On East Lancaster Avenue in Fort Worth, Texas—along a short stretch of road between Church’s Chicken and Lone Star Motors II—you will encounter, until early July, two rather unusual billboards. One, just southeast of Church’s, shows six people standing around a car, among them a beaming Black man in a checked yellow jacket, yellow tie, yellow trousers, and a jaunty yellow cowboy hat. The other is a half-length portrait of the same figure—still smiling, but dressed now in a fisherman cap and a scarf. Elsewhere in Fort Worth, he appears again—his face in silhouette this time—on a billboard near scrubby Rockwood Park, some 20 minutes away. Curated by the artist Mark Bradford, these old photographs of one Mr. LaMarr—coiffeur extraordinaire to St. Louis society in the 1970s and 1980s—are part of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth’s Modern Billings program, which surrenders a smattering of the city’s billboards to contemporary artists. Bradford’s contributions, culled from the archives of his friend Cleo Hill-Jackson, were planned to coincide with Mark Bradford: End Papers, his magisterial solo show at the Modern; but just a few days into its 10-month run, the museum was closed to the public amid the coronavirus outbreak. So, for now, the pictures stand strangely, evocatively, on their own.Courtesy of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth
Using sites loaned to the museum by Clear Channel Outdoor, a San Antonio-based advertising company, the Modern Billings program was hatched in 2018, primarily as a way to place works of art in low-income neighborhoods. “Most of the billboards that the artists are selecting are along the Jacksboro Highway and the Lancaster corridor, which kind of radiate outward from the Fort Worth downtown epicenter where the museum is located,” says Jesse Morgan Barnett, an assistant curator of education at the Modern. “Many of the communities that they’re in are mostly populated with people of color, and many of the billboards that are peppered throughout that landscape are just kind of commercial advertisements, and predatory to the socioeconomic class of people residing there.” Through the project, adds Tiffany Wolf Smith, a fellow assistant curator of education, the Modern has seized an opportunity to “insert art directly into our communities outside of our museum walls.”Courtesy of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth
For the earliest iterations of Modern Billings, Barnett and Smith worked quickly, tapping a string of local artists—Fabiola Valenzuela, Raul Rodriguez, Casey Leone and others—to apply their distinctive creative visions to the Fort Worth skyline. The resulting work was pleasingly varied, ranging in style from the colorfully graphic to the moodily ambiguous. (As a rule, the billboards run without museum branding of any kind, affording the artists full creative control.) But in 2020, as COVID-19 has waged its war on common spaces, the conceit of Modern Billings—namely, its complete dissolution of the gallery environment, insisting instead that the art be seen from a distance, and en plein air—has proven prescient. Just a few months ago, when a graduate symposium for MFA candidates was called off in Dallas, Barnett and Smith invited students to show their work in a decidedly different format. Not long afterward, “many of them had their thesis exhibitions canceled [by the coronavirus pandemic],” Barnett says, “so it was quite nice to give them some kind of public presentation opportunity.” (Students will once again be the focus of Modern Billings later this year, when the billboards are given over to teens from the museum’s summer art study program.)
Bradford’s involvement has also been timely, given the recent wave of Black Lives Matter protests across the country. Born and raised in Los Angeles, the 58-year-old has often engaged questions of identity, community, and race in his work, combining flotsam from the urban environment—old flyers and such—into richly layered collages. In his show at the Modern, which draws from some of his earliest aesthetic experiments, most of Bradford’s surfaces were assembled from “end papers,” the small, translucent sheets deployed in salons to protect hair from burning. (For 40 years Bradford’s mother, Janice, ran a hair salon, where the artist worked throughout his adolescence and early adulthood.) “End papers were fifty cents for a box of two hundred,” he told the New Yorker in 2015. “I liked the end papers. I liked the social fabric they represented, and so I built this vocabulary, using only paper.” The same social fabric envelopes his billboards, alluding, as they do, not only to the cultural richness of Black urban life, but also to the joyous spectacle of Black beauty. “[LaMarr] was a fashion creator, and all the people around him were—they loved fashion and beauty,” recalls Hill-Jackson, a longtime hairdresser in L.A. and friend of LaMarr’s. “His salon catered to people to bring out their best.”
Although the community response to Modern Billings has been somewhat hard to gauge—“I’m sure at first, because you don’t have any logo or any explanation on there, [people] were confused,” Smith says—Barnett and Smith both hope that this summer, viewers will delight in what they see. Beyond the strength of its novelty—“that interruption of what they might expect, and whatever that conjures up for them personally,” as Barnett says—there’s the project’s pure power of representation: In Mr. Lamarr’s jolly joie de vivre, people may well recognize some of their own.