Mark Bradford. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The Lives of Artists – Mark Bradford

The New Yorker writer Calvin Tomkins describes an encounter with the acclaimed abstract painter (and tallest artist he knows)

If you want to know what it’s like to be in the presence of important and groundbreaking artists, you should really ask Calvin Tomkins. Over the past 59 years, Tomkins has profiled almost every culturally significant figure in the contemporary art world for The New Yorker magazine.

Our new six-volume anthology of his work, The Lives of Artists, brings these profiles together. There are many delightful long reads in there, but there are also moments when, in just a few finely chiselled sentences, Tomkins describes the range of impressions and emotions one might experience meeting an artist for the first time, face-to-face. Consider this description of an encounter with the acclaimed, compassionate LA abstract artist, Mark Bradford.


Calvin Tomkins photo by Sara Barrett
Calvin Tomkins photo by Sara Barrett

“Mark Bradford is the tallest artist I know—six feet seven and a half inches, and pencil thin, which makes him look taller. His paintings, as you’d expect, run large. When I visited Bradford’s industrial-sized studio, in South Los Angeles, this spring, one wall was almost entirely covered by a huge outline map of the United States, with clusters of numbers that represented the aids cases reported in each state up to 2009.”

Later in the profile, Tomkins describes Bradford’s striking appearance in greater detail.

“For someone who had just spent sixteen hours on an airplane, coming back from the Sharjah Biennial, in the United Arab Emirates, Bradford seemed unnaturally well rested. He looks a decade or so younger than his age, which is fifty-three. Being tall and African-American and not playing basketball was an issue for him when he was a teen-ager, but now he’s comfortable with his height.


The Lives of Artists
The Lives of Artists

He was wearing a white T-shirt and white painter’s pants, his working clothes, which he buys online for himself and his assistants, two of whom are from the same Mexican family. ‘When people see us on the street or at Home Depot, they think we’re housepainters,’ he said, happily. Most of Bradford’s art supplies come from the Home Depot. ‘If Home Depot doesn’t have it,’ he said, ‘Mark Bradford doesn’t need it.’”

You certainly get the sense of a towering art world figure, with a comparatively Lilliputian ego to match. For more encounters like this order a copy of The Lives of Artists here. This six-volume set includes 82 of Tomkins's most significant profiles dating from 1962 to 2019. Part art history, part human interest, Tomkins offers insights and observations about the artists, their work, and the ever-changing art world they inhabit. Buy The Lives of Artists here.