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Helter Skelter I
£6,000,000 - 8,000,000 ‡
sold for £8,671,500
Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York
Private Collection, Ohio
Acquired from the above by the present owner
New York, The New Museum, Collage: The Unmonumental Picture, 16 January - 30 March 2008, p. 130 (illustrated, pp. 20-23)
Kelly Shindler, 'Mark Bradford in New York', art21 magazine, 14 January 2008, online (illustrated)
Thomas Micchelli, 'Unmonumental: The Object in the 21st Century Collage: The Unmonumental Picture', The Brooklyn Rail, 6 February 2008, online
Christopher Bedford, Mark Bradford, exh. cat., Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, 2010, p. 47 (illustrated, p. 48)
Thomas Micchelli, 'Is Mark Bradford the Best Painter in America?', Hyperallergic, 17 November 2012, online
With Helter Skelter I, Mark Bradford puts forward a statement of heroic ambition that takes the detritus found on the streets of Los Angeles to subtly reflect on the history, social structures and lived experiences of the artist’s urban environment. An intricate network of lines explodes across the full expanse of the over ten metre wide canvas, breaking the gleaming silver surface like cracks in the earth. Fragments of elusive text and imagery begin to reveal themselves upon closer consideration – from a looming large black skull, an American flag, and snippets of words such as ‘CANDY’ or ‘KING’ – only to coalesce into abstraction when seen from afar. Bradford created Helter Skelter I in 2007, concurrently to his series of silver-clad abstractions that debuted at his solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York in the same year, the most celebrated of which include Bread and Circuses, 2007, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, and Mississippi Goddam, 2007, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York.
Bradford created Helter Skelter I in tandem with its companion piece Helter Skelter II specifically for the New Museum’s thematic group exhibition Collage: The Unmonumental Picture that opened in January 2008 in New York, bringing together 11 artists to explore ‘the formal and ideological power of juxtaposing found images’. Following almost immediately on the heels of the Whitney show, this exhibition firmly placed Bradford in the contemporary art map, with Thomas Micchelli from the Brooklyn Rail lauding his contribution as, ‘not merely the finest in the show but quite possibly the best contemporary art on view anywhere in New York. Bradford’s behemoth collages…are as tough as the street and just as resistant to simple answers or unearned beauty’ (Thomas Micchelli, 'Unmonumental: The Object in the 21st Century Collage: The Unmonumental Picture', The Brooklyn Rail, 6 February 2008, online). Exhibited together at the New Museum, the two works introduced a sense of monumentality hitherto unseen in his practice, which most recently found its zenith in Bradford’s installation for the U.S. Pavilion at the 2017 Venice Biennial, and Pickett’s Charge, currently on view at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C.
Bradford was first catapulted onto the contemporary art scene in 2001, following the inclusion of his multi-layered collage paintings in Thelma Golden’s Freestyle exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem. The groundbreaking exhibition introduced him alongside 27 other emerging African American artists as part of a generation of ‘post-black’ artists who sought to transcend the simplistic label of ‘black artist’, while still deeply exploring and re-defining the complex notions of blackness. Helter Skelter I’s conception, along with the concurrent series shown at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, in 2007, represented the culmination of the profound shift in the artist’s practice, which was characterised by a departure from his earlier grid-like work, towards more decentralised, all-over, and increasingly monumental compositions that have become the hallmarks of his mature visual idiom.
Like Scorched Earth, 2006 (Broad Museum, Los Angeles), Helter Skelter I’s title refers to a real moment of racial tension in American history. While ‘helter-skelter’ is generally synonymous with disorder or confusion, and in British English recalls an amusement park slide famously eternalised in The Beatles’ eponymous song, it here evokes a particularly harrowing episode in Los Angeles’ history. In the late 1960s, cult leader Charles Manson attempted to incite what he dubbed ‘Helter Skelter’, an apocalyptic race war he thought he could ignite by killing white people and blaming black militants. The gruesome killings that his followers committed, its victims including Hollywood actress Sharon Tate, shocked and fascinated the American public alike. The shockwaves that reverberated through America have come into focus again with Manson’s recent death, making Helter Skelter I a timely piece that addresses the persistent issues of race, crime and celebrity culture that continue to structure urban America.
