I could die of difference, or I could live myriad selves. Audre Lorde
The enormous collage, Jheri Now, Curl Later, by L.A. artist Mark Bradford has been a part of the Brooklyn Museum’s permanent collection for over fifteen years. My love affair and subsequent fixation with Bradford’s work began in the year 2004, during an early iteration of the museum’s First Saturday program. His palate of peach and silver undertones and tiny, square sections of white, translucent paper mesmerized me away from my chatty group to stand closer. The sounds of merengue pumped in from the Rodin sculpture gallery, as mixed race children and black couples milled past me, laughing into the air and one another’s faces. A woman, with a glass of something bubbly and yellow in an angular plastic cup stood staring at me for much longer than she took in the artwork. One could only presume that she was considering an inebriated advance, or worried about me. Regardless, I was determined to be alone, going so far as to close my eyes as I ran my index finger along the roughness of the painting. Are those endpapers? I wondered aloud, leaning back to locate the accompanying wall text. Surprised by my accurate instinct, I pressed my fingers along the crisp edges again, disrespecting the art in my rule-breaking worship.
Endpapers were Bradford’s meek subject—finishing materials used by black hairstylists in rollers or pressed onto edges to keep things tight and in line. His work persistently carries such complicated emotional significance, the grid-like pattern conveying the chaotic pace of a city, paired with endpapers from his mother’s beauty salon as evidence of his life, all the profound innovation of a black mind. Decay, essentially. This detail made me think about his Mama, his sister, the path that brought this creation to me, to us. As I chuckled, I was struck with the feeling that I knew Mark Bradford somehow, and that I wanted to show his art to my father.
Even in my final weeks as a college student, my father still held his dutiful parental post—left leg draped on the driver’s side door, key in the ignition, jazz sax tooting out of the speakers. He seemed to be waiting for me my entire life; the car is where we had our most important conversations.
Whenever my father came to the city, the first thing he did was purchase every newspaper. He would get through the dailies—New York Post, the Daily News, the New York Times (and one weekly, the Village Voice) — by weekend’s end. It’s important to know what everybody is talking about. He drove in from our small town in Amish country, Pennsylvania to spend the weekend with me. I hustled out after one of my last undergraduate classes to see the gray Volvo double-parked on Second Avenue, near 72nd Street.
My curls bounced as I darted across the avenue to get to the car. I had just chopped off all of my hair–the dead, chemically-relaxed ends. A decision revealed by the tiny coils mixed with white pillow fuzz sitting atop his daughter’s head, straight and uneven strands sparking up all around. When my butt plopped into the passenger seat, his omniscient greeting was immediately paired with a loving and fatherly smile.
“You like it?” I gushed.
A Kool Mild cigarette sat between his left ring and middle finger; the New York Post lay splayed across the steering wheel. It was time for lunch, so I asked him to drive us down to Café Orlin in the East Village, one of my favorite places in the city.
My father tossed his cigarette out the window and turned on the car. He brightened with a new thought.
“Where is the pharmacy? What’s it called, Duane Read-er? You want to be an activist, then girl you need a pick.”
My father had a way of making me think that he knew more about me than I knew about myself. He carried a startling awareness about the kind of woman that I was, some of which, unknowingly made me just like him. What would you do if a young man proposed to you, girlie? he would ask, salivating over his own mixed messages. And I, allowing myself to receive this naïve role, began to trust that we were the same and had been trying to understand my father for my entire life. Nothing! I would reply, giggling together with tears in our eyes. We were both lonely; my mother had only been dead a year. At that time, New York held the least strain, fewer memories of my mother, and places that my father had never experienced but only read about. This is the park where I do my homework, I would say. Or, This is my favorite bookstore.
We sat at a center table in Café Orlin, underneath the peeling, white columns and heavy-footed wait staff. I watched as he uncrossed and shifted his creased pant legs, resting his shiny black work shoes onto the creaky wooden floor under the table. Freelancers nursed stained cups of coffee or snickered into their books. Small groups ate almost wildly, their silverware clanging against plates and glasses. My father hummed along to Billie Holiday’s blues, tempering our mood, as I scribbled into my notebook.
