Abstract artist Mark Bradford may be a little bit clairvoyant. In 2015, when the Hirshhorn asked him to create a site-specific installation in the museum’s third-floor gallery, Bradford proposed creating his own version of a huge, circular painting that stands at the Gettysburg National Military Park. That was long before the current nationwide debate over Confederate monuments, and the Gettysburg painting wasn’t really on anyone’s mind, Bradford recalls. Created by French painter Paul Philippoteaux, the 1883 cyclorama aimed to give viewers an objective, immersive view of the Battle of Gettysburg by depicting its climactic assault, Pickett’s Charge. Bradford’s “Pickett’s Charge,” which goes on view tomorrow, uses a reproduction of Philippoteaux’s painting to create a collage that questions the very possibility of having an omniscient, objective perspective on that — or any — historical event.
Why did you take the Gettysburg cyclorama as your starting point for “Pickett’s Charge”?
I’ve always been a history buff, and I love those early American paintings. I used to stare at those kinds of paintings and make my own narrative. Cycloramas were really like early Imax theater. People lined up to have these experiences, to see these paintings that told big, heroic stories. I started thinking about making something that wasn’t literal, that has multiple points of entry and shows a more layered kind of history. It’s also a response to the architecture of the Hirshhorn. With cycloramas, the viewer stands in the middle — you’re omniscient. In the Hirshhorn, you can’t stand in the middle —you’d fall right through.
What kind of materials did you use in your collage?
I took some of the images [from Philippoteaux’s work] and sent them to a billboard company to print. Underneath that, there are layers and layers of store-bought, big sheets of paper [that matched] the colors from the original, but they are much more intense.
It’s like when people glue billboards over other billboards, and then you end up with something that has multiple layers of history. But in your piece, it’s backwards, with the oldest layer — Philippoteaux’s painting — on top and the more contemporary, brightly colored layers of paper underneath.
Yeah, exactly. I did want to reverse it. I was thinking about reimagining and abstracting history itself.
You also used rope in the piece, embedding it horizontally in the bottom layers of paper and then tearing it out so all the layers of paper are visible at once, making concentric circles across the museum’s walls. Was that meant to emphasize the circularity of history?
That’s what I wanted. It was also a way of organizing the space. I put in lines every 4 inches, and [the space between the lines] became like little separate paintings. [The piece] is so big — 400 linear feet — [that] without that organization, it would get out from under me real fast.
How did creating a piece of artwork to be displayed on the Mall inspire you?
The context is amazing. There’s no way you can be here and not think about governance, there’s no way you can not think about the foundations of the United States of America. Sometimes the context is so great, the work comes naturally out of it.
What do you hope people take away from seeing your new piece?
That we can look at history from a different perspective and question it and have no problem saying, “Maybe we need to look at this another way.” I think it’s a little bit of a history lesson and a little bit of a contemporary art lesson and a little bit of an abstract thinking lesson.