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In conversation with KATHERINE BRADFORD

Katherine Bradford's art is rooted in American traditions and her own expansive realm of thought. "I want to make paintings the way Frank O’Hara wrote his poems, his Lunch Poems, where he’d just walk outside and matter of factly make a poem out of what happened to him." - she says. Ranging from the whimsical to the biblical themes, Bradford places her subjects against layered, illuminated from within color-field backdrops, often utilising a recognisable palette of bright magenta based pinks and deep hues of blue. 

She began as an abstract painter, through time slowly beginning to yearn for a more specific vocabulary and the ability to tell a story - her story. Following the yearning, Bradford started to make paintings that were more personal and related to real life events, driven by the longing to join in conversations she saw around her in the art world about the renderings of color, paint handling and addressing the figure. 

As such, Bradford's earlier work immortalises her inspirations from living in Maine, with natural and nautical scenes, bathers and boats, and her appreciation of the art history and the local school of painting, including the works by Marsden Hartley, and Albert Pinkham Ryder, a painter who inspired him (although has never worked in Maine himself); while asserting a whole new meaning to the traditional marine painting through the experimentation with space, paint handling, and layering, often balancing on the verge of monochromatic abstraction.

While maintaining the mystical quality and through suggesting a deeper meaning even to more leisurely and whimsical scenes, she took a step away from the other artists influenced by the elements of the coast culture, including Alex Katz and Fairfield Porter. 

Katherine Bradford's breakthrough show "Desire for Transport" at Edward Thorp Gallery in New York City (2007) happened over a decade ago and gave the artist an opportunity to explore new themes and to further experiment with the technique (e.g. to work in acrylic on raw canvas); and her painterly style has been evolving ever since. She now lives in New York City and has a painting studio in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. 

The personages of Katherine Bradford's works have become representative of different sides of humanity - while the oblique manner in which she chooses to refer to her subjects, the abstract quality of composition and impromptu color accents firmly established themselves as the key pillars of her painterly style. 


Through time, she explored in her work the themes of human relationships, unconstrained practice, reclaiming power, diversity, exposure, fragility and others. She was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2011 and was a recipient of a Joan Mitchell Foundation Grant in 2012. 


Katherine Bradford's recent exhibitions include a solo show at The Modern Museum of Fort Worth, TX (2017), participation in the New Orleans Biennial, Prospect 4 (2017), and solo shows at CANADA (2016)(2018) and Sperone Westwater (2017). In 2018-19 she exhibited her work at Pace Gallery (NYC), Campoli Presti Gallery (London) and Philip Haverkampf Gallery (Berlin), as well as the traveling exhibition Men of Steel, Woman of Wonder organized by Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, AR and in Pulse at the Nerman Museum in Kansas City, Kansas. 

Katherine Bradford's work is held in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the Menil Collection, Houston Texas, and the Portland Museum of Art in Maine. She is represented by CANADA in New York City, Campoli Presti Gallery in London/Paris, and Philip Haverkampf in Berlin as well as Adams and Ollmanin Portland, OR. 

by Varia Serova


Varia Serova: You’ve mentioned doing some paintings in “one fast drawing session” - very direct, very immediate - is this how your painting process usually unravels? Katherine Bradford: No, I’ve only done a few paintings very quickly. They came at a time when I felt confident and “warmed up.” For example, if I’ve been painting all day, this might happen late in the afternoon when I felt loose and courageous, perhaps somewhat the way an athlete has to exercise in order to warm up.  For the painting “Lunch Table” which was done in “one fast drawing session” I had already done a few smaller paintings on that subject and had the large canvas already painted a warm white so it was ready to go when I stood and faced it and dared myself to plunge in and paint without stopping.

VS: Are your paintings predominantly driven by color - and if so, what is the “color theory” ? KB: No, I wouldn’t say my paintings are driven by color. I’m juggling images, light, paint quality and dozens of other concerns as well as color. For many years I taught “color theory” and often wondered if a feel for color could be taught at all.  I only work with colors that I really love which are mostly reds, blues and purples.  It’s been years since I bought a tube of anything earth colored. My mother had a very good eye for color.  I think she was a very visual person being the daughter of an architect and the mother of an architect.  In our kitchen she pinned up postcards of Matisse paintings that she could look at when she did the dishes. VS: What would you describe as the pillars of your artistic “vocabulary”? KB: I began as an abstract painter mainly drawn to repeating geometric shapes like circles or squares. Over time, I began to not only yearn for a more specific vocabulary, but also for the ability to tell a story. For a time I wrote words on my paintings that made references to my day to day life. This proved to be more fun than “pure” abstraction. I began to see that those little circles I was painting could be made into heads, and the squares could became ocean liners. The audience for my work grew much bigger once I began to put people in my paintings. It was exciting to discover I could make paintings that were personal and related to real events in my life. I think before that I was practicing my love for basic design ideas and by the way I taught basic design for many years. As I was drumming those ideas into my students, I was also absorbing them into my own visual lexicon.

VS: You balance between representation and abstraction - do you feel the tension between these two means of painting and if so, how does this influence your work? KB: When I’m in the middle of a painting, or perhaps just beginning a painting, I make a lot of decisions that could be considered abstract. This is especially true of compositions that I like to have refer to the outer edges of the painting. Things like perspective, shading and modeling never really interested me. I didn’t have a traditional art education with lots of foundation courses and I spent very little time drawing from observation. What drove me to make paintings was the desire to join in conversations I saw around me in the art world, conversations about what paint can do and the power of intense color.  It never occurred to me to make a painting that showed a lot of academic skill especially as far as rendering the figure was concerned.

