Hermès: a haudenschild Garage project with MARK BRADFORD

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: This Old House

In the following three sections this article looks to Land Art and other precedents to contextualize Mark Bradford’s recent work Hermès. It looks at the formal aspect of line—called the first species of quantity—from various vantage points. Each section attempts to focus on how the line drawn by Bradford inside a home slated for demolition relates to his expanded notion of abstract painting. Specifically, what he calls social abstraction: “an abstraction that is not the traditional abstraction that looks inward and ignores the outside of the studio, but an abstraction that looks out towards the environment and into the social body that we call the city or the society.”[i]

1) Beneath Painted Lines

There are a lot of things theoretical and intellectual to say about lines and circles, but I think the very fact that they are images that don’t belong to me and, in fact, are shared by everyone because they have existed throughout history, actually makes them more powerful than if I was inventing my own idiosyncratic, particular Richard Long-type images. I think it cuts out a lot of personal unwanted aesthetic paraphernalia. -Richard Long[ii]

Best known for his landscape interventions ranging in scale from a soccer field to a stripe he made in 1975 amidst Himalayan glaciers, Richard Long here sets-up a dichotomy. Fundaments such as line are in his estimation regrettably lent to aesthetics and therefore idealism. He advocated for images that possess an unassuming yet unifying force due to their anonymity.

Or Long’s quote above could refer to a healthy distrust of intellectual traditions such as Cartesian theory that envisions perception unfolding within a grid of pure values. His artistic stand may also relate to lines and rectangles that enclose civilization everywhere in industrial wares: a world constructed of simple shapes, cheaply ornamented and corporate ‘aesthetics’. How many reticulated buildings made of concrete and glass does the average stroller endure in her midst? Do these rooftops, doorways and windowpanes accumulate upon gridded roadways without reflecting something about the viewer over time? Long offered temporary breaks to these environs. His paradoxical quest imposed something anomalous yet impersonal upon the ordinary without reflecting his domestic or picturesque sites beyond simple geometry.

Lucio Fontana faced similar problems. He arrived at an equally simple gesture to convey an aesthetic impasse. Disturbed by the impenetrability of the canvas, which served as a stand-in for all the implacable rectangles encircling an artist everywhere, he drove a knife through the fabric to reveal the abyss (and the stretcher) behind the picture plane.

Seeking a universal “Spatialism” that might unify images pantheistically, Fontana made a line: one that arguably connected the history of painting to the violence it had occasionally converted from upheaval to parable. For example, think of the Christ-like hand that Antoine-Jean Gros’ gave Napoleon Bonaparte in his famous depiction Bonaparte Visits the Plague Stricken in Jaffa (1804). In this gesture the ruler aims across his supplicant’s chest as though drawing the plague out from the stricken body. Needless to say, Napoleon did not enter Jaffa to heal the sick and wounded. Upon his return he did, though, have the foresight to commission the history painter Gros, who constructed the illusion of divinity. This colonial adventure, like so many, thus ended with the imperial conquest being summed up by the Emperor’s duplicitous, magisterial line drawn invisibly on the soldier’s breast. Gros inevitably began his underpainting with a nondescript mark—the precise place in the artistic process where Long goes no further. As he wrote above, his relent counters aesthetics. Like so many artists of the twentieth century that turned away from painting, his minimal approach conceived of art as a negation. It avoided the decoded image that above turned the affectively religious, imperial gesture into the illusory line that is worldly, laic and kind.

2) Everyday Lines

If Gros’ Bonaparte Visits the Plague Stricken in Jaffa illustrates what I think Richard Long meant by “unwanted aesthetic paraphernalia” then working with lines—and lines only—allowed him to sidestep not only the egoism entailed in style but the complicity incurred in representing power and conflict. These inevitable power relations are by no means only political in nature.

Due to how art for many centuries constructed allegory, we often search for a story within a painting. Art critics, for example, bound by language, foreclose artistic intent with the application of language, creating a spider web of offhand observations and parallels to history that the maker would have never considered, least of all invited. We might call this the trouble with media. As a referent for all others of its type, an object is never alone: a book refers to literature, a newspaper to news, a sitcom to television, a film to cinema, a painting to art, and so on.

Conversely, wherever it is found, the unadulterated line evidences only the medium it supports as image, as Long clearly understood. A smokestack contains billows and a jet stream denotes an airplane. A clothesline carries pieces of a wardrobe hung out to dry. A dowel holds curtains like a mast supports a sail. A telephone pole suspends at intervals the wire strung along a county road. A braided mooring cable fastens a ship to land.

For Filippo Marinetti this basic principle underpinned Futurism: “the gluttonous railway stations devouring smoking serpents; factories suspended from the clouds by the thread of their smoke; bridges with the leap of gymnasts flung across the diabolic cutlery of sunny rivers: adventurous steamers sniffing the horizon; great-breasted locomotives, puffing on the rails like enormous steel horses with long tubes for bridle, and the gliding flight of aeroplanes whose propeller sounds like the flapping of a flag and the applause of enthusiastic crowds.”[iii] Each image offered here in his famous manifesto aestheticizes a piece of industry traveling or extending from a rudimentary line. Given these preoccupations, the rhythmic structure of Futurist painting consisted of parallels that show common gestures and bodily movements as flattened architectures.

