Critics’ Picks

View of “Mark Bradford: Alphabet,” 2011.

View of “Mark Bradford: Alphabet,” 2011.

New York

Mark Bradford

The Studio Museum in Harlem
429 West 127th St
November 11, 2010–March 13, 2011

Embedded in a field of nacreous blue and silver, each of the twenty-six letters in Mark Bradford’s Untitled (A-Z), 2010, appears embossed or set into relief on its individual plate. Affixed to their white frames with clear plastic screws, the individual works are hung on the gallery wall in horizontal clusters, placed at uneven levels. A, B, C, and D form their own quorum, while the more exclusive E and F sit huddled nearby. The seemingly arbitrary parsing of the alphabet underscores what is arbitrary about its signs to begin with. In this sense, Bradford participates in a modernist project that extends back to Raoul Hausmann and Jasper Johns, for whom the letters of the alphabet provided the raw material for explorations both visual and conceptual. So, too, does this project––like Bradford’s work at large––evoke the décollage practices of Mimmo Rotella and Jacques Villeglé, though Bradford’s practice entails a more painstaking recycling of original urban materials.

The relative simplicity of the pieces suggests a process both time-consuming and meticulous. Bradford has repurposed old posters, layering, stenciling, and setting into relief each letter before sanding them all back down. The resulting battered appearance of the work suggests both the history of its materials and the labor of the artist’s hand. Each letter bears within it the genealogy of other letters, other signs; and each in its singularity thus speaks of a whole city––most notably Bradford’s native Los Angeles, out of which he has fashioned an entire oeuvre.

The texture and context of Alphabet are echoed in a separate gallery space across the room. A selection of the Studio Museum’s permanent collection, currently installed under the title “The Production of Space,” features a number of works engaged with urban topography. A chromogenic print by Alice Attie, Untitled (Memorial to Buster), 2001–2004, features the corrugated metal shutter of a shop front. Inscribed with an impromptu tribute to a neighborhood man, the testimonial unfurls between the ridges of the roll-down gate, which also bears the stray spray-painted tags of other neighborhood denizens. At certain points, the paint has peeled away, revealing the marbled sheet of metal beneath. In the light of such work, the formal precision and isolation of Bradford’s plates takes on a renewed poignancy. Their framed solitude highlights––and only slightly hyperbolizes––the fate of signs and signatures in an urban palimpsest.