What is commonly referred to as the high-water mark of the American Civil War took place on the third and final day of the Battle of Gettysburg. Confederate soldiers launched an assault on a hill known as Cemetery Ridge, and were repelled by Union soldiers. More than half of these Confederate forces were killed and thousands more captured in what came to be known as Pickett’s Charge, forcing Robert E. Lee into a retreat his army never fully recovered from. The High Water Mark of the Rebellion Monument now marks this site, and just as a flood record warns of how otherwise dry land could easily become submerged, this high-water mark is a reminder of the violent near-rupture of the United States, lest the possibility be forgotten.
What enters the collective memory, and how it comes to be memorialized, is a point of interest to Mark Bradford. He recently represented the United States in the Venice Biennale; among his works was a Monticello-influenced rotunda that appeared to have fallen into ruin, hinting at the hypocrisy of lauded slave-owning Founding Fathers. In Pickett’s Charge, he once again recontextualizes chapters of American history, lifting imagery from French artist Paul Philippoteaux’s epic cyclorama painting of the same title, examining how shared histories are constructed.
A cyclorama is a panoramic work displayed in a circle, giving the viewer the impression of being right in the middle of a scene, able to view all 360 degrees of the surrounding action. Late 19th century audiences were enthralled by the work, and veterans of the Civil War were reported to have wept upon seeing it, so realistic was the cyclorama effect in a pre-cinema world. Though the Hirshhorn’s cylindrical inner-ring gallery serves as a neat replacement for a true cyclorama, trying to orient oneself in this scene will not feel like standing in middle of a battle.
Bradford has no intention of depicting historical realism. Instead, he dismantles not just the source material, but the entire piece itself. Each panel of the wall is plastered over with billboard-sized fragments of imagery from Philppoteaux’s original, sometimes upside down or exaggeratedly huge.
In some sections, a soldier or a horse or a cannon wheel is set apart in sharp relief to the abstract background, but in others, distinct forms are barely recognizable. Beneath the splintered battle scene is layer upon layer of neon paper and oozy drips of toxic-looking paint. Embedded in these assemblages are nylon ropes running in horizontal lines, which Bradford has ripped out to reveal the layers of paper beneath and the fissures that remain.
“I wanted it to be like they had covered the whole work with drywall,” Bradford explained recently. And at times, particularly when the construction-bright color palette breaks through, it almost seems like this work was lingering behind the gallery walls all along.
Peeling back the layers suggests a building demolition or decades worth of wallpaper stripped from an old bedroom. By reverse engineering the work as an archaeological excavation, Bradford forces viewers to try to piece together visual clues and fill in the surrounding story, despite missing huge chunks of information. Rather than clarify a historical narrative, Pickett’s Charge abstracts it, further muddying its meaning and defying tidy explanations. “Answers just close people down. Questions note a dialog can happen,” Bradford proclaims.
Visitors to the Hirshhorn may be especially primed to mull over these questions now given the current public melee over Confederate memorials. Bradford didn’t intend Pickett’s Charge to be quite so topical; he began working on it well before torch-wielding Nazis hit the streets, so the timeliness is purely coincidental.
Nevertheless, it’s impossible to view the work at a remove from present moment—the words “blame on both sides” may echo in the viewer’s mind. “How many times have we just walked past old dusty monuments?” Bradford asks. “Now they’re reanimated and reactivated.”
At the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden to Nov. 12, 2018. 7th Street and Independence Avenue SW. Free. (202) 633-1000. hirshhorn.si.edu.