Against the celestial longitude art history accumulates, there are images conceived by artists that come without the pretenses embodied in modern aesthetic movements. In these other, more contemporary arts, a simple line is employed to interpolate or interrupt the illusions we have grown used to. Their power relies on their simplicity alone and their context. Lines, having “existed throughout history,” in Long’s telling, are without the burden of the representation that Gros faced when he was called upon to paint Napoleon on his ecliptic passage through the Middle East, cast as unifying conqueror and self-appointed healer of social ills.

This place outside of the reactionary optimism occasionally found in modern art began with the same ancient duel of painter before painted surface, nonetheless. Before any mark was made, the artist faced the menace of a blank tablet—a relative of the proverbial blank page. Like all antagonists, it can be ignored or neglected. Or it may be impressed upon, changed, submitted to the intellect of the painter, to aspects of shape, line, hue—and all the accouterments of artistic style. But, in the context of the studio, a painting cannot harness the unassuming power Richard Long favored. Following his argument, until the line was removed from the canvas and the studio and therefore appurtenance of aesthetics, its sensibilities will err on the atavistic side and be forced to face painting’s patent immoderation.

3) This Old House

The line Mark Bradford created for his project Hermès, to my mind, presents a contrast to how artists today avoid the instrumental or political repurposing that has historically divorced painting from everyday life.

Besides coastline, Southern California is known for its freeways that define its civilization as automobile culture upon a grid of highways and roadways, stopped only by the sprawl of the Pacific Ocean. As though he were inverting the usual order of facades expanding from city to suburb and exurb and further on to outlying desert towns, such as the built environments Ed Ruscha recorded in Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966) and Twenty-six Gas Stations (1963), for Hermès, Bradford painted a line running throughout the interior of an empty house slated for demolition.

Even while defying gravity, the perfect symmetry of the band grafted upon the walls and ceiling resembled a ribbon of newly poured asphalt. This also lent the dense application of many coats stretching between the bedrooms, kitchen and living areas, permanence. Hermès was less of an intervention than an emplacement that conformed to existing architectural conditions without being, in any sense, decorative. Like fault lines aching beneath the old house and like the irreverent “cuts” Gordon Matta-Clark had made to run-down homes in outlying New Jersey, Bradford’s La Jolla design was insistent—irrevocable. Yet, it communicated restraint in comparison to Matta-Clark’s iconoclastic extensions of interior and outside space. Though both of these approaches likely have “to do with psychological mapping and a fragmented reality,” as Bradford said in a statement for Hermès, what separated the newer work was a preoccupation with the history of painting and the ‘post-studio’ art that has come to define West Coast conceptualism.

For his part, Bradford describes his line as social abstraction, an approach which uses formal elements to locate an intersection between the historical datum of painting and the conditions existing in situ around an artwork: “I looked at the idea of a line and historically what it meant and built on that. My design is one continuous line and one gesture—one brush stroke that continues all over the house. I wanted to make it feel domestic and also have a relationship with art history [elsewhere he mentions geo-abstraction of the 1970s and Frank Stella]. I also wanted to feel like the domestic space was invaded and it was somehow fractured and uncomfortable. And so the marks are aggressive and demand your attention. It is more like a steamroller running through your home. It is this idea of fragmentation and abstraction and secrets in domestic spaces that break away the fabric of the house.”[iv] With the artist’s invocation of social abstraction we arrive at the everyday concerns underpinning Hermès that distinguish it from the aesthetics of painting and accomplish what Long saw as the useful redirection of meaning away from the artist to general environmental concerns. Here those concerns were how an invasive black line might reframe a typical suburban home as a transgressive vehicle or a psychological limit between one’s public and private life.

In this sense, the line itself is a proxy for an image of social disunity. It stands for the basic function of home as foreignness held at bay. Each house lining the streets of a California city represents an unseen experience of spatial division and social discontinuity for the inhabitant; all of which was set in motion by developers and purveyors of aesthetic paraphernalia long before the inhabitant arrived. Each, despite its universality, seriality and ubiquity, represents an irresolvable limit between the occupant and the uninhabitable disordered (or otherwise homeless) world beyond it. These divisions stretch in parallel lines through every neighborhood. In Hermès, Bradford channeled these social displacements to the extent that paint could visualize them.

The image is not merely about the parceling off of private life or the abstraction of psychological states. These fissures are nestled in the earliest origins of community. Home, oikos, for the Greeks implied not only the safe enclosure of the family but an open economic unit opposed to the spatial convolution of the polis and its civic entanglements. This opposition was maintained until modern advancements introduced modern phobias. Many relate to the divide Bradford depicted in the house in La Jolla and which his social abstraction resists as a hermetic studio practice.

In support of social abstraction as architectural emplacement, the respective counterpoints both Long and Bradford offer extricate the basic element of line from the traditional mark making. Their work in essence removes the painted line from the canvas and the artist from the confines of the studio. Their anti-aesthetic dispels the agoraphobia that connects and domesticates the painter. Agoraphobia is an imbalance between the personal and the unwanted and in this sense it shares no relation with oikos. For an agoraphobe does not fear leaving the house, exactly; he fears the paved expanse of the agora and the marketplace crowd that divides space in a skirmish of lines, creating an evolving if abstracted image of social life.


[i] Mark Bradford in conversation with Marcos Lopez, Los Angeles, CA, June 3, 2013.
[ii] Richard Cork “An Interview with Richard Long” 1988 in: Long, Richard: Walking in Circles, Anne Seymour, Hayward Gallery, London 1991, page 250.
[iii] Manifesto of Futurism, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, published in Le Figaro, February 20, 1909.
[iv] Mark Bradford in conversation with Marcos Lopez, Los Angeles, CA, June 3, 2013.