Our Life in Signs1

Richard Shiff

Painting, palimpsest, diorama, pulse

In 2007, Julie Mehretu submitted a successful proposal for what became the painting simply titled Mural, produced for the front lobby of the new Goldman Sachs headquarters in lower Manhattan. The business of Goldman Sachs is finance, and Mehretu imagined the project establishing a new face for visual arts in New York’s financial district. Although the painting would be situated in a private office building, its glass-walled lobby location would reveal in to the street; in this respect, it would be a public work.

Two of Mehretu’s friends—Lawrence Chua, an architectural historian and novelist, and Beth Stryker, an architect and artist—aided her in providing a conceptual orientation for the proposal. To acknowledge the nature of the architectural context, its identity as a hub of economic activity, Chua suggested citing Fernand Braudel’s authoritative account of capitalism as it developed from the fifteenth to the eighteenth century.2 The collaboratively generated proposal, informed by history and economic theory, made it clear that Mehretu’s work would become far more than an architectural embellishment. Through imagery associated with economic exchange as well as through evocative form, Mural would participate in the modes of human activity occurring at its site. Beyond the immediate environment of Goldman Sachs, it would be a source of intellectual and sensory stimulation for everyday life in New York—something to think about, and above all, an experience to feel.

To represent “a spatial history of global capitalism”: this was the bold concept at the core of the proposal.3 Mehretu’s work would refer to organizational features of nations and cultures that reflect the general economy in its spatial aspects. Her composition would allude to concentrations of agriculture and industry, paths of regional and world trade in commodities, routes of international monetary exchange, the geographical distribution of urban commercial centers, systems of communication, zones of mass entertainment, and the like. The artists imagined a constellations of imagery drawing on a vast visual archive of charts and maps of economic transfer and migration, as well as photographic documentation of architecture associated with the historical centers of capitalist finance, primarily buildings that house or once housed stock exchanges.

Given the group’s research into forms of economic activity, we might think that Mehretu was plotting a sequence of narrative vignettes in an illustrational mode—a farm and its laborers, a factory and its machine operators, a coal mine and a power plant, a telephone switchboard, a steamship freighter, a research laboratory, a television studio, and so on—imagery evoking both the social realism of the middle decades of the twentieth century and the annual reports that global corporations continue to issue to stockholders. But with regard to specific details and devices, Mehretu’s conception required abstraction more than representation, and superposition more than sequencing. She had a good reason to seize on Braudel’s vision of the world economy as “a stratification of economic life into a hierarchy of layers,” the terms in which the proposal presented the historian’s way of organizing the data. Stratification is itself an abstract, theoretical notion; but it has visual and material analogues. Mehretu already organized her paintings and drawings as a set of superimposed surfaces. During the previous decade, she had developed semitransparent layers of imagery to stimulate the common experience of incongruous, even contradictory orders of information. She took visual information from the existing graphic culture and generated new information from it. Her art of the late 1990s and the first years of the next decade provided viewers with an opportunity to reflect on how they negotiate a barrage of sensory, cultural signs on a daily basis, going about their business—thinking and feeling their way through life in the contemporary social environment.

For the Goldman Sachs project, Mehretu conceived of four interactive layers of imagery, radically different from each other, at least in their initial visual manifestation. In the first layer, she would develop the theme of “time and mapping: exchanges between nations and flows within networks.” Graphically, this type of imagery would derive from historical maps, which often feature linear vectors to indicate routes of trade, migration, or communication, or perhaps the staging of a military campaign. Removed from their context and transposed into the abstract linear forms of Mural, such vectors would establish currents of movement to guide the composition as a whole. In the second layer, Mehretu would feature elements taken from “thousands of drawings of banks, bourses, and exchanges, markets and fairs, factories and warehouses, fortifications and towers.” As an illustration, her proposal includes an old postcard of the New York Stock Exchange, a coarsely printed photographic image. Projected (by means of an overhead projector) onto the canvas that would become Mural, a postcard of this type could be traced selectively as a matrix for a schematic linear rendering of the building.

For the third level, Mehretu would reverse the thrust of her imagery. She conceived of adapting “free drawing and gesture” to her purpose: “My hand-drawings render [the] dissolution of behavior, agents, beings….They are the animation. They are the leap forward.” On this level, Mehretu would introduce to the established system an ever-new factor of interference: the spontaneity of human feelings. If tracings of architectural monuments evoke institutional standards for proper behavior—like a well-worn path of custom and habit—the immediate gesture of the individual represents an idiosyncratic wrench in the machine, a spanner in the works. The free “animation” that Mehretu imagined as her third level counters the forces of institutional regulation, symbolized by the second level, and the routings of global organization, symbolized by the first.

