Joe Bradley addresses Brandeis

January 26, 2018

Joe Bradley, one of the artists featured at The Rose Art Museum, draws this season of exhibitions to a close with a talk about his work and career Thursday, Jan. 25.

Bradley is a celebrated New York-based artist known for his abstract art, which has sold for upwards of a million dollars. The Rose Art Museum is showing the first large-scale museum exhibition in North America devoted to his work, as well as an exhibition of The Rose’s own art curated by Bradley and Kim Conaty, a now-former Rose Art Museum curator. Bradley came to Brandeis to explain some of the ideas behind the art on display as well as the process he took to creating it.

The talk started with one of Bradley’s early series of work, which featured stacked monochrome canvases arranged to form abstract ideas of figures. Bradley described the inspiration for these pieces as uniquely miraculous. On a 2006 trip to see his family in New Hampshire, the idea simply came to him in a dream, something that has never happened again. When he got back to New York he developed his early ideas into pieces of canvas painted one color and stretched over rectangular frames arranged to suggest various figures.

This series brought up several themes which define Bradley’s work. The first is his preference for making his art as cheaply as possible. He gave two reasons for this: the first was a simple lack of money when he was starting out, the second was his feeling that it “seems like cheating” to start out art with beautiful materials instead of using the art to develop the materials. He said there was a certain “blue collar” thrill to simply stretching cheap canvas over found wood to create a painting. He also hinted towards the way he understood his art, which he described later in his talk as dominated by the figures he has in his mind when he creates the pieces rather than their abstract reality.

Bradley then moved on to the drawings he created after he grew bored with his first series of paintings and developed a desire to return to “mark making” and began making simple drawings which he created cheaply, quickly, and with a spirit of “either it works, or you have to wad it up and throw it away.” After around a year of this he began to return to paint and color, becoming frustrated with the one-shot style of creation which denied him the chance to erase or modify his pieces. With color, his paintings slowly became loud and raucous, often dominated by a single abstract shape or figure and covered in blocks of color and various smaller marks. These marks were the result of his chaotic process. They came from utilitarian measures, such as using both sides of a canvas to cut down on costs, with artistic results that came to define his art.

As he continued with these paintings, he began to become more involved with them, continuing with the mindset “the more hell they go through, the better.” He avoided sketching out ideas beforehand, describing his artistic mindset as “at the risk of sounding too new age-y…listen[ing] to the painting and respond[ing] to it.” He began using an industrial sewing machine to stitch together canvases to create larger pieces, another utilitarian step which would later have artistic implications.

He also started using larger areas of single color and moving away from the smaller paint marks to avoid the overwhelming beige of unpainted canvas he saw in his exhibitions. Later, he moved away from this and began creating large pieces with little paint, focusing more on the way he stitched pieces of canvas together, or “building a painting” rather than painting a painting.

Prompted by the audience’s questions, Bradley talked about how enjoyed the opportunity to curate an exhibition of his own work and a companion exhibition of others’ and how the opportunity gave him the “real privilege” to create a narrative about his work. He also revealed details about his process, such as the way he keeps a list of possible titles and lets them affix themselves to pieces.

The lecture often felt more like a second, interactive exhibition than a talk, as Bradley often paused and let the pictures of his work speak for themselves. He talked about finding it hard to talk about paintings, as he feels they are almost there to end conversations. “You can talk about Rothko, but in the end the painting itself is the main event,” he said. Bradley’s comfortable manner, however, was engaging despite his lack of dedicated talking points.

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