Scenes for a New Heritage: Contemporary Art from the Collection, a sweeping reinstallation of MoMA’s Contemporary Galleries, is a markedly cross-medium selection of works from the Museum’s collection. Created in the past three decades by more than 30 international artists, the works in the exhibition span a range of approaches that respond to the political, social, and cultural flux of our time.
Situated prominently in one of the final galleries, and on view at MoMA for the first time, Mark Bradford’s set of untitled 2012 etchings leave an unexpected mark—both literally and figuratively. Gritty and sobering, especially set against MoMA’s elegant “white cube” space, the project merges the atmosphere of the socioeconomic melting pot of South Los Angeles and the experimental artistic environment of a New York City print workshop.
Bradford’s series of 14 prints (see slide show below) grew out of collage work inspired by neighborhood “merchant posters”—brightly colored local advertisements that target the area’s lower-income residents (examples of which appear in the photograph by Carlos Avendaño pictured below). For Bradford, these posters serve as both formal and conceptual points of departure for his artwork: “The sheer density of advertising creates a psychic mass, an overlay that can sometimes be very tense or aggressive,” he has said, “As a citizen, you have to participate in that every day. You have to walk by until it’s changed.”
Devoid of color, scaled down, and abstracted, the merchant poster remnants in these prints are surrounded by a field of scratches, marks, and scuffs. Each print in the series was made using two different printing plates—one for the background and one for the central “poster” image. The gritty, distressed background was achieved by printing from the backside of etching plates recycled from the Lower East Side Printshop, the innovative workshop with which Bradford collaborated to make these prints. The plates had been used for projects by other artists in the workshop, and their backs reflected the wear-and-tear of handling during prior printings. This re-use mirrors the kind of foraging and subsequent layering, tearing, and sanding of found materials that Bradford deploys in his collage work. The square central motif containing text was printed and collaged onto these background sheets using a photo-transfer method that allowed Bradford to recycle text from other merchant poster–based work. These posters’ texts, such as “My Child Says Daddy/Child Custody/Divorce/Visitation” and “Create a New Credit File Legally!” have different levels of legibility from print to print, reflecting the artist’s process of hand-tracing and outlining words and phrases from the original street posters.
Like his layered and visually complex collages and installations incorporating posters, newspapers, magazines, foil, paint, and the curling papers and dyes used in his mother’s hair salon, this set of prints reflects the materiality of the street. At the same time, the work probes the social and economic systems that shape communities, and the issues of class, race, and gender that lie beneath.