Histories of Violence: The Inherited Memory of Art

By Adrian ParrSeptember 8, 2020

Histories of Violence: The Inherited Memory of Art
Banner image: Pickett's Charge (Witness Tree) (detail)
Mixed media on canvas
353.1 x 1523.9 cm / 139 x 600 in
© Mark Bradford
Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth
Photo: Joshua White / JWPictures.com

Featured image: Mark Bradford
© Mark Bradford
Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth
Photo: Joshua White / JWPictures.com


THIS IS THE 43rd in a series of dialogues with artists, writers, and critical thinkers on the question of violence. This conversation is with Mark Bradford, who is a Los Angeles–based contemporary artist best known for his large-scale abstract paintings created out of paper. Bradford received his BFA from the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) in Valencia in 1995 and his MFA from CalArts in 1997. He has since been widely exhibited internationally and received numerous awards.

Quarantine Paintings, an online exhibition of Mark Bradford’s newest body of work created under L.A. County’s stay-at-home order, launches at 7:00 a.m. PT on September 8.


ADRIAN PARR: There is an energetic materiality to your work, where the body and gestures of the artist vibrate with and against the everyday materials that make up your work, triggering what could be called an aesthetics of violence. Do you view the relationship between violence and your work as representational, reactionary, or even the intrinsic condition of art, the very mechanics of art’s contemporaneity at work?

MARK BRADFORD: I can see how some people might experience a violence in my work, but that isn’t so much about the artistic techniques. I’ve always described my creative process as being playful, and I think what people read as “violence” is generally a response to the physicality of the work — the process of excavating, of scraping and pulling through the layers and layers of paper or layers and layers of meaning and history that my work addresses. It’s a reductive process, and I would say that metaphorical violence emerges, if at all, when the work lives out in the world and confronts the issues and institutions that I’m trying to approach critically.

I would say that the perception of violence in the work is just the nature of a contemporary art practice that challenges existing structures of oppression. I investigated identity and economic oppression in my early merchant poster works. These were pieces made out of posters that you find in low-income neighborhoods that market a sort of predatory service that only certain people need. “Cash for cars” or “We buy ugly houses.” I explored the disproportion in health services in my exhibition Scorched Earth at the Hammer Museum in 2015.

More recently with Pickett’s Charge at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC, I started looking at historical narratives and the ways that the stories we tell about ourselves allow and even encourage oppression. At the Gettysburg National Military Park, the original Pickett’s Charge painting by Paul Philippoteaux is a heroic display about the Confederate army’s final charge on Union forces at the Battle of Gettysburg. I was surprised at how the framing of the original piece focused on the heroism of the Confederacy without much acknowledgment of what the war was about: the right to own people.

These power structures are deeply ingrained in society, and I think quite honestly that the experience of an “aesthetics of violence” can sometimes be a projection from an audience that’s uncomfortable facing the violence that’s systematically perpetrated against marginalized people by the very power structures from which some of my audiences might benefit.

Modernism celebrates the individual experience of the artist, and more often than not, the heroic interiority of the white male artist’s experience. Although you work within the language of abstraction, your work exceeds the interiority of abstraction. Would you like to speak about how you navigate the move from autonomous moments of artistic production to the social context in which your practice is mobilized?

I don’t do anything special to navigate the move, I just do it. I’ve always said that you can’t apologize for yourself. Just be yourself, and you belong in whatever room you find yourself in. I think the move away from a focus on the heroic interiority of the artist is actually really simple: all it takes is turning your attention outward and starting from what’s in front of you. Perhaps it’s easier for me because, like so many others, I was not taught from such a young age that we can define our own subjectivity. Some people take this for granted, but ownership and self-definition are privileges that many people don’t grow up having.

Other people have already unpacked Modernism and these ideas better than I ever could, but the “heroic interiority of the artist” isn’t really fertile subject matter for many people. The kind of Modernism that you’re referring to assumes a certain modern subject full of the potential for self-determination. You only get to this starting point through privilege. I also think we’re beginning to understand as a culture how we all exist at the intersection of power structures that define us without us even being aware, and this is one of the places where my process starts. We don’t enter the world as undefined subjects. My creative process is how I unpack and address that.

