Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden: Mark Bradford’s ‘Pickett’s Charge’

Elaine A. King
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Mark Bradford at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden with details of Pickett’s Charge, 2017. Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Cathy Carver.

Mark Bradford uses the language of abstraction in his texturally layered paintings in which he combines collaged commonplace materials with paint. This celebrated African-American artist from Los Angeles since the early 2000’s continues to fuse his interests of cultural identity with abstract forms tackling a full spectrum of subjects including race, class, gender, aestheticism, or everyday life.

After fabricating “Tomorrow is Another Day” in the American pavilion for the 57th International Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia, for which he was the U.S.A.’s 2017 representative, Mark Bradford’s epic installation at the Hirshhorn Museum, titled “Pickett’s Charge” is his newest and colossal work to date. Organized by the Hirshhorn’s Senior Curator, Evelyn Hankins and Stéphane Aquin, Chief Curator, this new piece was commissioned in 2015, though was delayed due to the artist’s time commitments in Venice. Expectations are high! Hankins states, “Mark’s distinctive ability to infuse the language of abstraction with social, political, and historical meaning places him at the very center of critical conversations in the art world and beyond, which is why I think his work is so powerfully resonant at this moment.”

Right: Installation view of Mark Bradford: “Pickett’s Charge” at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, 2017. Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Cathy Carver.

The subject of “Pickett’s Charge,” centers on noted French painter, Paul Dominique Philippoteaux’s cyclorama, “The Battle of Gettysburg”, depicting the Confederate infantry attacking Union lines across a wide, open field. Although the South was predicted to win the Civil War, Gettysburg represents the turning point for the Confederacy and its “high water mark” since the Southern army never recovered militarily or psychologically after their fierce defeat. Philippoteaux’s eminent work, a three-dimensional, 360-degree painting done in 1883 portrays on canvas the critical Confederate attack ordered by General Robert E. Lee against Major General George G. Meade’s Union army in 1863. The ‘charge’ is named after Major General George E. Pickett, one of three Confederate generals who led the failed assault—Pickett’s name became associated with the attack and military miscalculation.

Left: Observation deck at Gettysburg National Park, with portion of Paul Dominique Philippoteaux’s 360° cyclorama, “The Battle of Gettysburg” in the background.

Bradford states each section of his vast wall painting draws inspiration from the events at Gettysburg from July 1–3, 1863. His expansive site-specific installation comprised of eight thematic canvases, each 12 feet high and 45 feet long, spans 400-foot linear feet across the Hirshhorn’s spherical third-floor outer hall gallery. Its structural format draws inspiration from the museum’s circular architecture and the parallel to Philippoteaux’s work.

Given the significance of Gettysburg to the Civil War, it is strange that Bradford had not seen Philippoteaux’s real mural at the Gettysburg National Military Park until after completing his composition. According to James Gibbons, “Bradford visited the cyclorama in situ only after his Pickett’s Charge canvases had been shipped off from his Los Angeles studio. To create the work he first experienced Philippoteaux’s cyclorama the way most of us now would: via the Internet. Using print-outs of the Gettysburg painting taken from the web, which Bradford sent off to be enlarged by a printing firm specializing in commercial billboards, the artist incorporated fragments of the digitally reproduced cyclorama through a laborious process involving the layering of paper and other materials.”[1] Here, old school confronts the contemporary media world—the new normal. Perhaps we don’t need to experience the physical thing when a virtual image is available from an IPhone or Internet, on the other hand, important things can be lost in facsimile’s translation.

Right: Installation view of Mark Bradford: “Pickett’s Charge” at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, 2017. Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Cathy Carver.

Yet, Bradford’s use without actually seeing Philippoteaux’s landmark cyclorama panoramic painting is baffling! Bradford is neither a Millennial obsessed with “Selfie-Surface-Experiences” nor an artist who opts to render precise realities. Experiencing this work at the Hirshhorn prompts several vital questions. Why did he select Pickett’s Charge as the theme for this fabrication when so little of this abstracted piece actually deals with the battle? Given Bradford’s emphasis on abstraction, what did he hope to convey by abstracting this historical event? What was his intention behind this work? Why was he was satisfied with using a reproduction from the Internet and not bother to go to Gettysburg? Yes, there is much written about the artist’s goals and intent in the impressive catalogue accompanying the show, however, not all viewers will have read the catalogue essays prior to visiting the Hirshhorn. Furthermore audiences coming to this museum on the mall are diverse, with many neither being art world people familiar with the Bradford’s art nor steeped in history.

Left: ‘Copse of Trees,’ detail of Mark Bradford’s mixed media installation “Pickett’s Charge.” Photo: Joshua White.

