Mark Bradford's 'Helter Skelter II': A Portrait of a City

Frieze Magazine Contributing Editor Jonathan Griffin examines the Los Angeles artist's monumental work.

Frieze Magazine Contributing Editor Jonathan Griffin examines the Los Angeles artist's monumental work.

Mark Bradford's Helter Skelter II, 2007, installed at 450 Park Avenue next to David Hammons' Untitled, 2008

Jonathan Griffin is a critic and arts writer based in Los Angeles. He is a contributing editor for Frieze magazine, and he also regularly writes for Art Review, Apollo, Art Agenda, Cultured, CARLA, In Other Words and the Financial Times. His book On Fire, about artists’ studio fires, was published in 2015 by Paper Monument. 

Mark Bradford Helter Skelter II, 2007

Helter Skelter II is an extraordinarily complex work of art, layered not only formally but also narratively and conceptually. Due to variations in scale and media, its intricacy, its refusal of a singular compositional focus and most of all its sheer size, it is virtually impossible to absorb in one glance. It demands time and movement from its viewer, who must pace up and down its breadth, move back and peer in close, and crane his or her neck to inspect its uppermost sections. Areas of metallic silver foil flash as reflections move across them, and eclectic textures restlessly intermingle – from lines of white caulk to torn fibrous card to drips and splashes of colored house paint to the sheen of commercially printed fly-posters.

Helter Skelter II, along with its partner work Helter Skelter I, was made by Mark Bradford for the exhibition Collage: The Unmonumental Picture in 2008 at the New Museum, New York, where the two works hung contiguously, side by side. In its title, the exhibition acknowledged a quality of collage that is simultaneously embraced and subverted by Bradford’s monumentally-scaled works; because it is usually made from the flotsam and jetsam of contemporary daily life, collage is typically considered humble, low-grade, marginal, minor, or “unmonumental” – especially when compared to the historical gravitas and grandeur of painting. Throughout his oeuvre, but especially in Helter Skelter I and Helter Skelter II, Bradford takes these preconceptions and turns them on their head. Given that much of Bradford’s source material is scavenged directly from areas of his city that have historically been neglected, discriminated against, and disenfranchised, this itself is a political act.

Bradford’s behemoth collages, stretching across another 70-foot wall, with their silver paint over
torn-up advertising posters lacerated by networks of fluid, incised lines, are as tough as the street and just as resistant to simple answers or unearned beauty. –  Thomas Micchelli 

As with all of Bradford’s sanded paper paintings and sculptures, Helter Skelter II is a miniature topography, a relief map of valleys and contours carved by Bradford’s controlled erosion of the three-dimensional, mixed-media surface. Much more than a pictorial representation, the work’s three dimensionality suggests that it is a section excised from real life, a piece of the wall itself, at one-to-one scale. Bradford’s work also often flickers between intimations of the micro and the macro. His linear compositions might evoke panoramic maps one moment and microscopic pictures of skin or blood vessels the next. In the seismically active terrain around Southern California, maps visualize fault lines literally as well as socio-politically. In fact, the two systems of information frequently intersect: the desirable Hollywood hills, for example, furnished with dramatic views over the seemingly endless grid of streets extending across the region’s flatlands, were historically formed by tectonic plate movement. Paradoxically, during future earthquakes, properties in the hills are less vulnerable to the ground liquefaction that is prone to occur in the San Fernando Valley and the Los Angeles Basin.

Helter Skelter door found at Spahn Ranch

Helter Skelter II’s title most obviously references the phrase daubed in human blood on the refrigerator of the house occupied by Leno and Rosemary LaBianca in the hills of Los Feliz, Los Angeles, where Charles Manson and his followers ended the infamous murder spree in the summer of 1969 that has been widely acknowledged as the grisly, depraved end to the optimism and liberty of the 1960s. “Helter Skelter” was Manson’s term for a race war that he foresaw between whites and blacks, which he believed he and his acolytes could first catalyze (with gruesome violence that would be blamed on African Americans), then escape – hiding out in an underground city beneath Death Valley – and finally benefit from as the Manson Family returned to rule the victorious African American population, all whites having been slaughtered. The phrase was appropriated by Manson from the 1968 record by The Beatles known as the White Album, with which Manson was obsessed and which he was convinced was entirely about his unhinged apocalyptic vision.

In the contemporary art world, the title “Helter Skelter” is also associated with curator Paul Schimmel’s epochal exhibition Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the '90s, at Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art in 1992. It was the first major show to cement the international reputations of artists such as Paul McCarthy, Raymond Pettibon, Mike Kelley and Charles Ray, and also a redress of the popular stereotype of Los Angeles art being concerned only with “light & space”. Instead, as the LA Times critic Christopher Knight wrote at the time, it offered a vision of “darkness & claustrophobia”.