“After lunch, we’ll go to the Brooklyn Museum.”
“There is a museum in Brooklyn?” The words fell from his lips in a drawn-out melody. Carefully sung, and most certainly planned.
“Daddy, there’s a lot of stuff in Brooklyn.”
Yellow squash soup in a white ceramic bowl was placed between us. The green chives scattered across the surface enhanced the soup’s golden color. He grinned at me, and carefully ladled a spoonful to his mouth. The soup’s color brightened in my father’s glasses, like the patch of spring dandelions in our Pennsylvania backyard.
“Baby, this soup is so bright; I don’t think I have ever seen anything like this before.”
The soup was “bright” that day, new for my father. I hoped that this discovery would remain, somewhere in the middle, where answers were unnecessary.
“Yes, it is, Daddy,” I said, finally tasting the soup. “And sweet.”
“Yes, very sweet.”
I paused. “There is a someone that I would like for you to meet, too.”
“Oh,” he replied, without looking up. “Let’s see, I have met Danielle and Allison.
“And Taren, your new roommate. Who else?”
In the year after my mother’s death, my father and I shared more meals together than throughout my entire childhood. When I was growing up, we usually hit the kitchen in single file, piling our plates high with defrosted turnip greens and Salisbury steak or sweet spaghetti sauce accompanied by buttery green peas. If grief were generic, one would say that we were in the early stages, a collage of lovingly obsessive attentiveness, mimed interactions, and stultifying forgetfulness. We couldn’t handle the harder memories yet, and we didn’t find it critical to our conversations over squash soup at Cafe Orlin or even over scallops at Ocean Grille on the Upper West Side. In those days, grieving was as routine as Sunday dinner, mostly because neither of us had to be alone while pretending. There was an air of break time to these meals and museums.
Something is missing, my mother’s diary explained.
Danielle and Allison joined us at the museum. Like me, they were babies growing up in New York City just after the millennium. That was the year that Allison had her box braids redone four times in six months. She wore Seven brand jeans and would make conversation with my dad about current events, peer to peer.
“Mr. Cardwell, can you believe the subway went up, again?”
Danielle was coy, with alabaster skin and green eyes. Her waist length honey-colored hair made other white girls call her “earthy,” but we considered her educated and unique. The bamba swelled into a loud thumping, and the small talk dissolved. As if recognizing the shift, the marble rotunda lowered its lights. Allison smiled to herself and committed to the natural way her hips responded, her head tossing from side to side, in slinky and confident movements. Danielle always found herself in a similarly confident, but more energized and athletic wind, her core intact, eyes fixed on whoever was watching. I loved to dance, but became goofy in front of my father. Before I could feel this, my father started to dance. It began with his feet, pointing in and then out, as if they were surprised to be moving. Then, his left hand met his hip in an old soul gyration, top lip covering the bottom with concentration. I watched them all, as splinters gathered inside of my chest, the anguish pulling my face into a scowl. As a child, my mother called this expression “mannish,” which, for her, was another word for hatefulness. But this feeling was new. Envy? I backed away from them.
“I want to show you something.” I spoke with premonition. My father moved his hips precariously and slid backward across the marble floor. Danielle and Allison crumbled into giggles, following him to the center of the dance floor. I watched his eyes scan the crowd with the exotic gaze of a visitor. He saw something. So did I. My father was a man, a person, someone who may not be as sad as me. I pushed past them, reaching into the air to tug at his sleeve, to ask him, suddenly now in my younger voice, to come with me.
“What’s the matter, Erica? I’m having fun!” he replied with agitation, turning away from me. When my mother would come to New York, she would say similar things. Let me have fun, baby, making me feel like I was in the way, uptight, with too many feelings. I have always been an emotional tincture. Conflict boils in my gut, rises to my head, before drops of clarity are produced. Too late.
When we made it to the painting, I immediately wanted the paper in my hands. In my father’s hands. Or to fall at our feet, disturbed and shaken loose, affecting us.
“They are endpapers, Daddy.”
“Baby, but I would have never thought they could be in a painting.” He was sipping water now; small drops hung from his whiskers and mustache. He smiled and tiptoed away, back towards the dance floor. I stayed behind.
