Mark Bradford’s Pickett’s Charge Rips and Repurposes US History by Kerr Houston
It is a sober and revealing statement. Titled Case 1240, it appears on page 439 of the massive Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion, and focuses on an arm wound sustained by a T.E. Griffith of New York in the fighting at Gettysburg, on July 2, 1863. Treated with poultices, the arm improved, and Griffith was eventually sent back into combat, before being discharged in late 1864. Nearly a decade later, however, Griffith still experienced discomfort, and saw an examiner in Utica – who reported, we read, “that the wound had never entirely healed, but opened every year, and was then open.”
The wound never entirely healed – and hasn’t since, in a sense, as the violent consequences of that conflict continue to affect our nation. And now, at a moment when monuments to the architects of the Civil War are being regularly toppled, the Los Angeles-based painter Mark Bradford has unveiled his most ambitious project to date. Ringing the inner circle of the Hirshhorn’s third floor, eight vast paintings offer a potent deconstruction of an iconic image of the climactic encounter at Gettysburg.
That image would be the celebrated cyclorama painted by Paul Philippoteaux in the 1880s: a 377-foot long rendering of Pickett’s Charge, in which Confederate troops surged towards Cemetery Ridge in what proved to be a devastating defeat that marked an important turning point in the war. Philippoteaux painted four versions of the scene, which were installed in a circular format meant to give viewers the sense that they were surrounded by the action (two of those paintings still survive). Highly detailed, the paintings were both ambitious and potent: reportedly, numerous veterans wept upon seeing them.
Visitors to the Gettysburg cyclorama, 2010
Bradford, then, is responding to the work of another artist – who, significantly, was also painting at a time when the legacy of the war was the subject of a complex debate. At the same time, though, he is also responding to a complex event, which has long been the subject of considerable revision and symbolic manipulation. As Carol Reardon explained, in a compelling 1997 book about Pickett’s Charge, the clash was rapidly mythologized by a Confederacy that sublimated defeat into a story of sacrifice. History, you might say, gave way to interpretation, retelling, and even distortion.
And, finally, Bradford is also responding to a specific space: to the Hirshhorn’s idiosyncratic cylindrical form, which loosely echoes the form of the circular buildings that housed Philippoteaux’ cycloramas. Traditionally, the inner ring of the Hirshhorn has been devoted to the exhibition of sculpture. But as Melissa Chiu, the museum’s director, explained at the press preview, the museum is now exploring other uses of the space, in an attempt to “give artists a chance to think about space very differently.”
The artist has certainly done that. His eight paintings, stapled to the wall, create a dense and layered environment. Using rope purchased at Home Depot – Bradford has long used found and at-hand materials, giving his work an improvisatory and unprecious feel – he and his assistants created a set of extended horizontals, at four-inch intervals. After gluing layers of various papers (including sizable fragments of Philippoteaux’ painting made by a billboard company) to the surface, Bradford then tore the ropes from their position, ripping through the layers of paper and producing a range of furroughs, interruptions, and scars.
Mark Bradford’s Pickett’s Charge (Witness Tree), 2016-7
In the process, Bradford effectively challenges Philippoteaux’ monumental rendering of the events at Gettysburg. The power of the cyclorama lay largely in its precise realism: as a writer in the Boston Daily Advertiser wrote, “it is impossible to tell where reality ends and the painting begins.” But Bradford’s work fundamentally challenges that seamless realism, constantly reminding us instead of its own manufactured quality. The monument, here, is undone; the commemoration problematized.
Importantly, too, our experience is de-centered. Philippoteaux placed the viewer on a central platform, with a potential command of the entire circular painting. But the center of the Hirshhorn, of course, is a void, and we are limited to a circular hallway with merely partial sightlines. There is no ideal vantage point, no master narrative; our view is always fragmentary.
Detail of Mark Bradford’s Pickett’s Charge (Dead Horse), 2016-7
That’s true on a local level, as well. Nothing quite coheres in Bradford’s paintings; instead, we are granted only fragments of recognizable forms. We discern shards of Philippoteaux’ painting, and can follow the line of a ropes, or a course of dripping paint – but inevitably each motif is then obscured, interrupted or aborted. Perhaps the resulting disorientation approximates the confusion of a soldier; certainly, too, it seems fair to compare the rips and flaps of paper to lacerations. But on a more abstract level, Bradford’s paintings thus challenge the very idea that we can easily understand, at such a remove, something so complex.
Bradford, for his part, speaks of the paintings in openly aggressive terms. “This became,” he said at the press preview, “a ripping through the history… I wanted to feel like it was peeled away and gouged.” There seems to be, here, an underlying interest in removing accretions, and in looking beneath: a spirit that’s also visible, incidentally, in Henry Louis Gates’ searching account of the black experience at Gettysburg. Initially informed that no black soldiers participated in the fighting, Gates unearthed extensive evidence of blacks who were present at and directly affected by (and even took part in) the conflict. Gates, remarking on the marginalization of this aspect of the campaign, pointed to a segregation of public memory. Bradford, in literally ripping Philippoteaux’ image to shreds, also seems motivated by a desire to challenge received narratives.
Detail of Mark Bradford’s Pickett’s Charge (Witness Tree), 2016-7
Moreover, the very idea of narrative is complicated in his cycle. There is no clear progression in Bradford’s paintings, as they’re installed; you can walk the ring in either direction, but no obvious organizational patterns reveal themselves. Instead, the predominant narrative mode here is indexical, or temporal, rather than sequential: it’s built into the works themselves, as we can deduce Bradford’s working method from the visible layerings and violations of the surface of each painting. We thus become complicit in the central project of reconstruction: like Bradford, we take part in configuring the past.
In this sense, the paintings can feel almost geological, or sedimentary: an aspect that is utterly appropriate to Bradford’s project. He has clearly thought about the metaphorical value of his forms: the gouges, again, suggest wounds, and in a painting subtitled The High Water Mark, the undulating lines of rope evoke waves. But the paintings also recall, to my eye at least, stratigraphic diagrams, in which the coursing layers of the earth are laid bare to the eye.
An 1883 stratigraphic chart of Leadville
Such diagrams can read as beautiful abstractions, but they are also records of almost unimaginable forces, of violent spasms and upheavals. And they are thus not unlike Bradford’s paintings, which – noted Evelyn Hankins (who co-curated the Hirshhorn show, with Stéphane Aquin) – are “alluringly beautiful but also violently aggressive.”
History can be crafted in many ways. It can be willfully exclusive, or insistently romantic. It can be shaped in a way that convinces us of its realism, despite its static nature. It can take the form of a palimpsest, like so many wheatpasted images on a city wall: a visible accretion of decisions and actions. Or, in Mark Bradford’s hands, it can become the raw material for a meditation on the very nature of memory. In Pickett’s Charge, he has effectively complicated our understanding of a central moment in American history. It is a powerful monument, which problematizes the very notion of a monument. It is a direct challenge, by a leading African-American artist, to the segregation of public memory. And in each of these ways, like the clinical diagnosis of Griffith’s wound, it is a sober and revealing statement.
Photos by Kerr Houston, Hirshhorn, and open source.