For the fourth and final level, Mehretu proposed to introduce “the abstracted colored signage of the players of this world…decoration of early stock markets through to contemporary signage: logos, advertisement, photos, and virtual imaging of this activity.” Such signs provide “points of entry into the maelstrom of information and history.” These recognizable symbols, representative of contemporary cultural life and commercial exchange, would become abstract forms on the fantasy surface of Mural, linking the imaginary, speculative world of the painting to the activity of people in the building lobby, engaged in their professional work and personal economies. The visibility of Mehretu’s outer skin of signs—not so much actual signage but an abstraction of the graphic character of signage, the sign of signs—would extend the presence of Mural into the actuality of the street beyond. The signs “swirl out of the mural, seemingly into space.”

No wonder that the proposal prepared by Mehretu and her collaborators impressed the Goldman Sachs selection committee. It had the merit of clear, thematic organization, with the rationale for each of its four levels of visual information explained succinctly, along with visual examples provided from an archive of sources and details of Mehretu’s recent paintings of a related nature. 4 In addition to presenting the system of layering, the proposal offered two other structuring concepts, still more comprehensive, providing alternative routes into the creative play of the artist’s vision. First, in an introductory section of the statement, Mehretu identified her project with a classification in triplicate: Her mural would “look and feel like a painting, a palimpsest, and a diorama.” Through their implied mutual distinction or even opposition, each of the three terms assumes precise meaning.

Painting refers to the integrated surface of the work. It would be organized compositionally as painting traditionally is, and would cohere when viewed as a whole, especially from a distance, as the observer perceived larger unifying motifs ruling over the diversity of detail. From the start, Mehretu was attracted to the fact that pedestrians would be able to see the work at a distance, through the glass wall from across West Street, just as others would see it close-up within the building.5 It is a fact of perception: close and distant views of a large, complex work leave different impressions. So Mehretu designed Mural to cohere, but also to provide more than one type of visual experience.

The division in perception that a palimpsest generates adds a different order of complexity. Mehretu used the term palimpsest to refer to the logic—or better, the rhetoric—of her layering process. The use of a transparent mixture of acrylic and silica as a mediating bond would allow all four layers of Mural to remain simultaneously visible. Beyond this palimpsest effect, Mehretu’s conception of the diorama introduced yet another remarkable quality. She considered the scale of the work and its multiple viewpoints, imagining a person walking along the eighty-foot length of the surface, scanning its various pictorial aspects. As the viewer’s position shifts, the sensation of the pictorial scene changes; in this manner, the entire work would acquire the dynamic perspective characteristic of dioramic vision. A diorama extends a view into depths of space and time beyond ordinary sensory reach: think of dioramic views of mountain ranges or expansive cities or battle scenes in reconstruction. If, in its aspect as painting, Mural was designed to be static (“composed,”) then, in its aspect as diorama, it would move like a filmic image (a “moving picture”). And as palimpsest, it would display features of both painting and diorama. With its transparent layering (similar to filmic montage,) Mehretu’s palimpsest would animate various successions of still images, setting static forms into moving space and time.

Mehretu’s second comprehensive concept—pulse—transcends the trio of painting, palimpsest, and diorama. The sensation of pulse is common to the three modes of visual representation, folding them back into a single organic function: “Like the built environment in which it operates, the mural acts as a living force, never idle and continuously pulsing.” With this extended metaphor, Mehretu and her collaborators completed the introductory section of her proposal. The subsequent discussion of images of banks and exchanges as an “excavation into the past” included pointed observation: “Goldman Sachs is a part of this history. The layering within the mural conceptually continues into real space, into the infrastructure of the building….The pulse of the mural and of the building expands to the flows of daily life.” In the same spirit, the layer of Mehretu’s freely rendered ink marks became “the pulse of the organ, the mural.” She imagined Mural pulsing with its antecedent history as well as with its present environment of human activity. Beyond this, she would give Mural the pulse of her active hand.

Several years previously, when interviewing Mehretu in 2003, curator Olukemi Ilesanmi remarked: “A number of critics have commented on your visual confluence of sources (maps, newspapers, magazines, sports diagrams, tattoos, comic books, graffiti) as uniquely of the digital age, perhaps a hyperessay of sorts.” Here, the prefix hyper indicates a higher, as opposed to a lower, kind of derivative—a synthetic reiteration of information that becomes its reflective critique. Through her art, Mehretu was exposing the structural dynamics of the culture that produced such array of graphic signs, from print media to tattoos. For her generation, hyper functions in critical discourse as the prefix meta functioned two or three decades before, as in the neologism metahistory.6 By comparison with meta, hyper connotes a still more intense critical impulse.