I’m unsure if it was the length of time she’d been dead, or the fact that I was aging that caused me to notice the evolution of New York City. By 2008, my generation of youthful transplants were becoming adults, timed distinctly with the rise of capitalism and rent in the city. There were still many ways to see free fine art, like First Saturday. And Mark Bradford could now be found in a Chelsea gallery. I teetered across 23rd street, through the vagrant elders of the Chelsea Hotel, the toxically over-shined apples and tomatoes of the Garden of Eden health food store, making long strides to beat the light on Eighth avenue. My hair was long enough to be tucked behind my ears if I fancied that, but most of the time it stuck up straight, the frizzy ends now flopped unevenly all over my head. My posture was stronger; gangly legs jutted out like chestnut branches from underneath my mended black and white second hand dress. Time Out magazine was folded inside my bag which listed Bradford’s latest exhibit, Nobody Jones, at Sikkemma Jenkins gallery. The cross-town bus whizzed past me; I was irritated with myself for being too impatient to wait several avenues back. One could easily glide from the white people in Burberry trenches brunching on Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth avenues, before passing the black children drinking quarter sodas from the bodega on Ninth, on my way to the art world on Tenth Avenue. A geography fitting for an artist who used endpapers in fine art. For a year and half, I worked at a nonprofit in the neighborhood, often confused by the crossroads of class within the community and my own life. Two to three weeks at a time, I would budget for brunch with my friends in places like Chelsea. Mark Bradford didn’t have a solo show until his forties. Before that, he made art on nights and weekends while working in his mother’s salon and completing art school in Los Angeles. I waved at the children I knew as I walked by, wondering dryly if any of them had ever considered the meaning of art and creativity in their lives. I’m sure they had.
The gallery was the typical stark white space of most expensive art spaces–a blank and flaccid palate for new work, a bit of an airy, echoing emptiness, permeated by an overwhelming sense of absence. At Sikkemma Jenkins Gallery, I didn’t feel as unwelcome as I was accustomed, with my used dress, unkempt spray of hair, and ashy ankles. This could have been because the artists on display looked like me. I would later learn of the gallery’s priority to feature contemporary black artists. I would come to know this when I would trace Kara Walker back to its four walls.
And there was something altogether different about Bradford’s new work. The declaration of blackness through the endpapers were now involved in a more blatant political statement. His L.A. held an imprint of basketballs, a comment on the contradiction between capital and poverty in the city. The layers were now symmetrical, a tedious tactic with the fine-tune of a pastry chef methodically handling stacks of crepes, meant to disintegrate in the mouth. Along with Bradford’s, my vision had sharpened; I was older. Which leaves me to wonder if the nuanced quality of Bradford’s paintings was more refined or if this was a moment where my black imagination became more fully realized.
Bradford’s work continued to shift. Instead of making art that reflected or mimicked Los Angeles, his pieces used the city, by way of old concert posters and found scraps. In wads and chunks, the city’s skin became Bradford’s new material—shedding, peeling, disregarded matter. He and his team soak these materials until they reach their original texture, then push forward with the laborious technique his work is famous for. It had been awhile since I’d seen Bradford’s work in person, despite the boom and zoom of his career’s rise. And although he never left my stock of black contemporary artists, I was less fixated. This was a period where I needed to stand very still in the same position, in the same spot, without looking around. If I wasn’t alone, I was staring into the eyes of a repetitive betrayal, a woman who wasn’t looking back. Bradford’s work evolved. The hands that placed themselves onto willing heads of black hair, awaiting his imprint of finger waves were now wrist deep in L.A., the city where he’d grown up as an outsider. Bradford defines his perspective as “social abstraction.” This may be the only time that I would hasten to describe a body of work, or someone’s life, with the phrase “coming out.” It is nothing other than a comment on the evolution of a black artist—the more exposed we become the more interested we are in sharing ourselves and being open about the role of art in our life as it relates to our decay. What part of us is dying as the rest of us continues to live and regenerate? Bradford has revealed what we thought we knew. The memories, just like the endpaper, were only just that: paper.
