Caillebotte’s Raboteurs de Parquet (1875). On the occasion of the opening of “My Head Became a Rock,” Bradford spoke to ARTINFO UK about this new inspiration.
Could you tell me about your new works? How did you come to be inspired by Gustave Caillebotte?
Reading takes an important place in my practice; all I do is read, read, read and when I started developing these works I was reading a lot of Oscar Wilde, Baudelaire – flâneurs ¬and others who were contemporaries of Caillebotte. I’m interested in these moments when things shift – and this whole period, the time of Walter Benjamin where the city went through a drastic transformation from the industrial to the modern, fascinates me a lot. It was the moment when things shifted.
I find Caillebotte particularly interesting in this context: he was very political. For me, Raboteurs de Parquet is a political work for two reasons: one is that I think it marks the moment where the upper class started to objectify the lower class. Now we see the wealthy going into the streets of New York, LA, anywhere – and the objectification of the lower class we sense in this painting was probably the starting point of the street trade.
In this work, the floor scrapers are not anonymous, nor are they heroic. They are much more. They are facing the viewer, there is a lot of looking – in other words, they have humanity. If we think about paintings like Courbet’s The Stonebreakers from the same period, they are both paintings of workers, but Courbet's men are heroic, the anonymous masses of the working, whereas Caillebotte's male bodies are highly eroticised. Caillebotte took a great deal of time over the bodies – limbs, colours and light floating through the window – and the humanity or sensuality in these depictions really fascinated me.
So I became fascinated by the floor scrapers, and I started to think a lot about ideas around the floor. The materials I used for the Floor Scrapers series are ones you see every single day but completely ignore. One-sheets, floorboard, bathroom caulking – the invisible materials of our world. So I thought, 'what if I took the floor away and made it vertical on the wall?' And that's how these new works took off.
Caillebotte of course painted many scenes around urban Paris in the 19th century; do you see much link between these scenes and your representations of LA?
In a way, yes. Caillebotte wanted people’s gaze to change. He was asking the bourgeoisie to actually look and then change their gaze. What I’m trying to do is to turn the viewer’s gaze to this condition that’s going on around us all the time – so in that sense we share a similar concern. What is different is that generally when I make maps, they’re topographical from above, and they’re usually abstracted or something architectural falling apart into abstraction. They’re either on the way to abstracting, or in the process of coming undone.
Technically speaking, your Floor Scrapers series looks as though they were made in a similar way to the Raboteurs de Parquet; do you have a similar tool that you used on these paintings?
I wanted to feel like the paintings were ‘scraped’. That the lines were actually made by nails. Because scraping is not a good action: it’s frightening, or it’s like there is someone in distress. It’s aggressive and also very physical, it has both a relationship to the body and a relationship to labour: abstraction through labour. They are process-oriented, a very 'Process Art'.
When I was working on these paintings I was trying to get the light to come up through the floorboards, thinking about what was coming up from beneath – which is where those pop-up colours come from. I actually took the roof off of my studio, and I wanted to see if I could replicate that light coming in.
You physically re-enact the painting when making these works, which is also performative – do you feel an accord with the raboteurs in the Caillebotte?
I labour, and again ‘labour’ in the art world is not as high up as in the food chain. But we all know that. (Laughs) But let's be clear, I kind of like that problem.
I don’t see my work as performative. I would never stage a painting where people would watch me paint. It's funny because people say that it's performative but actually it’s process-oriented. I'm constantly having to invent things to keep moving. I sand, and there’s so much paper that the broom is the only thing that takes it off, so it's not that I use it as a performative element.
“Mark Bradford: My Head Became a Rock,” Hauser & Wirth Zürich, until July 26