Pickett’s Charge, a group of eight humongous, mixed media artworks that Mark Bradford completed last year, may stop you in your tracks. That’s what happened to me at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. I became transfixed. Instantly. Wherever I looked, I was captivated by reds, blues, and yellows; linear networks stretching across vast spaces; images of uniformed Union soldiers, cannon, trees, and dead horses; and lots of peeling paper, clumped passages, and taut, patterned ropes. Picture a three-dimensional Kenneth Noland stripe painting gone berserk.
The massive, site-specific, historically informed abstractions fill every available wall space of the Washington, D.C. institution’s inner-circle galleries on its third floor—the ones that face the windows. All told, this extensive cycle, which is on view through November 12, occupies about 400 linear feet, with each part about 45 to 50 feet long and 12 feet high.
Bradford’s epic panels call attention to the last bloody battle fought in Gettysburg seven score and fifteen years ago. A turning point in the War Between the States, Pickett’s Charge took place on July 3, 1863, and is named for Major General George Pickett, one of the losing generals who commanded Confederate troops that day.
After walking Gettysburg’s fields and reading up on the history of the Civil War, Bradford based his compelling suite on a cyclorama of the battle executed by Paul Dominique Philippoteaux in 1883. The Frenchman’s work hung for many years in various locations, including a visitor’s center designed by Richard Neutra, at the hallowed battlegrounds, which are 85 miles north of D.C. Bradford executed his series of eight works atop super-sized print outs of this unusual painting.
Pickett’s Charge is a fine example of how Bradford and other artists of his generation are altering notions of what constitutes an abstract painting. This 57-year-old Angeleno has also rethought the nature of contemporary history painting as well as the way artworks can address social issues.
Like many Cubist masterpieces, especially those of the Synthetic persuasion, abstract art once again includes figurative imagery. And, it often resembles Cubist collages writ large, with pieces of paper, mechanical reproductions, and texts, both brief and expansive, addressing themes ordinarily more associated with representational works. In some cases, the latest canvases and ensembles by mid-career artists have grown immense as well. Guernica is a precedent, but wall-sized paintings are the new norm rather than the exception.
Bradford had a compelling story with which to work. Until the last battle fought on the final day at Gettysburg, the South had been trouncing the North. Then, on July 3, 1863, the tide turned. Years later, when asked why his attack faltered, Pickett allegedly answered, “I’ve always thought the Yankees had something to do with it.”
But Bradford didn’t want to create a narrative about Gettysburg, much less a history of the Civil War. He never wanted one panel to lead directly into another. That’s partly why he’s pleased there are visual ruptures between the panels. “Doorways,” he told me a few weeks ago, when we were seated in his studio in Los Angeles, “became gaps. They border into nothingness.”
Different panels make viewers aware of a range of circumstances and characters. There’s the “Battle” as well as “Two Men.” “The Thunderous Cannonade” is near “Dead Horse.” Then, too, the internal scale of the images changes from one work to the next. Some figures are large; others, quite small. The ropes that were tugged to reveal the layers beneath the topmost surface were arrayed so that they range from straight across, to curving like a stream, to going downhill diagonally.
You almost feel as if you are hearing different voices. “My inspiration,” Bradford told me, “became T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land.” “There’s darkness and death,” he said at one point. “It’s a space that Eliot talks about.”
When Bradford toured the battlegrounds, he was fascinated by the trees. It seemed to him that many of them had stood in the same place a century and a half ago, i.e. during Pickett’s Charge. Consequently, the artist refers to them as “witness trees.” He even considers them to be “magical.” The panel entitled “Witness Tree” has a number of them, culminating with a pronounced group on its right-hand side. Bradford said, “I toggle between history, imagination, and social material.”
Like other great American abstractionists, Bradford has created a process that is unique to his needs of expression. And like many of his other compositions, the panels that comprise Pickett’s Charge are many layers thick. He embeds the ropes early in the process, then covers them up as he builds his stirring pieces from the inside out.
Not many painters can, like Bradford, justifiably compare themselves to archeologists. To complete one of his mammoth abstractions, he needs to keep track of the layers he already has laid down. “That only comes from working with the same materials for years,” said the artist, who represented the United States at the 2017 Venice Biennale.
Like a painter who relies on assorted jars and tubes of oil and acrylic plus other materials, Bradford has used all sorts of papers in his work. “Paper, to me, is dried pigment,” he said. Once he wets it with power washers, he can liquefy it or turn it into pulp, and then can work with it as if it were paint.
Bradford will keep wetting a panel’s surface and the layers below it until it starts to peel. Then, he pulls the ropes whose ends are on either side of the unfinished picture so that various layers reemerge. Half the time, he conceded, he may lose the work. That’s the gamble. When you lose your way in a piece, he told me, you just end up with paper, not a composition. “Emotionally and physically,” he said, “you have to keep at it. The physicalness of that is faith. It’s not when the going is good, but when everything is falling apart. You get through that with faith.”
That also can be said about the themes that emerge from Pickett’s Charge. When Bradford began to work on this commission from the Hirshhorn, he hadn’t realized “how complex the subject of the Civil War was and how deep a lot of those wounds still are,” he said. Charlottesville reminded him.
Bradford had put aside working on Pickett’s Charge to complete his show for Venice. When he returned to Los Angeles from Italy, he picked up where he had left off. Except the divisiveness of the country had become more evident to him. It was, Bradford said, “surprising and disturbing at the same time.” True to his word, he stuck to his personal philosophy: “I always go where I am fascinated.”