Detail of Mark Bradford’s “Pickett’s Charge,” mixed media. (Joshua White/Mark Bradford/Hauser & Wirth)
Art and architecture critic

Abstract artists will often say that although their work isn't representational or illusionistic, it nonetheless offers a picture of the world. Artist Mark Bradford, fresh from representing the United States at the prestigious Venice Biennale last summer, has used a nearly 400-foot-long interior wall at the Hirshhorn Museum to make a colorful, clotted and peeling picture of the world he calls "Pickett's Charge."

The title of this Hirshhorn-commissioned work, which references a Southern general whose name became synonymous with military disaster, is politically volatile. It references one of the more dramatic moments of the Civil War, when three divisions of Confederate infantry attacked Union lines across a wide, open field at the 1863 Battle of Gettysburg. It was a dark moment for the South and is often cited as the turning point — the "high-water mark of the Confederacy" — in a war that until then had favored the South.

Bradford isn't interested in the drama of the war, but rather in how the narrative of that drama has been transmitted for more than 150 years. Embedded in his eight panels of thickly layered and torn paper is a reproduction of Paul Philippoteaux's 1883 panoramic painting "The Battle of Gettysburg," which is still on view at the battlefield visitors center in a purpose-built cyclorama auditorium. The Gettysburg cyclorama is one of the few remaining 19th-century panoramas, and it offers a rare chance to see what was then a popular, highly commercial and fully immersive spectacle that gave visitors a three-dimensional, 360-degree painted view of the entire battlefield.

Using billboard-size reproductions of the Philippoteaux painting culled from the Internet, Bradford has created thickly layered palimpsests of paper, embedded with ropes and cords that create striations. In some places, these appear like the fluttering horizontal lines produced by an old television tube, as if we are getting a distorted picture beamed over fickle airwaves. In others, they look like geological layers, curving in response to tectonic forces.

Small details of the original painting, highly pixelated from the reproduction process, show through, though in a few cases Bradford allows what is supposed to be buried — the original Civil War painting — to come fully to the surface. In a panel called "Dead Horse," one sees a haystack, cavalry and a dead horse, enlarged as a poignant detail that threatens to destabilize the abstraction with a powerful, representational and emotional focal point. In other panels, remains of the Philippoteaux are visible only if you put your nose to the surface of the work and search for colors and pixel patterns that differ from the rest of the palette and textures.

Bradford in his Los Angeles studio with “Pickett’s Charge.” (Agata Gravante/Mark Bradford/Hauser & Wirth)

"I'm forcing the viewer to actually look at the 'Grand American Painting,' " Bradford has said of his work. "What I'm saying is that that grand narrative never was; it always was a point of contention."

The artist has been at work on this piece for about three years, during which time conflicts about race and racism (and in particular how the Southern memory of the Civil War is a proxy for racism) have turned violent. The nation's first African American president has been succeeded by a president who refused to disavow white nationalists in the wake of protests in Charlottesville, Va., and has defended racist symbols of "Southern heritage" erected during the darkest days of the Jim Crow era.

In an interview with Hirshhorn Chief Curator Stéphane Aquin, Bradford sounds despairing: "I would say that it's absolutely impossible not to be angry. With all the things we fought for — to be more in the center of the conversation, to be more in the center of power. . . . What we see now, though, is that we were escorted to the door."

In one sense, Bradford is indeed forcing us to look at a "Grand American Painting." Unlike the specially built panorama theater, in which viewers stood on a central platform and viewed the painting at a distance, Bradford's work is right in front of us, and because we are told in advance that it references the Philippoteaux, it's impossible to resist the impulse to search out remnants of the older work. But Bradford is speaking metaphorically as well, using the Grand American Painting to represent ideas such as the Lost Cause myth of the noble South fighting not for slavery, but only for its independence and dignity. But even that doesn't quite capture the power of the metaphor.

Bradford's technique involves scraping and cutting and gouging into the layers of paper he has assembled, and the ropes and cords he embeds in the material are key to the larger meaning. Sometimes the ropes are left on the surface, but in other places they have been forcibly pulled out, leaving both their imprint, and a deep wound. "It is aggressive, yes," he said, when asked about what he feels during the process of removing them. But by removing the ropes, Bradford animates multiple symbolic meanings.

Perhaps Abraham Lincoln's first inaugural address, in which the president spoke of "mystic chords of memory stretching from every battlefield, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone," was in the artist's ear when he made this work (though this is not the first time Bradford has used this technique). Certainly the idea of a bond, something that ties us together but also is the root of the word bondage, which was a synonym for slavery, is heard in its richer, wider meaning. We might imagine the word "bond" in play when we think of how we relate to such images as Philippoteaux's heroic image of Gettysburg: People are in thrall to it, and often it binds them to other like-minded people who live in communities bound reflexively to misapprehension and myth.

Bradford's choice of the Philippoteaux cyclorama is canny. Although it is a popular tourist attraction, and many Americans retain fond memories of visiting it while on family holidays (this was decidedly not the experience of Bradford, who didn't visit until after he made his Hirshhorn work), it isn't exactly iconic. The artist might have used photographs by Alexander Gardner or Mathew Brady, or the Civil War images of Winslow Homer. But his intent wasn't to deface an icon of the Civil War in some echo of Marcel Duchamp painting a mustache on the Mona Lisa. Rather, it was to set up a powerful contrast between our desire to be fully and luxuriantly immersed in familiar narratives — the cyclorama experience — and the more anarchic and unsettling freedom of abstraction.

It is in that sense that he has indeed created a picture of the world. If we scrape the surface of any large national narrative, we soon find evidence of both wounds and healing, connections that exploit and connections that nurture. We crave the "real picture," a clarity on the past and our shared existence, that resolves into a grand, collective narrative.

That's not going to happen, at least, not anytime soon. There is too much under the surface that must still come out, and there are artists, such as Bradford, who aren't going to smooth things over. Even the idea of surface and depth is thrown into confusion, given the messiness of Bradford's process. That, too, is part of the picture.

Often we think of the surface as illusion and the depth as truth. Only through a complex process of abstraction can an artist make an image that shows us how that isn't the case. By embedding, layering, ripping and exposing an old Civil War painting in his work, Bradford creates a picture of a complicated and frustrating truth that haunts us every day in almost everything we say and think about our national divisions.

Pickett's Charge On view through Nov. 12, 2018, at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Independence Avenue and Seventh Street SW.