Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

The Sites of War

A new series of enormous, ominous battlefield paintings offers as much reality as the viewer wants to experience.
March 8, 2023
The Sites of War
On the left, part of painter Adam Cvijanovic’s depiction of the sea nearing the Normandy shore; on the right, part of his painting of poppies blowing in Flanders fields—both works displayed as part of his massive new installation in the hallways of the Major General Emmett J. Bean Federal Center in Lawrence, Indiana. (Photo by Al Ensely)

Representational art has been having a moment, and landscapes with it. Some would say this is because it’s easier on the eyes and mind—landscapes, according to this argument, are usually easy to parse, like windows into other, attractive spaces. We don’t expect what a massive new installation by Adam Cvijanovic does, erasing the comforting distance of the window and dropping us into the world of the painting.

Nor do we expect the disorientation we feel. In one group of panels, we are confronted by boulders, just gray, waterworn boulders, so emphatic that they must mean something . . . but what?

This extraordinary new series was just installed in the Major General Emmett J. Bean Federal Center just outside Indianapolis, a vast, austere clerical and administrative building for the military. The seventeen works are large: Each is 7 feet high by 50 to 70 feet long, and each is broken into several shorter 7-foot-tall panels running down the halls. The whole group totals some 1,000 linear feet. For context, a football field is 360 feet long, a tennis court is 78. The endless white halls of Bean would overwhelm anything smaller; workers use golf carts to get around.

The landscapes were painted in the last two years on a federal government commission by the Brooklyn artist Adam Cvijanovic, 62, a master of enormous, almost life-size “repertorial landscapes,” in the words of critic Justin Spring. These works, like many in his oeuvre, are painted on Tyvek, a synthetic nonwoven material commonly used for FedEx packaging, for disposable PPE, and to wrap houses under construction. It has disadvantages as a paint surface—you can only use acrylic paint on Tyvek—but Tyvek is removable from surfaces so the murals can be moved.

Most of the works in the installation are conventionally beautiful, packed with delicate poppies or tropical ferns, or striking rocks and snowcapped peaks, or pebbled beaches and turbulent ocean waters. But there is something odd about all of them—maybe it’s the absence of animal or human life?

In these unpeopled works, it’s harder to figure out where the emotion comes from. We want to ask, as with the boulders, “Why this?”

The answer is that the scenes show seventeen significant battlefields in U.S. military history, from the Mekong Delta to Concord, Massachusetts, from Fallujah to Flanders, where the poppies are a giveaway. The point of view, artist Cvijanovic explains, is that of an American combatant. Thus the dread beneath the surface. Cvijanovic cites Monet’s Water Lilies as an influence on his Concord panels, but they are creepy, not tranquil. In the lovely tropical Mekong, the viewer is on a boat that isn’t in the frame, gliding over muddy water, vulnerable to Viet Cong hidden in the lush foliage. In Normandy, the largest painting gives an idea of the landing zone, but the others are mainly water. The dark sea in the foreground, with the celebrated beaches far in the distance, is the view of a soldier preparing for landing under fire, battle, and perhaps death. Is the sense of horror in the swampy water, and in the choppy Normandy waves, a horror of death? (Is that always what finding dread in a landscape is about?) Do we need people in a landscape for it to convey negative emotion? Howard Pyle’s Civil War paintings from the early twentieth century, which Cvijanovic points to as an influence on his Gettysburg panels, are equally moody, but because they’re full of men bayoneting each other, we don’t notice the emotion in the landscape itself.

Cvijanovic’s landscapes are accurate as to the weather on the day of battle—that much is rooted in fact.

Detail of Cvijanovic’s ‘Normandy.’ (Photo by Al Ensely)

Cvijanovic, who names the Hudson River School as a major influence, enjoyed an early success despite never attending art school, indeed never attending college at all. Nevertheless, he has taught at RISD. And he is extremely well read, which came in handy while researching this far-ranging series. His works have been shown at the Guggenheim, the Metropolitan, the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, and the Hermitage among others. A rangy Yankee (his Yugoslav-born architect father Alexander went to Harvard and worked in Cambridge with Walter Gropius), he is also a dogged contrarian. He eschews social media.

Through thick and thin, Cvijanovic has produced representational art, but this isn’t photorealism; from a foot away, the roiling dark water of the Normandy painting looks like the marbleized end papers of an eighteenth-century book. As you move close up to his work and descend to the brushstroke level, you meet abstraction.

