“It kind of worked out, right?” said Mark Bradford, smiling and gesturing to his almost-400-square-foot creation at the Nov. 7 press preview of his new exhibit, “Pickett’s Charge.” The contemporary artist’s newest work occupies the entire th
ird floor of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden beside the National Mall. The project is two years in the making and each of its eight constituent paintings are over 45 feet long. The exhibit tackles the issue of civil rights in modern America through a creative lens.
Bradford’s charismatic attitude and rapport with museumgoers during the press preview matched the dynamic mood of his paintings. In this respect, it is clear that he puts his soul and personality into his works. As a great visionary of the period, Bradford is turning contemporary art on its head. He kept touching and moving the pieces throughout the preview, putting all viewers on edge but also proving that art is dynamic and should not be taken too seriously. The eight pieces were commissioned by the Hirshhorn two years ago; Bradford began them in his studio, took a break to stage another exhibit, “Tomorrow is Another Day” at the La Biennale di Venezia International Art Exhibition, and then continued on to finish “Pickett’s Charge.” He claimed that this break allowed the project to develop and its purpose to change over time.
Bradford started this commission planning to create a series of paintings based on the idea of civil rights, inspired by the Hirshhorn’s location on the National Mall. Bradford’s work calls viewers to consider the ways in which American narratives are shaped over time and how remnants of the past, like the Civil War period, can manifest in the present.
Bradford drew inspiration from the Hirshhorn building itself when creating his pieces. Because the museum is circular, Bradford decided to create a “cyclorama,” a giant, circular painted diorama that completely surrounds the viewer.
In his research of cycloramas, Bradford discovered “Gettysburg Cyclorama,” a famous work by French artist Paul Philippoteaux that depicts Pickett’s Charge, the Confederate attack on Union armies during the 1863 Battle of Gettysburg. Pickett’s Charge then became the inspiration for Bradford’s final piece and the title of his exhibition.
While experimenting with different textures and styles, Bradford fought to keep all eight pieces unified. To do this, he used rope purchased from Home Depot, which is colorful and is similar to the cords used by rock climbers, as the bottom layer of all of his pieces.
“That was an architectural and grounding mechanism,” Bradford said.
This rope runs both horizontally and in waves throughout all eight pieces. The ropes are covered with layers of paper and photos, building texture. In some places, Bradford ripped the rope out of the paper to create torn lines. In other pieces, he left the rope either hidden, to create ridges, or exposed, to show color and differing textures. The consistency of these lines unifies the eight pieces, making the exhibit cohesive. Furthermore, the ropes represent the themes of struggle and oppression inherent to the subject matter of post-Civil War America.
The development of Bradford’s style is apparent throughout the eight paintings, although each is distinct in its own right. Whereas the painting “The High-Water Mark” is almost entirely abstract and uses wavy lines to create movement and visual interest, in “Dead Horse,” the final piece that Bradford created, vivid images of soldiers marching and fighting are the central focal point. Bradford claimed that he made “Dead Horse” less abstract than the rest of the pieces because he wanted to push himself creatively.
Bradford also uses negative space to create visual interest. In “The Thunderous Cannonade,” colorful paper forms giant, abstract shapes with black negative space. This is the only dark piece in the collection, but the grounding techniques of the torn paper and rope allow the painting to fit in among the other works.
Put simply, the exhibit makes sense. Walking around the third floor, it is clear the exhibit tells a story.
Visitors begin with bright-colored abstractions and curved lines and finish with “Dead Horse,” the only literal artistic interpretation of Gettysburg in his abstractions of the battle. His message of calling viewers to contemplate civil rights and social justice in post-Civil War America is clear from the imagery in these works.
During the press preview, Bradford and the museum curators, chief curator Stéphane Aquin and senior curator Evelyn Hankins, continuously referred to Pickett’s Charge as a “monument.” We often think of monuments as bronze statues of presidents and soldiers, but we rarely think of monuments as pieces of abstract art.
Bradford addressed the current social connotation of monuments, and his work reclaims monuments as places that represent expression and resistance. Even though he began the work almost two years ago, the social context of a monument is more relevant than ever.
“This work is a way of looking at the past from a new perspective,” Bradford said.
“Pickett’s Charge” will be on display at the Hirshhorn Museum beginning Nov. 8, 2017, and will run until Nov. 12, 2018. Admission to the Hirshhorn is free of charge.