VS: You’ve moved to larger canvases at certain point - what was the experience of that, and is there a format you enjoy the most? KB: When I was invited to have a show at CANADA, my gallery in New York, it was to be in what I refer to as their “monster room” - a big raw white space with very high ceilings.  You could put one or two large paintings on each of the four walls and the room looked complete. My aim was to “fill” that room with large works the only problem being that I hadn’t really done that many good large size paintings (This was 2015). I worked for many months on making large paintings for that show and some of them turned out fine. After this experience I learned the power of larger paintings and became more relaxed about making them.  Now my studio is set up to make larger work and when that is going well it’s heaven. VS: During one of the recent panel talks, you made a comment about enjoying Brice Marden exhibition at Gagosian. Marden is known for finding ways to extend painting while still addressing method and material, focusing on how the paintings were made. Do you feel that your goals as a painter are similar, or different in that sense? KB: What attracted me to Marden’s recent show at Gagosian were the paintings where he’d made a lot of corrections. What I learned was that Marden was completely open about the enormous struggle he was going through to get the right line or the right color. There were multiple cross outs, mistakes that asserted themselves and that he left as is, mistakes he tried to rectify with several different swipes of the brush. It was thrilling to see up close and as you stepped back the whole painting came together and you weren’t so aware of the history of the marks. None of this showed in the photos very well. I learned that this master of line and color was still open to learning and in front of his audience. Yes, I’d love to be able to paint like that.  It’s much harder to do than trying to get everything totally resolved and perfect. VS: In your paintings, you address the issues of unconstrained practice, diversity, power and vulnerability, as well as human struggle - like in your painting “Olympiad” (2018) and All of us (2018). Could these possibly be the main themes guiding your work? KB: It pleases me a great deal that you see these themes emerging from my work, and especially in the two paintings that you cite.  To tell you the truth I’m not thinking about themes or “issues” when I paint as much as getting the paint on the canvas and having it look good.  Then afterward I spend time pondering the meaning of what I’ve done.  A lot of times I have to rework the painting because a meaning asserts itself that I don’t feel like visiting.  When I put a man and woman close together on the canvas sometimes it looks like I’m addressing some kind of sexual theme or even a sexual abuse theme so I paint it over until I get a more relaxed reverie kind of tone.  As for the four issues you mention in your question the answer is yes I do find these themes occurring and reoccurring but I’m not going to purposely set out to do work about that because I find my best paintings refer to their subjects obliquely not directly.

VS: The motif of suits seems reoccurring - what inner meaning does it carry? KB: A person in a suit can look more powerful than a person in a bathing suit. In my painting titled “Suits” (2018) I show a guy standing almost undressed under a larger man wearing a suit and tie and floating horizontally above the bathing suit guy.  Here I'm toggling back and forth between letting the viewer feel the power of the top guy or letting the viewer see the vulnerability and exposure of the bathing suit guy.  Probably we feel the humanity of both of the figures and at times I feel the bathing suit guy is in the power spot for letting himself stand alone and defenseless.  These are all questions I like to pose.  As a painter I can pose the question of how someone presents themselves because that’s a visual conundrum.  No words are needed. Thanks for asking. VS: The context you began painting in was very different from the one that exists now. Did this influence the way you work and if so, how? KB: By “context” are you referring to the art world trends in the 70’s when I began painting? Or are you referring to the fact that when I began painting I was 30 years old, a mother and wife? Or the fact that I began painting while living on the coast of Maine and now I live in New York?  VS: All of the above sound very relevant. KB: When I began painting in the 70’s, there was no internet. We got our news through art magazines like Artforum and we learned about our favorite artists through art books, tons of them.  Words like “soulful” and “emotive” did not exist or, shall I say, artists weren’t talking much about things like touch or vulnerability. Abstraction seemed to me to be where the most experimental and “advanced” painting existed so I became an abstract artist in those early years. It was my dream to live the life of an artist and make paintings like the ones I admired and loved.  It took me a few decades to fully realize that dream and I had to change a lot of things about my life and my work to get there. I encourage young artists to have children and a rich family life and then I say to them that hopefully they’ll live long enough to see their kids grow up and their artistic life blossom and at that moment they’ll realize they have got both family life and studio life and that’s pretty great.

VS: Let’s talk about your most recent work. I’m looking at the piece “This is one person walking down the hill...” - and the emotion is haunting but contemplative, almost like it’s already been in your paintings before. Is it absolutely new, or is the current state of events the new metaphor? KB: This painting was actually done a year ago before the current pandemic crisis.  When I looked at it last week, I saw it completely differently. Instead of a line of likeminded people walking in a row down a hill together I saw one person repeated as if in a film. The term “social distancing” had just appeared in the media. Even the house seemed separated and alone.  The light was more interesting than I had remembered; as you said it looked “haunting” and perhaps foreboding. I decided to post this painting on Instagram as a painting about the present mood.


All of Us, acrylic on 2 canvases (diptych)

80” x 136”

2018

Courtesy of the artist and CANADA


Olympiad, acrylic on canvas

60” x 48”

2018

Courtesy of the artist and CANADA


Lunch Table, acrylic on canvas

68”x 80”

2018

Courtesy of the artist and CANADA


Lunch Table, acrylic on canvas

68”x 80”

2018

Courtesy of the artist and CANADA