Cvijanovic has painted subjects as various as Monument Valley, huge glaciers, and suburban houses, usually at a grand scale, sometimes tongue in cheek, sometimes too tongue in cheek for critics. Now in the Bean installation he has created a deeper work, one that in its overall plan draws inspiration from the ninth-century Borobudur complex on Java (the world’s largest Buddhist temple, “a journey from desire to form to formlessness,” in the artist’s words) and from the Italian Renaissance tradition of integrating painting and architecture. There are ironies in what Cvijanovic shows us—there’s a golden glow and purple mountains in some panels, casually evoking the Hudson River Valley but based on photos of Tora Bora—but these are not, in intention or overall effect, ironic works.

The original plan was that only the 5,000 or so people who work at the Bean building and their visitors, who must have security clearances, would ever see the paintings; many are veterans. This didn’t bother Cvijanovic, nor did its distance from any of the art world’s centers. It’s worth noting that in Italy, where Cvijanovic lived for a year early in his career, works make their own centers; we seek out churches in smaller regional cities like Arezzo and Parma for their unique works, rather than staying only in Milan and Florence and Rome.

Cvijanovic’s ‘Gettysburg.’ (Photo by Al Ensely)

But as it became apparent that Cvijanovic was creating something extraordinary—not to mention, maybe the largest single painting commission executed by one artist—the authorities decided to open the work of art to the public, albeit under restrictions. Visitors will have to go through the equivalent of airport security. More information should be available soon, but it looks like visits will begin with tours, first by school groups, then through the Indianapolis Museum of Art (a.k.a. Newfields). So Indianapolis—whose museum has a strong collection of nineteenth-century art including a Turner, and unexpected rarities like a Lucas Cranach—now boasts a destination contemporary work of art.

Cvijanovic visited three of the closer battlefields, Concord, Gettysburg, and Jockey Hollow (a Revolutionary War site in Morristown, New Jersey); his fee did not allow for travel expenses. (Another site he depicted, Indiana’s own Tippecanoe battlefield, has been nearly obliterated by urban sprawl.) For the rest he relied on photographs, some of them from surprising sources. The Mekong Delta was based on tourist boat trip publicity photos, while the aerial view of the DMZ in Korea came from Google Maps. (The artist removed the two border fences.) The painting of Tora Bora came from the Army itself; Cvijanovic cut the helicopters and Rangers.

Cvijanovic’s ‘Concord.’ (Photo by Al Ensely)

In spring 2021, the artist showed me and a few others some of the Bean Center work at his jam-packed Brooklyn Navy Yard studio, just 27 feet wide at its widest point, a space that seemed hardly big enough to hold the work, much less paint it. Cvijanovic painted for two years without an assistant, hanging smaller-width strips of the 7-foot-high Tyvek to paint portions of the landscapes. In November 2022 I returned for a last view of the work in the studio before it was shipped to Indianapolis for installation in December. (Full disclosure: I have known Cvijanovic since the late ’90s, when I became friends with his first wife. Long since divorced and remarried, he’s someone I see a few times a year at parties.)

At the Bean Federal Center, the paintings are arranged around the three story, double-atrium building in a program whose meanings emerged for the artist in the course of making them. They move upward from ground-floor scenes of Concord and Gettysburg (“battles in which the fate of the union was at issue”), Jockey Hollow and nearby Tippecanoe. Each is set at the historically accurate time of year. Spring (a limpid pond in Concord), summer (Gettysburg), fall (yellow leaves at Tippecanoe), and winter (snow-filled woods at Jockey Hollow) are represented in what Cvijanovic calls the cycle of life and death.

On the second floor there are scenes from our more problematic wars: Chosin Reservoir, Fallujah, Tora Bora, and the Mekong Delta, plus a series of especially lush paintings drawn from satellite imagery of trouble spots like Korea’s DMZ and the Spratlys. Cvijanovic chose satellite imagery because these are not spaces we experience directly at this time.

Cvijanovic’s ‘Vietnam.’ (Photo by Al Ensely)

On the third floor the elements dominate: the glaciers of Thule (the Arctic site of the northernmost U.S. military installation), the Normandy sea, Flanders fields.

So far, we are squarely within the classical tradition: a hierarchy of battles, the progression of the seasons, the elements.

