Mark Bradford’s Untitled (2020)

Mariana Lorenz

Some weeks ago while visiting the show “Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America” at the New Museum I was stunned by a large and colourful painting. Looking at the museum label I discovered that it was Mark Bradford’s Untitled, painted last year. I also learnt it was a map critique, so by critiquing Bradford’s Untitled (2020) I am somehow embarked in a meta- map critique. Moreover, when I went to the web page of this week’s class to start reading and preparing my presentation I saw it was headed by another painting by Bradford and immediately knew I was on the right track. 

Mark Bradford. Untitled (2020)

As I also learnt from the museum label, Untitled (2020) is one of several works of the artist that takes as a starting point a map from the McCone report, an inquiry commissioned by California Governor Pat Brown eight days after the 1965 Watts Rebellion in Los Angeles. The unrest was triggered by the brutal arrest of an African – American man, Marquette Frye, accused of reckless driving. John McCone, former CIA director who led the report, identified the root causes of the riot as high rates of unemployment, poor schools, and other challenging living conditions in the predominantly African – American Watts neighborhood. The report included a map of the curfew zone produced by the Office of the Chief Administrative Officer of Los Angeles County in which dots of different colors identified the toll of the uprising: deaths as well as damaged, looted and destroyed private and public property. 

McCone Commission Report. Map of Curfew Area (1965)

The way in which the report treats property damage and life loss equally is enraging. And it is exasperating to see how these events occur over and over again in the country. In 1992 the city of Los Angeles rose once more against the violent arrest of Rodney King, another young African – American man. In this case there was also an independent Commission created to review police officers’ conduct. Nothing seems to have changed; police racism has been entrenched in the USA since the “slave patrols”, which were organized groups of armed men who monitored and enforced discipline upon slaves in the southern states before the civil war. But that is dense enough to merit another presentation, so let’s go back to art and maps. 

What’s the relationship among them? As in Bradford’s work I am critiquing, artists have long tried – some of  the readings (D’Ignazio, 2009; Wood, 2010) we did for today date it back to the beginning of the twentieth century – to make visible the power and knowledge structures that lay behind cartography, and to present alternatives to the existing order. Therefore they have been practicing “critical cartography” (Crampton and Krygier, 2006) even before the term existed. Some of the most famous and clear examples of how artists use “humor, inversion, and play to denaturalize cartography and to strategically provoke their audiences” (D’Ignazio, 2009: 195) are The Surrealist Map of The World (1929) – which presents the world reprojected according to a surrealist algorithm where there are many imperial powers missing – or Joaquín Torres García’s Inverted América (América Invertida) (1943), which defies North-South hierarchical relationships. 

The surrealist map of the world. Anonymous (1929)
Joaquín Torres García. América Invertida (Inverted America) (1943)

D’ Ignazio (2009) discusses three mapping impulses that characterize contemporary art – map practices. The first one, “symbol saboteurs,” includes “artists who use the visual iconography of the map to reference personal, fictional, utopian, or metaphorical places”; the second, “agents and actors,” comprises “artists who make maps or engage in situated, locational activities in order to challenge the status quo or change the world”; the third and last group, “invisible data mappers”, is composed of “artists who use cartographic metaphors to visualize informational territories such as the stock market, the Internet, or the human genome” (190 – 191). Even if, as the author clearly states, “these are loose groupings with numerous overlaps, not rigid categories” (190), I believe that we could frame Bradford’s map in the first category. In Untitled (2020) the artist is trying to sabotage a map that clearly relates to his personal history, as an African – American born in Los Angeles. 

My main critique of Bradford’s map would be that the level of abstraction and the strokes of color make it almost impossible to notice the original map that lays behind the painting. Also, the fact that it does not have a title makes it even harder to relate this work to the McCone commission report map, or to police brutality more broadly.  If I hadn’t read the information in the museum lebel I would have never guessed the author’s intention. By this I do not intend to claim that art should be explicit or self explanatory. Audiences will relate differently to each piece, and every artwork is subjected to multiple interpretations. Nevertheless, some reference – even if vague – to what the artist intends to subvert or criticize is needed so that the message is conveyed. However, it is also important to say that by being ambiguous and abstract art, can motivate curiosity. In the case of Untitled (2020) even if there are not any clear cartographical references the texture – and almost three – dimensionality of the painting – evokes a topography. Bradoford’s large and colourful work intrigued me, and through it I got to know a bit more about the Watts Rebellion. 

When compared to Untitled (2020), Scorched Earth (2006) – Bradford’s painting that heads this week’s class webpage – is much more recognizable as a map in which the artist has intervened. That is mainly because there is a clear reference to the urban grid that the artist chose to underline with contrasting colours. The title also helps to better understand it. As we read in the reference given about this work by The Broad Museum, it “depicts an aerial map of an area that has been blacked out. The blackness of this land mass resonates on many levels: black as in the demographics of this neighborhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma, at one time called “Negro Wall Street,” where many black-owned businesses thrived, until a race riot erupted in 1921, and the violence obliterated this unique area and its history; black, as the title suggests, meaning burnt or scorched; black as in redacted; and black as in nothingness”.

Mark Bradford. Scorched Earth (2006)

Prototype

To “correct for” some of the things I critiqued in Bradford’s map I played the artist using Paint. I chose to use the McCone Commission map and paint over it with the same colors used in the references (green, blue, brown, orange and dark green). I also tried to eliminate all the dots that referenced deaths so the map doesn’t treat life loss and property damage equally. Moreover, I left an important part of the map visible – not covered with colour – so that the reference to it is clear enough. I have given my creation a title to help the viewer further understand the relationship between the painting and the Watts Rebellion: “Watts Lives Matter”. Of course my map cannot deliver the aesthetic experience of Bradford’s work but I am just an anthropologist doodling around with Paint. 

Prototype:Mariana Lorenz. Watts Lives Matter (2021)

References:

Catherine D’Ignazio, “Art and Cartography” in The Encyclopedia of Human Geography (New York: Elsevier, 2009): 190-206

Denis Wood, “Map Art: Stripping the Mast from the Map” in Rethinking the Power of Maps (New York: Guilford Press, 2010): 189-230.

Jeremy W. Crampton and John Krygier, “An Introduction to Critical Cartography,” ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies 4:1 (2006): 11-33.

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