In the late fall of 2018, an odd delivery appeared on the campus of the University of California, San Diego. From the flatbed of a trailer, construction crews unloaded five precisely machined, nearly 40-foot-long tubes. A slender tower grew quickly on the site, modestly intervening in the hardscape immediately north of Revelle Plaza, an early center of the now almost 60-year-old, 2,100-acre campus. Students and faculty biking or walking through the tree-lined corridor could glimpse a pulsing light above them, emanating from a lantern mounted to the top of the immense, slightly fluted column. The purpose of this light likely remains unclear to many who gaze up at its beam. For scholars of 19th-century technology, however, its message is unambiguous: “What Hath God Wrought?” This was the content of the first successful telegraph sent by Samuel F.B. Morse to his colleague, Alfred Vail, on May 24, 1844. Transmitted across a network of wires stretching from Washington, DC, to Baltimore, Morse’s 19-character question marked the inauguration of our modern communications era. Across a continent, and 175 years later, his text message re-circulates and addresses audiences anew.
Mark Bradford’s What Hath God Wrought (2018) is the most recent work to enter UCSD’s Stuart Collection. Long considered Southern California’s most significant assemblage of site-specific sculpture, the Stuart Collection plays an important role in bringing challenging contemporary art to San Diego. Bradford was first invited to consider a project for the Stuart Collection back in 1995, around the same time that he came to San Diego to propose a work for the legendary inSite—temporary, site-specific projects that enlivened both sides of the U.S./Mexico border from 1992 to 2005. Bradford politely declined the invitation to make something for UCSD 20 years ago, but Mary Beebe, the Stuart Collection’s formidable founding director, persisted and finally convinced him to undertake a project in 2013. Beebe then set about obtaining institutional and civic permissions while raising the funds necessary to execute Bradford’s lofty proposal. Altogether, the process took another five years. The 20th commission in the Stuart Collection’s 36-year history, What Hath God Wrought joins a host of singular contributions to the UCSD campus, including Barbara Kruger’s Another (2008), Do-Ho Suh’s Fallen Star (2012), and John Luther Adams’s The Wind Garden (2017). Although the fundamental simplicity of Bradford’s design suggests otherwise, his interrogation of the Southern California campus situation alongside contemporary geo-political events counts as something epic in terms of scale and urgency.
Since accepting the commission for What Hath God Wrought, Bradford claimed the Medal of Arts from the U.S. Department of State and launched a nonprofit exhibition and education space for foster youth, Art + Practice, in the Leimert Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, both in 2014. The same year, he installed a major sculpture in the international departure terminal of the Los Angeles Airport, a massive hanging form called Bell Tower. Bradford was subsequently invited to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale in 2017. “Tomorrow Is Another Day” was later shown in a revised form at the Baltimore Museum of Art, coinciding with Pickett’s Charge, a site-specific intervention at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, DC, on view through 2021. Like What Hath God Wrought, Pickett’s Charge plays with 19th-century modes of communication, specifically histories of panoramic entertainment and the peculiar dynamics of the Hirshhorn’s circular architecture. In between, curators have mounted exhibitions of Bradford’s large-scale works at the Hammer Museum, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, as well as at his New York gallery, Hauser & Wirth.
What Hath God Wrought shares a lot with the large-scale paintings that Bradford has produced since receiving his MFA from CalArts in 1997. His longstanding preference for fashioning works with materials taken directly from the shelves of Home Depot is part of his creative identity. In this case, he enlisted the professionals charged with fabricating the poles required by the Federal Aviation Administration for flight guidance. He instructed the team to engineer and install a thin shaft that, if it could not exceed, would at least equal the maximum height permitted by the FAA. What Hath God Wrought rises 199 feet from its three-foot-wide base to its tip; it is one of the highest elevations to be found along La Jolla’s coastline. (Since 2016, the FAA Extension, Safety, and Security Act has required lighting on freestanding towers measuring between 50–200 feet.) The placement of What Hath God Wrought near the point of UCSD’s origin enriches its meaning. Roger Revelle, for whom the plaza is named, worked tirelessly to persuade the Regents of the University of California to create a San Diego campus in 1960. His effort is commemorated on a plaque that became the model for the sculpture’s identification label. Bradford’s needle is thus pinned between its twin roles as historical marker and public address system.
The repeated messaging from the fire-engine-red beacon atop What Hath God Wrought is visible from multiple points on the university grounds—from nearby dormitory rooms and science labs to the chancellor’s residence on the bluffs overlooking La Jolla Cove. Bradford’s use of Morse’s original query is left open to multiple interpretations, therefore, including questions about the wider role that UCSD plays within the region. Bradford acknowledges a hope that its flash might reach observers in Tijuana, 32 miles away. One cannot help but wonder, along with him, how the historic question embedded in What Hath God Wrought is translated and understood on the other side of the border.
Bradford has used a similar strategy of uncertain public address in his other experiments with large-scale sculpture, including Mithra (2008), which he made for Prospect.1, the first New Orleans biennial. This hulking, three-story ark built from salvaged plywood, shipping containers, and found-paper signage occupied a large lot in the city’s Ninth Ward for 100 days, three years after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the same neighborhood. A forlorn image, freighted with lament, Mithra offered a preview of the messaging that What Hath God Wrought now delivers to more permanent effect. Both projects mix messages of salvation with popular mythology and place urgent declarations in the public sphere. Today, a decade after Mithra, Bradford appears as a confident sculptor easily up to the task of siting monumental outdoor works.
In conversation, he shares a childhood memory of how he once mistook the moonlight for a hole in the fabric of the sky. His fear of the dark was overcome by imagining a brighter illumination just beyond the veil of night. What Hath God Wrought owes something significant to that recollection and its fulfillment of a larger wish to pierce the unknown with light. In the end, Bradford imagines this work as a trans-historical debate about what communication brings to society. He likes the idea that a college campus offers a space for big questions to proliferate. Whether wondering aloud about our incessant messaging habits, interrogating the limits of technological progress, or simply asking who is responsible for current conditions, What Hath God Wrought relates passionately to its context. It can be seen as a sign of the times that it succeeds as both warning and poetic statement. In our epoch of instantaneous, continuous communication, an era that began with Morse in 1844, Bradford instructs us to relentlessly illuminate the unknown and stay fearless.