SAUGERTIES, NY – Artist Peter Bradley is a month younger than 81 and his future is developing.
On a hot day as hummingbirds circled sunflowers in his New York state garden, art dealers took out his paintings for three upcoming exhibitions at the Karma Gallery in downtown Manhattan.
The first pays homage to the groundbreaking exhibition that Bradley curated and abstract works by 18 black and white artists side by side in Houston 50 years ago. Sponsored by the philanthropists John and Dominique de Menil, it was one of the first race-integrated exhibitions in the country. This month, the works of all the artists in the original exhibition, including Sam Gilliam, Ed Clark, Kenneth Noland, Anthony Caro and Virginia Jaramillo, will be reunited at Karma on East Second Street and the Parker Gallery in Los Angeles.
Next up is a group show curated by the critic Hilton around the idea of Faith with Bradley’s new abstract paintings alongside works by Diane Arbus and Peter Hujar. After all, the artist’s first solo exhibition since 1993 is due to open in New York City in October.
Prices are also rising. In June, a 1973 painting, Ruling Light, valued at $ 10,000-15,000, 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 the public eye in the past two decades. Karma began working with Bradley last year when the reckoning of race and inequality swept across the country following the murder of George Floyd. Karma’s reintroduction of Bradley’s abstract works comes at a time when figurative works by black artists are growing in urgency – and demand.
“The main thing is that it happens before you drop dead,” said Bradley, sipping craft beer on a stone patio. It was 10 a.m. and he looked relaxed and smart in a Hawaiian shirt, paint-stained shorts and rain boots, his hair a nest of coarse white curls.
Bradley has always had style. As a dealer in his twenties, he drove Ferraris, wore handmade suits, and sold Picassos, Mirós, and Calders in the Perls Galleries on Madison Avenue. He served clients such as Robert Redford and Gregory Peck. Greta Garbo and Mark Rothko stopped by to chat.
He then exhibited at the prestigious André Emmerich Gallery, known for advocating for artists associated with color field painting, a post-war abstract style that has nothing to do with racial issues.
In 1971, he declined 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 regardless of color,” he said last week). Instead, he organized a racially integrated show that opened at the De Luxe Cinema in Houston that August that year. In the 1980s, Bradley traveled to South Africa to set up a residence for abstract artists, began sculpting, and toured with jazz musician Art Blakey.
“As the wearer of many hats (art dealer, curator, painter, sculptor, musician, teacher), Peter’s story is a story worth knowing, full of great anecdotes and historical tales that reveal a picture of the past that is otherwise unknown to many scholars and historians”, wrote Terence Trouillot in 2017 in BOMB magazine.
Personally, Bradley is warm, refreshingly disrespectful, uncompromising, and potty-trained. He got to know the who’s who of the post-war avant-garde and formed his own opinion. When asked about this or that legendary artist or musician, he makes short judgments: racist. Fool. Drug addict. There is no anger in his voice.
“He just wants to paint,” says Brendan Dugan, the owner of Karma. “Every day is a gift and it burns ahead.”
Bradley and his wife Debra Roskowski live in a stone house in Saugerties that lacked windows, electricity and heating when they were bought in 1997. said Roskowski, a retired fashion designer.
There’s a huge tub from Bradley’s former loft on Broadway and a sink from his childhood home in western Pennsylvania. Many valuable works of art that he had amassed during his career as an art dealer were sold to make ends meet. However, he managed to capture a Calder lithograph personally signed by the artist, some tribal artifacts, and elephant and giraffe skulls that he had brought back from South Africa.
Bradley stopped wearing bespoke suits after leaving the Perls Galleries in 1975. “Ferrari” is now a nickname for his Hustler lawnmower. His studio occupies a shipping container parked near the house. Inside, a wall of shelves is lined with gold acrylic paints that he has used for decades. A small stove warms the place in winter.
“I feel like I’m composing music,” he said on a Steinway stool while Count Basie played softly in the background. There are no brushes in sight. Instead, Bradley stirs paint in plastic buckets with his hands, wooden sticks, and an electric paint mixer. Then he pours the brew onto the wet surface of a canvas.
Canvases are laid out on the ground and in the grass, along with some sporty puddles. A few years ago, Bradley discovered that paint adheres differently to a wet surface than it does to a dry one. Now he hoses the canvases before applying paint.
“In Manhattan I would be in jail with it,” he said. “You’d get me out of the way: water runs downstairs in someone’s house.” The colors are vibrant, with gel-medium clumps that add depth, weight, and dimension. The works seem open-ended, unpredictable, like jazz.