Replying to Ilesanmi, Mehretu preserved the somewhat academicized sense of hyper but also allowed it to revert to mere colloquialism, the way it functions in hyperactive: “I don’t think my work is hyper enough,” she insisted, perhaps with a bit of humor. Then, more seriously: “What I really like about using different types of sources is their precise relationship to the social and cultural construct of where we are.” She noted that the culture of low-rider trucks was also somehow the culture of the restyled Volkswagen Beetle: “We are living in and experiencing a time in this country of extreme excess and indulgence.” (Mehretu 2003) To put it another way, the culture is complex, contradictory, and commodious; for better or worse, it tolerates extremes of opposition, assimilating diverse impulses, nevertheless avoiding collapse. To navigate a hyperculture of this sort requires a hyperimage, a perspective far more complex than a map of eighteenth-century trade routes, the type of illustration Mehretu discovered in Braudel’s volumes, among many that inspired aspects of her own commodious thought. She rose to the contemporary occasion. As she developed Mural, it became a hyperimage and pulsed with possibilities—a pulsing hyperimage.

Richard Shiff is Effie Marie Cain Regents Chair in Art at The University of Texas at Austin, where he directs the Center for the Study of Modernism. His scholarly interests range broadly across the field of modern and contemporary art. His publications include Cézanne and the End of Impressionism (1984), Critical Terms for Art History (co edited, 1996, 2003), Barnett Newman: A Catalogue Raisonné (co authored, 2004), Doubt (2008), Between Sense and de Kooning (2011) and Ellsworth Kelly: New York Drawings 1954-1962 (2014).


1 Text excerpted from Julie Mehretu’s Mural

2 See Braudel (1981–84). Mehretu stresses the importance of the contribution to her thinking on the part of Chua and Stryker (e-mail to the author, August 4, 2011); see also Tomkins (2010). For factual details related to the genesis of Mural, I owe thanks to most of all to Julie Mehretu for lucidly guiding me through multiple features of her creative work. Mehretu’s art opens readily to fruitful speculation; her imagery stimulates a play of critical, intellectual freedom. Needless to say, any misrepresentations of her thinking remain my responsibility as writer. I am also grateful to Sarah Rentz and Alexxa Gotthardt for quickly supplying documentary material; and I thank Jason A. Goldstein, Roja Najafi, and Jessamine Batario for essential aid in research.

3 This and subsequent statements quoted in this section of the essay are from Julie Mehretu Studio (2007)

4 When I asked Mehretu whether she had kept to her initial plan of four layers, she replied (e-mail to the author, July 8, 2011) that she had, of course, made many adjustments as she went along, given the relationships that appeared between parts of the work as she added ever more elements. She also indicated that there had been effectively five stages rather than four: an initial layer of abstract lines and shapes suggestive of mapping; a layer of projected architecture, mostly contemporary, set in place to establish a gridlike base; a second layer of projected architecture, mostly contemporary, “weaving in and out” of the previously established forms; the layer of gestural handwork; and the final layer of signs and symbols, mostly derived from maps and charts and often transformed by computer manipulation.

5 Mehretu emphasized this aspect of the work when she introduced me to it in New York, March 7, 2010.

6 “Histories contain a deep structural content which is generally poetic [serving] as the precritically accepted paradigm of what a distinctively ‘historical’ explanation should be. This paradigm functions as the ‘metahistorical’ element”. (White 1973)

Works Cited:

Braudel, Fernand. 1981–84. Civilization and Capitalism, 15th-18th Century, trans. Siân Reynolds, 3 vols. New York: Harper and Row

Julie Mehretu Studio. 2007. “A Mural Project: Proposal for Goldman Sachs” (2007), n.p. (courtesy Julie Mehretu and Sarah Rentz).

Mehretu, Julie. 2003. “Looking Back: e-mail interview between Julie Mehretu and Olukemi Ilesanmi” in Douglas Fogle and Olukemi Ilesanmi, eds. Julie Mehretu: Drawing into Painting. Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 14–15.

Tomkins, Calvin. 2010. “Big Art, Big Money,” New Yorker, March 29,68

White, Hayden. 1973. Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, ix.