The Collector #16

 J.J. Murphy / Katherine Bradford


Of all the paintings in our collection, this one arrived at a perfect moment—right before the pandemic ruptured our lives so significantly. I have always believed that what hangs on our walls affects the quality of our lives. On my solitary walks through Manhattan, I see signs at health care facilities that declare, “Heroes work here.” If ever there was a time for superheroes, it is now. Being able to live with Katherine Bradford’s “Superheroes” (2020) for the past couple of months has managed to enrich our lives in ways we never could have imagined when we acquired it. 

Although Katherine Bradford’s paintings have a distinct and recognizable style, each new work that she makes seems to come as a total surprise. Her familiar figures—ships, swimmers, beachgoers, divers, bathers, acrobats, and superheroes—are as much subjects in themselves, as formal elements that she employs in the composition of her works. The real magic of her paintings is how she is able to mine such a repertoire of subjects so imaginatively.

“Superheroes” (2020) is the quintessential painting in her series of works that deal with this subject matter. Her previous caped heroes usually float gracefully in the air or fly through outer space. These latest superhero figures are decidedly earthbound—as if posing for a group portrait. Even though Bradford’s human figures are often deliberately made to seem androgynous, her figures this time are clearly superwomen. The four female superheroes all share the same orange cape, creating a large field of dark orange color that runs across nearly half of the canvas that seems to float against a background of gradated magenta and blue.

Take out the figures, and you could be looking at an early abstract painting by Mark Rothko, one of Bradford’s acknowledged influences. It is not coincidental that Bradford began her career as an abstract painter before her work turned more figurative. Rothko removed the figural elements in order to have large expanses of pure luminous color. Bradford is often after the same layered luminosity of color, but she is also intent on putting back the figures. She talks about the figures having a humanizing effect, and relishes the formal interplay between figuration and abstraction that creates a playful tension within her work.

The torsos of her four superheroes are indebted to geometric abstraction. There is a formal rhythm to the color of their skirts. Those of the two middle figures consist of overlapping parallelograms, punctuated by a strikingly bold shape of bright turquoise that makes the second figure from the left stand out from the others. The turquoise is reinforced by a rectangle of the same color on her upper torso, which completes her ensemble. Rectangles, squares, circles, and partial circles of a multitude of different colors comprise the upper bodies of the figures. Yet formal analysis can never do justice to the art of Katherine Bradford.

Bradford’s faceless human figures have their usual eccentricities. She doesn’t paint from observation or from found sources, but from her own imagination. As she explained in her talk at the New York Studio School in early March, “I try and get my images from working out the paint on the surface. And I think that separates me from a lot of other artists painting human beings. My human beings are very closely related to the paint they’re made of. They’re invented, and you can tell that. I take a lot of liberties with their anatomies. I didn’t take life drawing.”

We should be grateful that she didn’t. One leg of the superhero in the turquoise uniform does not properly align with the rest of her body. The outline of a fatter and unattached leg stands between the two figures on the left—a ghost from the past life of the canvas that continues to haunt it in a humorous way. And the mismatched and multicolored socks are wonderfully chaotic details that provide formal balance for the bottom of the canvas. The socks consist of many different colors that link to other parts of the painting, while the superhero on the left wears a single orange and yellow boot.

“Superheroes” would not be a great painting if it did not contain an enigma. The figure on the right has a dark purple face and arm. She could be a person of color, but her flesh-colored legs instead match those of the other three. She seems younger than the others and has very long legs in disproportion to the rest of her body. Yet the most confounding aspect of this gangly teenage superhero is that her body is positioned at an angle, providing an anchor to the overall composition. Her gaze is not directed toward the viewer like the others. As a result, her body and angle of vision give a sense of depth to the painting, preventing it from being completely flat.

It is precisely these kinds of intuitive decisions that make Katherine Bradford’s work so fresh and exciting. It is in living intimately with a painting, such as Superheroes, that you become grateful for its ability to engage you each day, so that you retain that sense of wonder that drew it to you in the first place.

J.J. Murphy
May 5, 2020

“The Collector” is an ongoing series in which I ask people to talk about a painting or a drawing they own. See other installments here.

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