Bradley was one of a handful of black artists, along with Gilliam, Clark, and Williams, who created abstract works in the late 1960s and 1970s. He continues to vehemently oppose figuration, including “stupid black figurative art. A bunch of slaves on boats, ”he said.
“We invented abstract art and we still do stupid things like that.”
“Look out. See how abstract it is out here,” said Bradley, looking out into the garden. “Before you see any plants, you see the color. The important thing is the color. Nothing else.”
The garden is a link to his childhood in Connellsville, Pennsylvania, where he had to weed his mother’s garden. Bradley was born in 1940 and was adopted by Edith Ramsey Strange, an accomplished and enterprising woman. She bought a 27-room house that was once used by the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and filled it with dozens of foster children and jazz musicians who were visiting. Both were sources of income, said Bradley. Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, and other musicians came on board and performed while touring the region.
His mother bought him an easel in a music store. (She later also bought him his first luxury car, a Jaguar.)
When he came to New York City in the 1960s, he encountered racism throughout the art world. When he entered the Guggenheim’s conservation department, the staff had to vote on whether he could come to the dining room for lunch. (You chose him.) Art schools weren’t much better. The Detroit The Society of Arts and Crafts is a “terrible school,” he said. “But then I went to Yale and it was just as bad. They had no respect for black artists. “
Bradley commuted to New Haven two days a week while working for the Perls Galleries. He drove the Ferrari that his girlfriend, a St. Louis heiress named Mary Frances Rand, gave him for Christmas. He eventually left the Yale School of Art because of an argument with an administrator who told him he couldn’t have a fancy car on campus (although Bradley said the school made exceptions for white classmates).
When speaking to Bradley, you have to accept certain narrative gaps and inconsistencies. Bradley once said that Rothko might have introduced the de Menils, then the Medici of the art world. Last week the name of the couple’s daughter, Christophe de Menil, was mentioned.
When the couple asked him to organize an exhibition of contemporary black art, Bradley initially declined. Instead, he proposed a show that would include strong performers from diverse racial backgrounds. He found a place in the shabby, once isolated De Luxe cinema in Houston’s poor, mostly Black Fifth Ward.
“The De Luxe Show is the first time good black artists share the attention and tribute with good white artists,” Bradley said at the time. “The black artists look good with them, simply because they are good. All of the artists on the show have certainly paid their dues. Live in poverty. You wonder where the next penny comes from to buy paint, let alone food. Ask to be exhibited. You wonder if you will ever be heard, seen. “
Influential art critic and advocate of color field painting, Clement Greenberg came to Houston as a guest but eventually helped install the show.
In the interview for the catalog, Greenberg said the event was unprecedented. “Not that art wasn’t brought to poor neighborhoods before. But no “hard” contemporary art. And it does so with such a complete absence of condescension. “The show, he said,” sets a unique example and I hope it will be emulated much from now on. “
Despite this confirmation, it took decades for the careers of many non-white artists to blossom on the show. Jaramillo was 81 years old when she got her first museum exhibition in the Menil Collection last year. Clark’s career and recognition soared shortly before the artist’s death in 2019.
Bradley struggled even longer, mixing occasional teaching assignments with house painting. (He helped paint a federal courthouse in Manhattan and the roses in the hallway of the Plaza Hotel, he said.)
“Peter had success in the 1970s,” said Dugan of Karma, “but he didn’t have the wealth and stability to keep him going.”
Bradley’s fortune began to change when he met Robert Langdon, the owner of the Emerge Gallery & Art Space in Saugerties. Langdon heard about the older black artist who lived and painted in town.
“His work is incredible and I was shocked that he hasn’t had a show in a while,” Langdon said. He organized Bradley’s solo exhibition in 2019 with six paintings priced between $ 60,000 and $ 80,000.
“Robert saved my life,” said Bradley.
The Karma Gallery was added last year. “And now it’s the world,” said Langdon, who acts as the link between Bradley and the East Village Gallery.
“It’s hard when you’re unrecognized and depressed,” said Dugan. “Now it’s exciting, something is happening. There is dialogue and support. Every artist needs that. “
The De Luxe Show
Until September 25th, Karma, 188 East 2nd Street, Manhattan; (212) 390-8290; karmakarma.org.
Through September 18, Parker Gallery, 2441 Glendower Avenue, Los Angeles; 203-631-1343; parkergallery.com.