Bradford stated, “Politically and socially, we are at the edge of another precipice. I’m standing in the middle of a question about where we are as a nation.” Although this is a relevant question, he doesn’t reveal it in this piece. He claims, “I wanted viewers to reflect on the ways in which American narratives are influenced over time and how remnants of the past, as the Civil War era, can still inform the present”. These are pertinent, timely intentions given the repressive conservative attitudes of our era but his translation leaves viewers with an emotionless overlay onto a specific historic context. However, does a viewer interpret this fundamentally abstract message? Indisputably, this ambitious work evinces Mark Bradford’s personal abstract style that melds and layers different materials to create a textured composition fusing abstraction with realism. Descriptively his work resembles decaying walls of peeling paint whose materials are lifting off of the underlying canvas. Dense layers of vividly colored papers, paint, and rope co-exist within each spilt level panel that Bradford carefully sanded, peeled and stripped. Selectively he cut away thick sections to reveal essences of the battle from the foundation of Philippoteaux’s digitally reproduced original composition.

Below: Detail of Paul Dominique Philippoteaux’s cyclorama, “The Battle of Gettysburg” (1883), depicting ‘Pickett’s Charge,’ as Confederate infantry attack Union lines across an open field.

Some presume Mark Bradford used Philippoteaux’s notable painting and the title for this work “Pickett’s Charge” to function as a type of metaphor to address myths about freedom, racism and inequality of the black person. If viewers are to recognize that the subterranean narrative buried in this production supposedly echoes narratives about the unfairness from the Civil War period to our present time and to consider how American history is shaped over decades by the reconstruction of history, then why isn’t this apparent?

Hankins affirmed, “I think one of the most remarkable aspects of the project is how the canvases feel like they have been here forever. Not only do the horizontal scores that run the length of all the canvases reiterate the cyclical nature of the building, but the abraded surfaces suggest how the work might have aged or changed over time.” Whereas this is a thought-provoking observation yet Bradford’s entire oeuvre has primarily been about content.

Right: Mark Bradford, Pickett’s Charge (The High-Water Mark) (detail), 2016-2017. Mixed media. Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Joshua White. 

The vividly colorful panels “The Copse of Trees,” “Battle,” and “The High Water Mark,” are impressive abstract pieces filled with curved lines, textures and movement. If one chooses to step closely to scrutinize the composition’s surface small details from the pixelated reproduction of “The Battle of Gettysburg” can be found. For the most part these images are positively intriguing examples of well-organized dimensional nonrepresentational paintings. However, the two most compelling and significant compositions of the entire installation comprise “Dead Horse” (below) and “Thunderous Cannonade.”

In the former a golden haystack, a sunken wooden bridge, and a dead horse dominate a third of the picture depicting Bradford’s break from his expressionist abstract method. The enlarged size of the representational forms impends the scene shifting the focus in a powerful way to the actual raging battlefield and the emotional tragedy of the skirmish occupying two-thirds of the image. This area is the focal point of the work, revealing scenes from Philippoteaux’s painting of soldiers marching, fighting and dying. What Bradford has said of this work, “I’m forcing the viewer to actually look at the ‘Grand American Painting,’ ” –this rings true in this panel.

“Thunderous Cannonade” (detail, left) is another arduous configuration that captures the horrors of war as well alludes to Bradford’s emphasis. Floating across the upper large horizontal expanse are sizeable abstract colorful paper forms resembling earlier textural panels. They appear as if they’ve been cut out from the black negative space framing them. Recurrently puzzle-like fragments depicting the Union flag carried in battle float throughout this upper area of the piece. The entire lower section unveils scenes reproduced from Philippoteaux’s painting disclosing the violent battle. The contrast of the bloody fight in the lower portion against the black ground drives home the gravity of this composition and the episode it depicts.

Artist, Mark Bradford, in front of his work, “Pickett’s Charge.” Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Cathy Carver.

Although “Pickett’s Charge,” is a visually notable abstract composition, Bradford’s creation is also a missed opportunity to overlay his personal voice about African American freedoms, bigotry or benchmarks over 150 years since the Civil War and the ‘High Tide of the Confederacy.’ The list of touchstone issues could include the rise of the KKK, segregation, Dr. Martin Luther King, American Civil Rights, police brutality, Black Lives Matter, Anita Hill, the election of the first African-American president, Barak Obama, and now President Donald Trump! The questions again arise: Where is the artist’s personal voice? What did Bradford hope to convey by abstracting this significant historical event and how is he connecting time present with time past? His very words, “Politically and socially, we are at the edge of another precipice. And those of us who are artists must charge into the fray, leading a charge to turn a tide.” What precipice(s) does he want us to see? Which frays link today to the field of Gettysburg? Who is leading the charge, whether from the North or the South?

By Elaine A. King, Contributing Art Critic

Hirshhorn Museum And Sculpture Garden: Mark Bradford’s ‘Pickett’s Charge’
National Mall, Independence Avenue and 7th Street, Washington, DC
Through November 12, 2018


[1] James Gibbons, “Mark Bradford’s Gettysburg Address” Bradford’s installation at the Hirshhorn Museum takes as its subject the ways we think, and ultimately don’t think, about history. Hyperallergic, November 18, 2017.

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