SAUGERTIES, NY – Artist Peter Bradley is one month shy at age 81 and his future is flourishing.
On a recent hot day, as the humming birds swam around the sunflowers in her garden in northern New York, art practitioners were carrying her paintings for three upcoming exhibitions at the Karma gallery in downtown Manhattan.
The first is a tribute to the eye-opening exhibition Bradley curated 50 years ago in Houston, which shows the abstract works of 18 Black-and-white artists side by side. funded by benefactors John and Dominique de Menil, It was one of the first racially integrated exhibitions in the country. The work of all the artists in the original exhibition, including Sam Gilliam, Ed Clark, Kenneth Noland, Anthony Caro, and Virginia Jaramillo, will be reunited this month at Karma on East Second Street and at the Parker Gallery in Los Angeles.
Next up is a group exhibition curated by critic Hilton Als around the idea of faith, featuring new abstract paintings by Bradley, as well as works by Diane Arbus and Peter Hujar. Finally, the artist’s first solo exhibition in New York since 1993 will open in October.
Prices are also rising. In June, “Executive Light,” a 1973 painting estimated at $10,000 to $15,000, sold for $110,700 at Brunk Auctions in Asheville, NC.
It’s a big comeback for Bradley, who rose to the top of the art world in the 1970s but has almost disappeared from public view over the past two decades. As the showdown over race and inequality swept the country in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, Karma began working with Bradley last year. Karma’s re-release of Bradley’s abstract works came at a time when figurative works by Black artists were increasing in urgency and demand.
“The important thing is that it happens before you die,” Bradley said, sipping craft beer on a stone patio. It was 10 in the morning and he looked casual and stylish in his Hawaiian shirt, paint-stained shorts, and rain boots, his hair in a nest of coarse white curls.
Bradley has always had a style. As a salesman in his 20s, he drove Ferraris and wore handmade suits, selling Picassos, Mirós, and Calders at Perls Galleries on Madison Avenue. He has dealt with clients such as Robert Redford and Gregory Peck. Greta Garbo and Mark Rothko stopped by to chat.
He continued to perform at the prestigious André Emmerich Gallery, known for advocating artists associated with the post-race abstract painting Color Field.
In 1971, he turned down an invitation to participate in the Whitney Museum’s “Contemporary Black Artists in America” survey (“I didn’t want to be in the context of artists who weren’t good at whatever color,” he said last week). Instead, he staged a racially integrated show that opened at the De Luxe cinema in Houston in August of that year. In the 1980s, Bradley traveled to South Africa to set up a residence for abstract artists, began sculpting, and set out with jazz musician Art Blakey.
“The story of Peter, who wears many hats (art dealers, curators, painters, sculptors, musicians, teachers) is worth knowing, full of great anecdotes and historical narratives that reveal a picture of the past, otherwise unknown to many scientists. and historians,” wrote Terence Trouillot BOMB magazine in 2017.
Personally, Bradley is warm, refreshingly flippant, unapologetic, and potty mouth. He met who the post-war avant-garde was and formed his own ideas. When asked about this or that legendary artist or musician, he makes the tough decision: Racist. Shake. Drug addict. There is no anger in his voice.
“All he wants to do is paint,” said Brendan Dugan, owner of Karma. “Every day is a gift and it shines forward.”
Bradley and his wife, Debra Roskowski, live in a stone house in Saugerties that was missing windows, electricity, and heat when they bought it in 1997. They were cooking on a double stove and washing dishes outside with a hose. said retired fashion designer Roskowski.
There’s a huge tub from Bradley’s old loft on Broadway and a sink from his childhood home in Western Pennsylvania. Many valuable works of art that he had accumulated during his career in the arts were sold to earn a living. However, he managed to retain a Calder lithograph signed for him by the artist, some tribal artifacts he brought from South Africa, and elephant and giraffe skulls.
Bradley stopped wearing tailored suits after leaving Perls Galleries in 1975. “Ferrari” is now the nickname for the Hustler lawnmower. His studio occupies a shipping container parked next to the house. Inside, one wall is lined with shelves filled with Gold acrylic paints he’s used for decades. A small oven heats the floor in winter.
“I feel like Count Basie is playing softly in the background,” he said, sitting on a Steinway stool. No paintbrush in sight. Instead, Bradley mixes colors in plastic buckets using his hands, wooden sticks, and electric paint mixer. He then pours the mixture onto the wet surface of a canvas.
Canvases are laid on the ground and grass, some sports puddles. A few years ago, Bradley discovered that paint adheres differently to a wet surface than to a dry one. Now she hoses the canvases before applying the paint.
