Installation view of “Mark Bradford: Pickett’s Charge” at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, 2017 (courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo by Cathy Carver)

Mark Bradford’s Pickett’s Charge, a site-specific commission for the circular third-floor gallery at the Hirshhorn in Washington, will doubtless be taken by some as an engagement, post-Charlottesville, in the national discussion about Civil War monuments and their place in the public sphere. Addressing the most famous battle in our nation’s defining conflict — a history that, in Faulkner’s famous phrase, remains “not even past” — Bradford’s sweeping installation comprises eight large-scale works that, as their individual titles suggest, draw inspiration from the events of July 1–3, 1863, at Gettysburg. We should be careful, though, not to assign a narrow sense of relevance to Bradford’s efforts here. The Hirshhorn commission, somewhat delayed due to the artist’s work for the American Pavilion in this year’s Venice Biennale, originated in the twilight of the Obama years, well before Trump had been considered a viable presidential candidate, let alone graced with an “-ism” attached to his name.

If Pickett’s Charge speaks to events and debates that have recently roiled the nation, this can’t be chalked up to the artist’s design — though it does suggest something uncanny in Bradford’s seeming foresight. Given his innovative use of everyday materials (most notably, the hair-salon end papers in much of his early work) and his thoroughgoing rethinking of the divide between abstraction and representation, it wouldn’t be the first time. What Bradford has created with Pickett’s Charge extends well beyond the topical — not transcending or evading but encompassing and subsuming it. Insofar as the installation is “about” anything, it takes as its subject the ways we think, and are diverted from thinking, about history.

Installation view of “Mark Bradford: Pickett’s Charge” at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, 2017 (courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo by Cathy Carver)

Immersive and gripping, Pickett’s Charge is in dialogue first and foremost with a differently impressive painting of the same title, some seventy miles north of the Hirshhorn and the National Mall: the French artist Paul Philippoteaux’s 1883 cyclorama installed at Gettysburg, a proto-cinematic spectacle of high drama and martial valor. Bradford visited the cyclorama in situ only after his Pickett’s Charge canvases had been shipped off from his Los Angeles studio. To create the work he first experienced Philippoteaux’s cyclorama the way that most of us now would: via the internet. Using print-outs of the Gettysburg painting taken from the web, which Bradford sent off to be enlarged by a printing firm specializing in commercial billboards, the artist incorporated fragments of the digitally reproduced cyclorama through a laborious process involving the layering of paper and other materials.

In the palimpsests of Bradford’s Pickett’s Charge, one sees glimpses of the cyclorama in varying degrees of clarity and legibility amid the work’s thick, three-dimensional striations, whose materials are often peeling away from the canvases. In selectively reproducing imagery from Philippoteaux’s painting, Bradford subjects it to further fragmentation, even as he makes the viewer aware of its continual influence, its subterranean persistence when unseen, its entombment within strata that do not extinguish its presence.

We might regard the installation as an allegory of historical understanding and misapprehension, the way our fitful perception of historical fact is filtered through a glass, darkly. But in making the cyclorama one of many formal elements in the work, treating it as a kind of medium interacting with the paper, rope, and paint that surround and obscure it, Bradford appears interested less in history as it really was and more in how historical events are mediated by later interpretations, entailing certain forms of complicity and partiality. Experiencing these canvases, you’re distanced from the 19th-century source material, and feel yourself squarely within a 21st-century frame; Bradford’s neon yellows and colorful rope-cords would likely have startled Philippoteaux’s original audience. We are presented with the strangeness and puzzle of an outmoded war tableau, communicated as if it were some scratchy wax-cylinder recording, at times unintelligible.

Installation view of “Mark Bradford: Pickett’s Charge” at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, 2017 (courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo by Cathy Carver)

There’s also diminishment of the source material’s authority. In Bradford’s hands, the cyclorama fragments visible in the canvases aren’t some bedrock to be laid bare — in areas where the paper flakes away, revealing layers beneath, Philippoteaux’s imagery seems flimsy as an ephemeral street poster, at the mercy of time and the elements. In its conception, the Gettysburg cyclorama had presumed a kind of mastery of the event it depicted, akin to the way topographical maps (of which there are echoes in Bradford’s piece) purport to be accurate and reliable. Bradford puts forth no such claim toward the battle or even Philippoteaux’s grand spectacle. One might imagine some sort of counter-cyclorama or parody of the Gettysburg painting, but that’s not what Bradford’s Pickett’s Charge is. Rather, the artist shows himself grappling and contending with the ongoing legacies of Civil War mythology. The viewer is invited not only to linger within the sensory denseness of these canvases but also to take part in the process of reflecting on how history is transmitted down through the decades and centuries.

Nonetheless, something of the battle’s raw violence asserts itself. In one section a group of papers droop outward from the surface, suggesting an onrush of falling bodies. At the top of one of the canvases a cluster of thick, arched forms, dark against a blue-and-gray background, summons associations with predatory birds, vultures awaiting their carrion once the battle has ended. The communication of violence is essential to Bradford’s fundamental aims for the installation. “The grand narrative never was,” he has said regarding Pickett’s Charge, “it was always a point of contention, and it never was seamless; it always had interruptions and fissures and violence. The string for me is the violence. The tearing of the actual painting by pulling and tattering, it becomes a way for the violence to come through, to reveal the underlying violence in the grand narrative.”

Installation view of “Mark Bradford: Pickett’s Charge” at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, 2017 (courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo by Cathy Carver)

I don’t deny that Pickett’s Charge might be considered in wholly different terms, namely, as the latest iteration of Bradford’s sustained conversation with abstraction, especially the AbEx tradition. But I find so much of the work’s power to inhere in its insistent concreteness, not only of historical reference but also site-specificity. Battlefields, of course, are memorialized as actual spaces with inalienable demands on collective memory; we speak of their locales as “hallowed ground,” and at Gettysburg the stopping of Pickett’s Charge by Union forces has been fixed, indeed enshrined, as the Confederacy’s “high-water mark” (the title of one of Bradford’s Pickett’s Charge canvases). But to make this sort of clean empirical distinction, to assert that above a certain patch of ground the Confederacy never extended, is to promulgate a kind of fiction atop a seemingly straightforward historical fact, or, in Bradford’s terms, to efface the layers of contention within a particular grand narrative. For the time being, Bradford has laid claim to a specific place mere steps from the National Mall, a space that in its idealized form is meant to signify national unity or, at bare minimum, respectful civic coexistence. The canvases of Pickett’s Charge now in Washington remind us of those varieties of violence — the conceptual and discursive distortions as much as the overt strife — that has made genuine American unity so elusive.

Mark Bradford: Pickett’s Charge continues at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (Independence Ave SW, Washington DC) through November 12, 2018.

James Gibbons is an associate editor at the Library of America and a frequent contributor to Bookforum.