Similarly, Modernist painting treats material as blank and full of potential, but my style, which has sometimes been called “social abstraction,” begins with surfaces that are already loaded with their own meaning: end papers, merchant posters, rope, caulk, billboards, salvaged plywood.

Then, the techniques of excavation are all also loaded in their own way: sanding, power washing, bleaching. They’re the techniques of workers. When your starting point is so loaded, moving from that interiority to the social context just makes sense.

The process of belligerent erasure; a restless reconstitution of the remnants of artistic production; a raw honesty arising from the layering of materials; a loud aggression tensioned with silent pauses and tender touches — when taken together these aspects of your work prompt us to not only engage with the spatiality of a painting, its two dimensionality, but also the plasticity, duration, and temporality of painting. What is your attitude toward the role feeling, memory, and affect play in your practice?

I’m very interested in history and myth, which are essentially collective, inherited memory. And certain mediums have been used historically to define how we understand our past, like public war memorials and statues. Pickett’s Charge is one of the pieces where I address this most directly. I keep coming back to it because it’s the work that academics have taken the most interest in. When I created that work, I used a number of techniques to disrupt the audience’s perception of the underlying scene, to make them question how history is written and remembered.

I started by sending an image of the original painting to a printer that specialized in billboard printing. The process of blowing up the picture to fit the wall makes all the pixels visible. When you stand up close, your mind can’t process the full scene because the image dissolves in the pixels. It only starts to make sense as you put a physical distance between yourself and the piece, which is also metaphorical. Add to that the techniques of pulling and tearing that I use, and you only get limited sections of the painting that come in and out of focus depending on our proximity in time and place to the original.

I also hope that people sit with this work, because the more time you spend with it, just like history, the more you get out of it and the further you’re able to take your understanding of it.

We’re at a particularly challenging moment as a nation and globally in part, I think, because we are spending so much time on questioning who we are, what it means to be an American or a global citizen, and what we want that to look like moving forward. The more time we spend on reconsidering these inherited narratives, the more the picture comes into focus and the more we can see how our shared memory is up for reevaluation.

How do historical and social struggles, and more specifically your experience as a black man living in America, inform your practice as an artist?

I don’t think there’s a way for me to make work that isn’t informed by my personal experiences, but I think that’s true for everyone. We just don’t notice it when it’s work created by people who own the dominant narrative. When there’s a lack of diversity in the artists we celebrate, it’s easy to only see connections between personal experience and creative output in the work of black and brown artists.

I want to be careful, though, because this doesn’t mean that work created by artists from diverse backgrounds should only be read in relationship to their backgrounds and identities. I think it’s more powerful to allow everyone to create according to their own imperatives. Going back to my earlier point, this idea that somehow someone can choose when and how their identity influences their creative practice, or that there can be a creative practice not influenced by one’s personal identity, is again a privilege that isn’t afforded artists who fall outside the dominant culture.

In closing I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on art, joy, social change.

For me, joy grows from a place where you find people who will celebrate you and not simply tolerate you. The highest joy comes from building your own family through the people you meet — people who understand who you are and what you have to offer, and who celebrate you. I try to bring this into everything that I do, because joy can only grow out of that space.

This interview was conducted before the killing of George Floyd and subsequent protests.


Adrian Parr is an Australian-born philosopher and cultural critic, a professor, and the dean of the College of Architecture, Planning, and Public Affairs at the University of Texas, Arlington, in the Dallas–Fort Worth metroplex, and has served as a UNESCO water chair. She is the author of a trilogy that is composed of Birth of a New Earth: The Radical Politics of Environmentalism (Columbia University Press, 2017); The Wrath of Capital: Neoliberalism and Climate Change Politics (Columbia University Press, 2014); and Hijacking Sustainability (MIT Press, 2009). Her webpage can be found here.

LARB Contributor

Adrian Parr is the dean of the College of Architecture, Planning, and Public Affairs at the University of Texas, Arlington in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex and she has served as a UNESCO water chair. She has published several books, the most recent being Birth of a New Earth (Columbia University Press, 2017) and The Wrath of Capital: Neoliberalism and Climate Change Politics (Columbia University Press, 2013).


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