“I would be in jail doing that in Manhattan,” he said. “They would evacuate me right away: the water goes downstairs to someone’s house.” The colors are vibrant, the gel medium contains spheres and adds depth, weight and dimension. The works seem open-ended and unpredictable like jazz.
Along with Bradley, Gilliam, Clark, and Williams, he was among a handful of Black artists who produced abstract work in the late 1960s and 1970s. As it stands now, it strongly opposes figuration, including “silly figurative Black art.” A handful of slaves on the boats,” he said.
“We invented abstract art and we still do this kind of stupid stuff.”
“Look out. Look how abstract it is in here,” Bradley said, looking out into the garden. “You see color before you see any plant. It’s the color that matters. Nothing else.”
The garden is a link to his childhood in Connellsville, Pa., where he had to graze his mother’s garden. Born in 1940, Bradley was adopted by Edith Ramsey Strange, a savvy and enterprising woman. He bought a 27-room house once used by the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and filled it with lots of foster children and visiting jazz musicians. Bradley said both are sources of income. Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie and other musicians rode and performed while touring the area.
His mother bought him an easel from a music store. (Later, he also bought him his first luxury car, a Jaguar.)
When he came to New York in the 1960s, he encountered racism throughout his arts establishment. When he joined the conservation department at the Guggenheim, his staff had to vote on whether he could come to the dining room for lunch. (They voted.) Art schools weren’t much better. Detroit The Arts and Crafts Association said it was “a terrible school.” “But then I went to Yale and it was that bad. They had no respect for black artists.”
While working at Perls Galleries, Bradley commuted to New Haven twice a week. A St. Mary named Mary Frances Rand. Louis used the Ferrari he received as a Christmas present from his girlfriend, who is his heir. He eventually dropped out of Yale School of the Arts over a disagreement with an administrator who said he couldn’t have a luxury car on campus (Bradley said the school made exceptions for his white classmates).
In talking to Bradley, it is necessary to acknowledge some narrative gaps and inconsistencies. Bradley once said that Rothko may have had an introduction to de Menils, the Medici of the art world. Last week, the name of the couple’s daughter, Christophe de Menil, came to the fore.
When the couple asked him to hold an exhibition of contemporary Black art, Bradley initially refused. Instead, he proposed a show that would include strong performers of different races. He found a place in the abandoned, previously reserved De Luxe movie theater in Houston’s poor, predominantly Black Fifth Ward.
“The De Luxe show is the first time good Black artists have shared attention and respect with good white artists,” Bradley said at the time. “Black artists look good with them because they’re good. All the artists on the show definitely paid their dues. Living in poverty. Let me eat, I wonder where the next penny will come from to buy paint. It begs to be displayed. I wonder if it will ever be heard.”
Influential art critic and champion of Color Field painting, Clement Greenberg, came to Houston as a guest but helped set up the show.
Interviewed for the catalog, Greenberg said the event was unprecedented. “Not because art has not been brought to poor neighborhoods before. But ‘difficult’ contemporary art is not. With such an absence of contempt.” The show “sets a unique example, and one that I hope will be imitated a lot from now on,” he said.
Despite this endorsement, the careers of many of the artists of color on the show took decades to develop. Jaramillo was 81 when he opened his first museum exhibit on the Menil Collection last year. Clark’s career and recognition skyrocketed shortly before the artist’s death in 2019.
Bradley tinkered with it even longer, mixing the occasional teaching demonstrations with house painting. (He helped paint the roses in the hallway of a federal courthouse and Plaza Hotel in Manhattan, he said.)
“Peter had success in the 1970s, but he didn’t have the wealth and stability to sustain it,” said Dugan of Karma.
Bradley’s fortunes began to change when he met Robert Langdon, owner of Emerge Gallery & Art Space in Saugerties. Langdon heard about the old Black artist who lived and painted in the town.
“His work is great, and I’m shocked he hasn’t been on a show for a while,” Langdon said. Held Bradley’s solo exhibition in 2019 with six paintings costing between $60,000 and $80,000.
“Robert saved my life,” Bradley said.
Last year, the Karma gallery appeared. “It’s the world now,” Langdon said, acting as a link between Bradley and the East Village gallery.
“It’s hard when you’re not recognized and you’re depressed,” Dugan said. “Now things are exciting, things are happening. There is dialogue and support. That’s what every artist needs.”
through September 25 Karma, 188 East 2nd Street, Manhattan; (212) 390-8290; karmakarma.org.
Until September 18, Parker Gallery, 2441 Glendower Avenue, Los Angeles; 203-631-1343; parkergallery.com.