“She broke my heart.” I cried into my father’s phone ear.
I wonder if I would have ever revealed my desire had this woman not rejected me. It all came pouring out, no matter what I would have otherwise preferred. This was certainly one moment that I could point to as the inevitability of my desire and the destiny of even the things one hides from oneself.
“Come home, baby,” he said.
After what seemed like days of crying, my eyes beheld the bold healing of the sun’s light as it tucked itself away for evening. I was on my way home. The knot lodged in my throat reminded me that where I was going had never been my home. The older I became, the more leaving New York felt impolite, like a betrayal. In those early years without my mother, New York was raising me. So going to my father’s house felt like a retreat. It was as if I was walking backwards after arriving at my apartment’s landing, back down the stairs, onto the concrete sidewalk, and along the eight blocks to the train. There’s the meat market with the frozen carcasses in the window. There’s the bakery where the cashier accused me of using a stolen debit card. Back to the subway where I didn’t intend to hold onto the railing.
The Harrisburg train station is small and old fashioned. It is protected by a cement archway with only three tracks. Only three trains can arrive or depart at a time. I used my sleeve to wipe my face, anxious to think that my father may look at me differently and that I would look different to him. Would he still know me? Or did he know me all along? However tragic or amusing it can be to recall our previous selves, there is never one defining moment where one “comes out” in a tangled wrung out story shared with generations at bended knee. Rather, our stories are more keenly attuned signposts, the individuality of mourning, as we contend with who we thought we were. My seat on the train was frozen from the air conditioning; the icy privacy was preferred. This is where I give myself the things that make me smile and also reject myself if that’s what my internal weather has on the forecast. Desire—whether through art, another body, or acceptance—is desire. It is the tender belly button from which we all undeniably spring from, in all of its absence and humiliation. We will always be left with ourselves. And, the art we make.
This question of timing popped up when I noticed the silk robe in my father’s bathroom. There was no floral or abstract design. This robe was unlike my mother’s style. She wore pastels of pistachio or rose, some with cigarette burns tarnishing the sleeves. This robe was a bold pink; I was unsure how long it had been there. And my father was visiting me less often. I would come home and we’d sit quietly in separate rooms, eating take out and watching television, the way we used to when my mother was alive, comforted by familiarity, losing interest in our New York City dinner date charade. But it wasn’t until I was staring at that silk robe that all of the sorrowful routine began to fall back. Not away; just somewhere else.
My father would be waiting for me, but he had moved on. There was a woman in his life, too.
Two beers—mostly copper and foam—sat between us. Wailing alternative rock croaked through the speakers. Neither of us knew the words. The waitress plopped tin plates between my father and me, with heaping discs of spongy brioche bounced atop thick clusters of beef. We both ordered our burgers the same way: medium well with lettuce, tomato, mayo and onions. Cheddar for him, Monterey jack cheese for me. My cheeks puffed out from a healthy first bite. While he chewed, my father’s gray hairs pulsed at his temples. We ate quietly. The newspapers were in the car. By now, the gaps in conversation had grown.
“I see what kind of woman you are becoming.”
A “mannish” woman, I immediately thought, confused at who was talking, my father or my mother. My full mouth opened, allowing breath to escape in a subtle sigh. We’d never spoken about this. Years before when I landed in front of him, warm with tears over a woman, he never brought it up. He just picked up my bag and drove us home. The field was mostly weeds that time of year, so we both sneezed and let our itchy eyes excuse away the gaping topic we were avoiding.
“And no man is going to pay your way. I mean, be around to help you. Well, of course, I will. But I think you are more focused on your… well, your career.”
My hair brushed my shoulders now, with one thin, wiry lock trailing onto my shoulder and down the center of my back. I didn’t want to speak too much for fear of interrupting our connection. We hold our breath for moments like this, savoring them when we cannot sleep. Especially when these moments do more to enlighten instead of align with what we perceive as hope. I could have wanted my father to say, “You’re gay.” Or “You desire women and I receive you.” More than should be asked, given what he was really saying. This moment was a shifting away, or into, an acknowledgement of his daughter becoming something else.
“I just want to let you know that I’ve noticed a change.”