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Bradford was born and raised in South Los Angeles. He later attended Crescent Heights Elementary School. His mother owned a beauty salon where he also worked for a while. Bradford and his mother moved to a then largely white neighborhood in Santa Monica when he was 11, but she still maintained her business in the old neighborhood. Bradford began his studies at the California Institute of the Arts in 1991 at the age of 30. He earned a BFA in 1995 and an MFA in 1997.
Bradford is known for grid-like abstract paintings combining collage with paints. His collage Orbit (2007), contains a magazine image of a basketball placed at the heart of a dense lattice of black LA streets. Created by the additive and subtractive processes of collage and décollage, as well as with paint, Orbit appears like aerial views of contorting, mutating, and decaying city whose tiny, intricate street grids can no longer maintain their structural integrity against unknown epic forces. Bradford’s improvisational command of these large areas is also able to suggest the formidable energies of mass consumption and, perhaps more important, its counterpart, the mass generation of trash.
Bradford's A Truly Rich Man is One Whose Children Run into His Arms Even When His Hands Are Empty (2008), nearly 9 feet wide and 9 feet tall, according to Maxwell Heller in The Brooklyn Rail, "calls to mind the charred and shattered windshields of cars burned in riots—black, webbed with streaks of light, sleek. If studied section by section, it offers traces of the artist’s sensual, tactile process, revealing delicate layers of found material sliced and sanded, lacquered and pasted until transformed."
Bradford’s practice also encompasses video, prints and sculptural installations. In his installation Mithra (2008), Bradford shipped a 22-foot-high, 64-foot-long ark constructed from salvaged plywood barricade fencing to New Orleans for Prospect New Orleans, an exhibition of contemporary art commemorating Hurricane Katrina. That same year, he created a Katrina-themed installation on the roof of Steve Turner Contemporary gallery, across the street from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The piece—an enormous SOS sign visible only from the air—said simply "Help us."
In 2012, Bradford narrated the soundtrack to the 30-minute, site-specific dance duet Framework by choreographer Benjamin Millepied in conjunction with the show “The Painting Factory: Abstraction after Warhol" at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.
In 2009, the Getty Museum invited Bradford to do a project of his choice with its education department. He chose teachers rather than students as his primary audience, bringing 10 other artists - including Michael Joo, Catherine Opie, Amy Sillman, and Kara Walker - on board to develop a set of free lesson plans for K-12 teachers.
In 1998, Bradford had a solo show, “Distribution,” at L.A.’s Deep River, a gallery started by Daniel Joseph Martinez and artist Glenn Kaino. In 2001, Thelma Golden included Bradford's end-paper collages Enter and Exit the New Negro (2000) and Dreadlocks caint tell me shit (2000) in the breakthrough "Freestyle" exhibition of 28 African American artists at the Studio Museum in Harlem. Bradford has since exhibited in the Sao Paulo Biennial (2006), Whitney Biennial (2006), Liverpool Biennial (2006), ARCO 2003 in Madrid, In Site at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego and the Centro Cultural de Tijuana, USA Today at the Royal Academy in London, Street Level (2007) at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, at the Wexner Center for the Arts at The Ohio State University (2010), Sikkema Jenkins Gallery, the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston (2011), the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago (2011), and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (2012). Bradford has participated in the 9th Gwangju Biennale (2012).
September, 2013 - Tom Bradley International Terminal at LAX, suspends Mark Bradford’s "Bell Tower" structure above the security screening area.
Bradford has won the Bucksbaum Award (2006), the $50,000 United States Artists fellowship (2006), the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation Award (2003), the Nancy Graves Foundation Grant (2002) and a Joan Mitchell Foundation Grant(2012). Most recently, he was a 2009 recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship (also called the "MacArthur Genius Award"). In 2009–10, he had a residency at the Wexner Center for the Arts. In 2013, Bradford was elected into the National Academy of Design.