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Duck Walk
by Mark Bradford
Purchase, Anonymous Gift, 2017
© Mark Bradford
Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth

2017.291a, b
Episode 2 / 2019
Featured Work

I don't think it's possible to have a black body and not view that color through the lens of politics in the United States."

This diptych is an ambivalent homage to the artist Clyfford Still and his "black paintings" from the late 1940s, with respect to the American modernist canon, and at the same time a riposte in the spirit of a contest.

Still's paintings mark the historical moment in the mid-twentieth century that brought about both Abstract Expressionism and the civil rights movement in the United States. Bradford's encounter with Still's paintings in the 1990s ignited his desire to reanimate the understanding of Abstract Expressionism. "Being black, what I find interesting is that at the same time as they were trying to establish an identifiable American school of abstract painting, we were still segregated. . . . In the '50s when you had the white, U.S. cultural machine . . . communicating to the world this brand of America through Abstract Expressionism, it was totally disregarding what was going on politically in this country."[1]

Bradford's practice argues for a politically charged, socially grounded abstraction: the gritty materiality of his paintings quite literally invoke the socioeconomic and cultural contingences of the neighborhoods in which he grew up and still works in South Central LA. Duck Walk started with a heavy black paper ground—the opposite of the customary primed white ground of a canvas. Building up layers of black and white paper, fusing them with glue and water, splashing them with bleach that blanches the black paper, Bradford catalyzes a subtle spectrum of color—grays, whites, tan-gold, and many hues of black. The painting's pitted surface is achieved by a repeated process of gouging, tearing, incising, and sanding down each stage of layering, exposing the strata of its history of creation. For Bradford, this process is "a more honest way . . . to represent the social fabric of my neighborhoods, and this country."[2]

Duck Walk is named for a dance move popular in the historically African American queer culture of "ballroom" voguing in urban subculture. It is as if the ruptured surface of the painting could be understood as a skin that has been wounded or transformed. "I don't think it's possible to have a black body and not view that color through the lens of politics in the United States," Bradford has stated, adding that "I don't think of black as an identity. I think of it as a characteristic, a material fact."[3] Club voguing is a joust, a cool rivalry for the most impressive "moves" on the dance floor. Such a contest might be embodied in the light/dark contrast between the two canvases of Duck Walk, which in turn is perhaps a respectful black gauntlet flung down by Mark Bradford in his joust with Clyfford Still.


[1] "Call and Response: Mark Bradford in Conversation with Susan May," in Mark Bradford: Through Darkest America by Truck and Tank (London: White Cube, 2013), 83–84.

[2] "Sweat Equity: An Interview on Clyfford Still with Mark Bradford by Michael Auping," in Clifford Still, Mark Bradford: Shade (Buffalo: Albright-Knox Art Gallery, 2016), 63.

[3] Ibid., 66, 68.

Sheena Wagstaff
Leonard A. Lauder Chairman
Modern and Contemporary Art
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