Then the ground is pulled out from under us, in a series of images of Iwo Jima, opposite the Marine Corps offices on the third floor. The Battle of Iwo Jima was immortalized for Americans in Joe Rosenthal’s flag-raising photograph that inspired to the Marine Corps War Memorial and the shape of the National Museum of the Marine Corps, and the island is now, it turns out, a Marine pilgrimage spot. The point of view in Cvijanovic’s Iwo Jima paintings is very different: they show the viewpoint of a dying Marine as his world reduces to his immediate surroundings. They begin with Mount Suribachi viewed from a landing craft and the landing zone:

‘Iwo Jima,’ progressively narrows and enlarges, recreating the viewpoint of a dying Marine. (Photo by Al Ensely)

Then, successively larger paintings of beach pebbles enlarged to apparent boulder size. I imagine many viewers, like me, will never have thought before about the visual field of a dying person. Cvijanovic is blunt: “They are about the specificity of death.”

Separate photographs of the three other paintings in the Iwo Jima series. “They are about the specificity of death,” says Cvijanovic. (Photo by Al Ensely)

This is the part that makes sense of the Borobudor comparison, though visitors to that temple were meant to be parsing a traditional pictorial grammar that is part of their culture, and Cvijanovic is inventing it as he goes. But the cycle of life and its end have always been an implicit topic for him. The late critic Steven Vincent (a mutual acquaintance murdered in Iraq) wrote that Cvijanovic’s seemingly placid glacier paintings tell us that “everything, even massive ice floes, will someday vanish into nothingness.”

When we talk about war, the artist notes, we necessarily include death. So the entire building becomes a memorial to the combatants and the dead, and a confrontation of the viewer with death. But at least judging from photographs, this is a less eerie experience than zipping by golf cart down the endless glossy white hallways of the Bean building as they were before the murals.

When Cvijanovic began thinking about the project, back in 2011, he didn’t yet know the structure and meaning he would find. Initially the General Services Administration approached him to do work for a federal building, and by random chance he was invited to submit a proposal for the Bean Federal Center. In thinking about the site, Cvijanovic was influenced by the animal dioramas at New York’s Museum of Natural History. The project was awarded to Cvijanovic in 2011 and called for 25 scenes, not 17. Then it was canceled—and then greenlighted again on its current smaller scale. The paintings are part of the art allotment budgeted for all federal buildings; the artist’s compensation, which is public, is minimum-wage-ish. He insists that this doesn’t matter.

Detail of Cvijanovic’s ‘Kuwait Stars.’ (Photo by Al Ensely)

“I have sold a lot of paintings to rich people,” says Cvijanovic. “They disappear into private collections and few or no people see them. The idea of doing something owned by the people was appealing to me. When I lived for a year in Italy in the late 1980s, I saw how paintings were integrated with architecture and with life, not something on the wall but a setting in which you live. With this project maybe I can give ownership of paintings in everyday life to the people who work here.”

This ownership includes a variety of responses to the project. Anyone who works at the Bean building will know the paintings are of battlefields, not random scenic spots. This demands an emotional response, and “the specificity of death” may not be for every afternoon. Sometimes we want to stop at the beautiful surface. The absence of human or animal life contributes to what Cvijanovic admits is an ominous feel to the work. As another painter, Marcy Rosewater, points out, usually figures provide scale (think of the Hudson River School) and an entry point into the work. Cvijanovic jokes that the viewer can “just add his own imaginary figures to the landscapes.”

As the artist’s quip suggests, Cvijanovic sees the viewer as completing the work, writing in his proposal that the absence of figures “lets the images be more open-ended, on the one hand colorful landscapes that bring life into empty corridors, on the other, each scene is from the point of view of a soldier in that battle.” I emailed Cvijanovic that this reminded me of something that Marcel Duchamp wrote in 1957: “The creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualification and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.”

Cvijanovic’s emailed reply raised bigger questions:

Duchamp was—whether he knew it or not—getting at a quantum mechanical view of the world. In my paintings it is where two opposing things are held true until the viewer makes an interpretation in a particular instant. The central spot given to nature could be seen as Nature will out, something operating without empathy or remorse, a pitiless death even in renewal.

Or, there could be a way in which we are always here, a hint at mysteries of understanding contained within us but beyond the event horizon of our conscious selves.

Or, it could be that both things are true, both erasure and the unbreakable bond. And this is not about moral relativism, this is just to say the paintings can be seen as a model of life itself, everything is there if you want to see it, and the simultaneity of it.

This is a strikingly original view of the possibilities of painting, and the enormous installation that tries to embody it is well worth a trip to Indianapolis.

Ann Marlowe

Ann Marlowe is a writer and businesswoman in New York. She tweets at @annmarlowe.