While Bradford evokes his loaded subject matter with his characteristically direct and literal title, Helter Skelter I presents the viewer with an abstract composition that does not seem to directly correlate visually, other than its resemblance to the urban sprawl and vastness of Los Angeles. As is typical for Bradford’s practice, much of the meaning underlying this work stems from and merges with his unique creative process. If Andy Warhol approached the theme of race riots with emotional distance and the serial process of silkscreening media imagery in his 1964 Race Riot series, Bradford pursues an approach that is as expressive, as it is abstract. Gouged and torn, the canvas bears witness to the artist’s adroit ability to exploit the creative and expressive force of destruction – the force of which, as curator Becky Hart has suggested, is in part reflective of Bradford’s reaction to certain political situations.
Unfolding in front of us with the energetic rhythms and swirling colours reminiscent of Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings such as Blue Poles, 1952, and confronting us with the gravitas of Clyfford Still’s jagged edges and electrifying flashes of colour, Helter Skelter I demonstrates how Bradford harnesses the potential of abstraction for his own agenda. Bradford pursues what he has termed ‘social abstraction’, that is, ‘abstract art with a social or political context clinging to the edges’ (Mark Bradford, quoted in Calvin Tomkins, ‘What Else Can Art Do?’, The New Yorker, June 22, 2015, online). Critical of the ways in which the annals of art history divorced abstract art from its political context, particularly 1950s Abstract Expressionism, Bradford around 2000 decided, ‘let’s make abstract painting and lets imbue it with policy, and political, and gender, and race, and sexuality’ (Mark Bradford, quoted in ‘Shade: Clyfford Still/Mark Bradford’, Denver Art Museum, 2017, online).
It is above all Bradford’s pioneering use and transformation of materials that infuses the language of abstraction with social, political and historical meaning. Rather than paint in the conventional sense of the term, Bradford takes the detritus of urban visual culture as the conduit through which life enters art. Whereas Bradford had previously used end papers typically used in hair salons, works such as Helter Skelter I exemplify his shift towards using paper material found on the streets of South Central Los Angeles, where he lived as a child, worked in his mother’s hair salon, and now lives and works.
Working in the lineage of the Dadaists and the Nouveau Réalisme movement, Bradford has honed a refined technique of décollage, a process defined by cutting, tearing away or otherwise removing, pieces of an original image. Limiting his palette to the range of colours that occur in his materials, Bradford builds his intricate compositions in quick bursts over a prolonged period of time. Working intuitively without a preparatory drawing, he repeatedly covers the canvas with signage, posters, discarded advertising, and other materials peeled off billboards, while fixing these layers with thick-and thin-gauge twine that he sands back to construct a dense network of lines. By cutting, tearing, and scraping through the layers, Bradford reveals the underlying strata of visual material that ties the work both conceptually and physically to the economies of place and social structures of Los Angeles.
Exploiting the potential of excavation, Bradford has here created a complex psychological urban portrait that exists at the sharp edge between abstraction and representation. Evincing Bradford’s equal commitment to indexicality and erasure, Helter Skelter I combines text and image, as well as flatness and depth, in such a way that our attention is constantly pulled between the materiality of the work and its representational and expressive content – a tension famously brought to the fore by Jasper Johns some decades earlier. As Bradford indeed explained, ‘I can’t fall into the camp of just conceptual or social art. Instinctively, I have to create a tension between the two’ (Mark Bradford, quoted in Sarah Valdez, ‘Questions for Mark Bradford’, Art on Paper, vol. 12, no. 2, 2007, p. 41). Demonstrating Bradford’s commitment to ‘slippage’, the ultimate intention of Helter Skelter I remains open-ended and constantly in flux. With it, Bradford presents a work that not only explores the vital tension between abstraction and representation in contemporary art, but crucially invites us to confront some of the most pressing issues that we must continue to reckon with in today’s socio-political landscape characterised by flares of racism, sexism and global economic suffering of the disenfranchised.
Helter Skelter I
£6,000,000 - 8,000,000 ‡
sold for £8,671,500
London Auction 8 March 2018