Clyfford Still Untitled, 1960 The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Image copyright © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image source: Art Resource, NY, Artwork © 2019 Clyford Still/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Jackson Pollock Number 27, 1950 Digital Image © Whitney Museum of American Art / Licensed by Scala Art Resource, NY, Artwork © 2019 Pollock-Krasner Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

While Bradford has long been considered an artist of international stature and relevance, an understanding of his work is inseparable from an awareness of the city in which he lives and works. He espouses what curator Christopher Bedford has described as “an insistent localism” (Christopher Bedford, “Against Abstraction”, in Mark Bradford, exh. cat., Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, 2010, p. 26). Bradford became recognized early in his career for his mixed media paintings, which combine collagist techniques with paint effects and drawing – often through the application of media such as siliconized caulk or string. Early works often incorporated small square endpapers from the Leimert Park hair salon owned by his mother. These layered surfaces are then abraded with a power sander, exposing the strata of materials beneath. The results recall the decollage work from the 1950s and 1960s of nouveau realistes Raymond Hains and Jacques Villeglé, as well as the painterly Abstract Expressionism of Barnett Newman, Clyfford Still and – particularly with Helter Skelter II – the all-over compositions of Jackson Pollock. They also overtly resemble the tattered street hoardings onto which posters and handbills are pasted (and torn off) in thick palimpsestic indexes of the social and commercial life of a city.

Bradford first came to prominence when he featured in the 2001 exhibition Freestyle at the Studio Museum in Harlem, curated by Thelma Golden. The exhibition showcased the work of a number of emerging black artists whose art Golden identified as “post-black” – a term that grew widely in usage over the ensuing decade. Post-black art, explained Golden, “was characterized by artists who were adamant about not being labeled as ‘black’ artists, though their work was steeped, in fact deeply interested, in redefining complex notions of blackness” (Thelma Golden, Freestyle, exh. cat., Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, 2001, p. 14).

[The work] efectively lays LA out before the viewer with a lateral scope that dwarfs both Pollock and Barnett Newman, the two great masters of pictorial immensity. Yet even as he stretches and subdivides pictorial space in the direction of the two infnities of largeness and smallness, Bradford uses materials
and chooses formats that recalibrate its specifcally human dimensions. . .  – Robert Storr

Having studied during the 1990s at CalArts – then a theory-dominated program in which painting was marginalized – it was somewhat idiosyncratic of Bradford to adopt abstract painting as a genre through which to approach themes around race, gender and sexuality. Today, he is acknowledged as one of the central figures of his generation; in 2017 he represented the United States at the 57th Venice Biennale, and later that year exhibited his panoramic cyclorama of paintings Pickett’s Charge at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

Bradford himself had long moved between worlds. When he was 11 years old, he relocated with his mother from the then predominantly black, working class neighborhood of West Adams to the middle class city of Santa Monica, which is mainly white. As a young man he worked in his mother’s hair salon in South Los Angeles, and danced in the city’s nightclubs where he found his place in the city’s gay community. After traveling in Europe in his twenties, he enrolled as a mature student at CalArts, richly endowed with life experience but relatively unfamiliar with the academic discourse in which he was soon steeped.

Detail from Mark Bradford's Helter Skelter II, 2007

The experience of dissonance, of displacement and fracture – one that is familiar to denizens of a city such as Los Angeles – is physically embedded in Bradford’s work. In Helter Skelter II we see posters for Hollywood movies, record releases, club nights, fashion brands and untold other advertisements with purpose unclear. Not everything is culled from the street; at the lower edge, a print showing a black line drawing (echoing Bradford’s caulked white lines) is actually a reproduction of a drawing by the Los Angeles architect Frank Gehry.

Bradford describes the chaotic, visually aggressive urban fabric of Los Angeles – a place in which multiple interests and aesthetics jostle for attention – via a formal practice that is rigorous, precise and finely attuned to nuance. Helter Skelter II is delicate and subtle, even at monumental scale, and full of surprise and delight, notwithstanding its latent violence and noise. Above all, Helter Skelter II is a portrait of a city that is complicated and contradictory, that is the cradle of countless different histories and perspectives, and which can be horrifyingly brutal and astonishingly beautiful from one instant to the next. Bradford’s work does not attempt to represent its environment through a singular viewpoint, but by allowing multiple subjectivities to comingle and interrelate in unexpected, unresolvable ways. As with Los Angeles, Helter Skelter II refuses to be just one thing, and is ceaselessly in motion.