HARTFORD — Much of the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford's great civic museum, is closed for renovations this summer as the institution prepares for its grand reopening in September after a major refurbishment. But it's still well worth a visit — especially if you love modern and contemporary art. The recently and brilliantly reinstalled postwar and contemporary galleries remain open, as do the galleries showing the Atheneum's collection of modern European and American art.
But I drove to Hartford last week to see just three works, all by the Los Angeles-based artist Mark Bradford. The mini-show constitutes the 172d iteration of the Wadsworth Atheneum's MATRIX series, now celebrating its 40th anniversary.
Set up with a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1974, MATRIX was initially an experiment designed to give museum exposure to worthy contemporary artists. It kicked off in January 1975 with a small show of drawings by Ellsworth Kelly. That same year also saw shows by Eva Hesse, Romare Bearden, Neil Jenney, William Wegman, Richard Tuttle, and Sol LeWitt. Clearly, someone at the Wadsworth knew what they were doing.
The list of artists subsequently given MATRIX shows is stellar. It includes Cindy Sherman, Glenn Ligon, Chris Burden, Barbara Kruger, Sherrie Levine, Pippilotti Rist, Cheri Samba, Helen Levitt, Krzysztof Wodiczko, Robert Arneson, Annette Lemieux, Gerhard Richter, and many more.
Bradford fits right in. His star is as high as anyone's right now. An exhibition of new works, "Scorched Earth," just opened at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. He was profiled this month by Calvin Tomkins in The New Yorker. Boston audiences had the chance to see his work at the ICA in 2010 and the Rose Art Museum last year.
In honor of LeWitt, the great conceptual artist who was born in Hartford and whose wall drawings feature prominently at the Atheneum, Bradford has made his own version of a wall drawing for MATRIX 172. It runs most of the 60-foot length of the museum's Bunce Gallery. (Interestingly, during a 2011 residency at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, Bradford made a work, "Pinocchio Is on Fire," in part by uncovering fragments of a LeWitt wall drawing that had subsequently been painted over.)
About two months before this show opened, Bradford sent a Home Depot shopping list to Patricia Hickson, the Atheneum's curator of contemporary art. (Bradford gets almost all his supplies at Home Depot.) He asked for acrylic matte varnish, matte black paint, tubes of clear caulk, and lengths of multicolored rope.
When he arrived in Hartford, he and two assistants rolled a long rectangle of the matte black paint directly onto the wall. They then stuck perhaps 20 long lengths of rope to the paint, in a parallel horizontal formation.
Over these they pasted layers and layers of the colored papers Bradford had brought with him from his Los Angeles studio, fixing each layer with varnish. Bradford then performed his signature subtracting operations — a kind of excavation of the built-up layers performed by sanding, peeling, and stripping away fragments of paper.
The result is ravishing. Although it is entirely abstract and was made according to a kind of formula, it is far removed from LeWitt's famously systematic and comparatively hygienic processes. ("Irrational thoughts should be followed absolutely and logically," LeWitt once said.)
It is messy, for one thing. Crumpled and torn bits of paper, distressed and ravaged by the processes they have been subjected to, hang off it at every point. The ropes groan and buckle beneath. Flashes of canary yellow, crimson, blushing peach, and fluorescent orange burst through a fragmented overlay of black and white. Much of the white has a pale, icy blue hue, but there are otherwise no deep blues, greens, or purples.
LeWitt tended to make things according to additive principles: this, then this, then this. His wall drawings developed over the course of his career in much the same way, as anyone who has visited the extraordinary LeWitt wall drawings retrospective at Mass MoCA will know: first gray pencil, then colored pencil, then colored ink, then colored paint.
Bradford's processes begin as additive (layers and layers of paper), but then turn against themselves as he assaults the work's built-up integrity, like a farmer plowing back into soil exhausted by overuse. Other analogies — a divided society turning against its best self; a weathered antique with a beautiful patina — may fleetingly rise to the surface of your consciousness, but tend to evanesce.
In Tomkins's recent profile, Bradford describes his work as "social abstraction" — abstract art "with a social or political context clinging to the edges." And indeed, the edges of this wall drawing, which is titled "Pull Painting 1," are themselves remarkable, with frayed bits of rope and paper hanging loose, and paint on the wall itself flaking off.
But Bradford is right, I think, to be modest about the political meanings of works such as these. They are essentially beautiful and satisfying abstractions — and to admit that in no way diminishes them.
Bradford's intermittent installations and video works have been more pointedly political, while his admirable acts of philanthropy and activism inevitably appear more efficacious than his art. (Bradford and his partner, Allan di Castro, run a private foundation, Art and Practice, which provides, among other things, life-skills training for foster youth in the 90008 ZIP code of Los Angeles.)
And yet, partly because so much of the paper Bradford uses is salvaged and has served other purposes, there is a sense even in Bradford's most abstract work that the world — the real world, just outside, of naked commerce and racial prejudice and sexuality and shouting and threats and frightened eyes and intangible yearning — is always close at hand.
This 172d iteration of MATRIX — for which Bradford designed a limited edition poster, just as LeWitt made one for the first MATRIX exhibition in 1975 — includes two other works that hang opposite "Pull Painting 1."
Called "Pile of Blocks" and "Wet Grass," they're both new paintings, 7 feet across and 6 feet high. Although they also use colored paper and ropes or caulking in long horizontal lines, they have more physical integrity than the wall drawing — no loose bits hanging off. Snippets of text show through on a surface that is otherwise exquisitely painterly.
The Atheneum has placed a comfortable bench in the middle of the Bunce Gallery, which has a window at one end letting in natural light. You could do worse than spend part of an afternoon there. There's a lovely park with a huge Alexander Calder sculpture outside, and usually a food truck selling good hot dogs on the sidewalk.
At: Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford. Through Sept. 6. 860-278-2670, thewadsworth.org
Sebastian Smee can be reached at email@example.com.