Mark Bradford can’t stand still. His energy – itchy, electric, fidgety – easily fills a gigantic, concrete-lined studio in south LA. His tall, beanpole stature carries with it a sense of urgency that can’t be contained. The American artist’s mannerisms say “something must be done.” And it has.
Currently representing the United States at the Venice Biennale, Bradford has tackled a number of America’s most difficult moments in history head on throughout his career – from black slavery to the LA riots in the 1990s – with a fearlessness he perhaps acquired by living on, what he once thought was, borrowed time.
As a young man in the early 1980s, Bradford was told categorically by a medical professional that, while he didn’t have HIV at the time, he was going to get it. He often nods to this moment when trying to explain where his drive comes from. As he puts it, he was “in a hurry.”
More than 30 years later and he maintains a similar pace (thought he does feel he’s more reflective now). For his latest piece, Bradford is unveiling a giant cyclorama – in other words, a 360-degree mural – titled “Pickett’s Charge.” The work was inspired by the famous “Gettysburg Cyclorama” (1883), a painting by French artist Paul Dominique Philippoteaux, which depicts the climax of the American civil war. Drawing from a particularly turbulent time in America’s history, it includes figurative elements of the original painting by Philippoteaux, which were turned into an abstract masterpiece.
Bradford’s mural, on display at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, comprises 8 smaller (but by no means small) commissions that together make use of the museum’s distinctive circular structure, creating a wall painting that spans nearly 400 feet.
During an interview in his studio, in 2015, around the time that he would have begun work on the Hirshhorn commission, Bradford said, “I like the idea of doing a mural, but what constitutes a mural in the 21st century? You think of Diego Rivera, Sol LeWitt, you think of something that is flat on the wall. But I’m going to do it the way that I do it… always pushing it further, nothing is static.”
In reference to the work, Bradford recently wrote in a statement: “Politically and socially, we are at the edge of another precipice. And those of us who are artists must charge into the fray, leading a charge to turn a tide.”
This isn’t an artwork that visitors can tentatively skirt by. It encourages, perhaps forces, a sense of participation or involvement. “I like the idea of putting the citizens or the viewer inside the middle of my artwork, at the center of the hurricane,” said Bradford.
“Pickett’s Charge” is on display at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden until Nov. 12, 2018.