The next artist to represent America at the Venice Biennale, the world’s most prestigious contemporary art event, will be the Los Angeles-based artist Mark Bradford. And his exhibit for the US Pavilion will be presented by the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University, the second straight time that a Boston-area institution has been chosen to organize the US Pavilion.
Bradford, one of the most celebrated artists of his generation, will make new work for the exhibition, on view May 13-Nov. 26, 2017.
He said he was “a little stunned” at the news. “And then you start to think what you could do. It takes about 10 minutes to get excited.”
The recipient of a 2009 “genius” grant from the MacArthur Foundation, Bradford grew up in South Los Angeles. He worked for many years in his mother’s hair salon, which later became his studio.
Bradford’s name was put forward by Christopher Bedford, director of the Rose, which hosted an impressive Bradford show in 2014. The Waltham museum will organize the Venice exhibition, just as MIT’s List Visual Arts Center presented the Joan Jonas exhibition for the US Pavilion at the last Biennale. Bedford will co-curate the exhibit, along with Katy Siegel, Rose curator at large.
The announcement is a vindication for the Rose, which came close to shutting down in 2009, when then-Brandeis president Jehuda Reinharz announced plans to sell off the museum’s valuable collection to help address a university financial crisis.
“To be the commissioner for one’s country at the Venice Biennale is the greatest honor in the contemporary art world,” said Bedford.
Bedford first got to know Bradford when he was a curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Later, at the Wexner Center for the Arts at Ohio State University, Bedford organized a major survey of his work, which came to Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art in 2010.
“When you think of where the Rose was and where it is now,” said Bedford, “it’s pretty surprising. To have the support of the university, given everything that has happened, is close to unbelievable. It’s a great credit to those who had faith in the Rose when its future was not at all guaranteed.”
Bradford, 54, is known for his tough, large-scale abstract works made from layers of paper, much of it salvaged and repurposed, and bound together with clear shellac. Using power sanders and other devices, he then works back into the surface, exposing the layers underneath.
The results are some of the most beautiful, raw, and inventive works in recent art.
Bradford also makes sculptures, videos, and installations. He is unafraid to go big. He created a 70-foot-long ark, made from plywood and shipping containers, for “Prospect.1 New Orleans,” a biennial exhibition inaugurated in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. He made a massive suspended sculpture for Los Angeles International Airport and has been commissioned to create works for New York’s Rockefeller Center and the Hirschhorn Museum in Washington, D.C.
Rake-thin and 6-feet-7½-inches tall, Bradford has a thoughtful, congenial, and instantly disarming manner. He has described his work as “social abstraction,” meaning abstract art “with a social or political context clinging to the edges.”
He is one of a number of contemporary African-American artists — among them his friends Theaster Gates and Rick Lowe — who have sought to combine art-making with a commitment to providing long-term social services in their own communities.
Bradford and his partner, Allan DiCastro, along with the collector Eileen Harris Norton, established a private foundation called Art + Practice, which combines an exhibition space with the provision, among other things, of job training and other forms of support for children transitioning out of foster care.
But for the most part, Bradford likes to keep his art and his social activism separate. “I use material that’s loaded and dripping with social, cultural, economic material,” he has said. “But then I begin the process of sanding, shaving, and stripping as much of that as I can, actually, until it’s actually having a conversation about art history and painting.”
Bedford regards Bradford as the most accomplished abstract painter in the United States. But his decision to nominate him for the US Pavilion was also crystallized, he said, by the “growing civil unrest in America” and “the refugee crisis worldwide.”
“What I’ve observed in Mark is that he’s become more trenchant as a painter, but also that he has become more committed to social activism,” Bedford said. Venice, he feels, might provide an opportunity to bring both aspects closer together.
Bradford was initially skeptical. But the pair flew to Venice to scope out possibilities.
Bradford, too, was engaged by all that was going on politically and socially in Europe. For several years in his youth, he had spent almost half of every year in Europe. He’d visited Venice more than once. But in those days, he said, he never felt he got “inside” Venice: “I was always sleeping in youth hostels or in train stations.”
This time, he spent long hours riding the vaporettos, or water buses, on the Grand Canal, making mental comparisons between the canals and the freeways that defined so much of his life in Los Angeles. He began to think of Venice’s water as “liquid concrete,” likening the vaporetto stops to bus stations.
“I was really just floating around,” he said. “I think I’m still floating.”
Bradford also went to Venice’s old Jewish ghetto and spoke to street merchants about their work.
Much of Bradford’s work has conjured maps, aerial views, and the idea of the city as a palimpsest of commerce, language, political power, and beauty.
He still isn’t sure what he will do in Venice. But he has decided to focus on two sites. In addition to the US Pavilion, he will use his experience with Art + Practice to orchestrate some kind of sustainable social program elsewhere in Venice.
Will there be a connection between the two? “What connects it is desire, the desire to see both sites,” he said. “To me, if people feel that desire, it’s humbling.”
• Review: Bradford enters MATRIX at Wadsworth Atheneum (2015)
• Review: Mark Bradford’s bold vision at the Rose (2014)
• Review: Mark Bradford uses many forms to represent his case (2010)
Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @SebastianSmee.