Standing in front of one of Julie Mehretu’s monumental paintings, the viewer is immediately struck by a feeling of bewilderment. There is too much to see, and it’s all in one place: swooping, razor-sharp colored lines; stenciled circles of different sizes and colors; strange angular shapes; fragments of architectural drawings; and various ink marks. For the writer trying to make sense of the work, the impulse is to begin with its complex visual languages and contradictory invocations, describing each one by one, in a desperate attempt to slow the painting down. This approach is certainly merited when looking at Mehretu’s two paintings titled Black City, the first made in 2005, the second two years later, measuring nine by sixteen feet and ten by sixteen feet, respectively. Only after grasping the formal characteristics of the works can one begin to focus on what they mean beyond that.
Let’s start, then, with the painted forms in the paintings. Among the first laid down on the gesso priming are light gray triangles and trapezoids, along with darker diagonal shards that thin to a point as they reach the center. Such slanting and irregular geometric shapes populate many of Mehretu’s canvases from the last decade, and they bring to mind the dynamic language of Malevich and the utopian promise of Suprematist painting. In Malevich’s works, these forms are set against a highly worked ground that functions as a plane from which the shapes float. In Mehretu’s paintings, however, these angular shapes are not permitted an empty space from which to move outward. Instead, they lie buried under other components of the composition, including long, slanting diagonal shards, whose dispersal across the painting brings to mind Abstract Expressionism, and with it, the historical association of a post-apocalyptic moment. One might have thought that an artist invoking the work of Malevich would not also be attracted to the very different modernism of Abstract Expressionism, but could it be that Mehretu sets one moment of twentieth-century painting over another—the first full of hope, the second one of despair?
Unlike the gestural brushstrokes of Abstract Expressionism, however, some of these curves and lines are not in fact quickly painted freehand with a brush but slowly with the aid of masking tape. Mehretu thus forces us to rethink the oppositions between fast and slow marks: A shard might have the look of speed and dynamism but be laboriously made. She also makes us think again about the oppositions between geometric and organic forms that have been maintained in the discourse on modernist abstraction; for instance, Mondrian’s geometric shapes are often seen as the antithesis of Arp’s curvilinear vocabulary. Yet some of the swoops in the earlier Black City are close, in their overall curved shape, to spirals in the bottom central part of the painting that are assembled from four or five lines at angles to each other. In the 2007 painting, we find four similar black shapes—at top center, top right, near the middle, and bottom left—each delineated by a single diagonal line and an arc. In other words, the diagonal seems no more “regular” than the curve.
Other painted forms populate the surface: neat red circles of varying diameters, blue and black dots, rows of tiny black and red stars, colored blips, and two circles made from spirals of miniscule black triangles and rectangles. These two circles are very close in appearance to the circular structures in some of Bridget Riley’s 1960s Op art canvases, but the blips, dots, and stars conjure other associations. In Mehretu’s earlier painting Stadia 1, 2004, rows of hanging triangles suggest flags and bunting; the stars and circles in Black City, on the other hand, call to mind military decorations and empty street signs.
Underneath, over, and beside all these painted shapes are pen lines. These include architectural drawings, which are traced from images of fortifications projected onto the canvas. Most of these lines are very thin, but Mehretu has painted more thickly in the center of the 2005 Black City to outline a curvilinear building seen from below or upside down; the same structure, a World War II German bunker built to defend the Atlantic coast from foreign attack, appears in the 2007 painting. In another link with Suprematism, many of the architectural drawings featured in the works are axonometric projections rather than plans or elevations. As Yve-Alain Bois has written, Lissitzky made use of axonometric projections in his “Prouns” as the lack of perspective implied an ideal viewing position beyond what humans are able to see of the world. Mehretu uses the axonometric projection to spark off a more imaginative encounter with these architectural images: It is not about identifying the particular structures she has researched and outlined onto the paintings but seeing different fragments from various fictitious viewpoints.
Other drawn marks are added more freely. Clusters of short lines or curves moving in a single direction provide graceful suggestions of rays of light, reminiscent of the depictions of such phenomena in Renaissance prints; elsewhere the ink is more of a wash, calling to mind puffs of smoke or clouds. Other pen marks are repetitive and obsessive, manic jabs into the surface that evoke the work of Henri Michaux. All these marks are present in both paintings, but they are far more concentrated in the much darker, later Black City, where large portions of the composition are obscured by smudgy and smoky billows of ink. These patches appear as if blown across the surface, and dispersed rather randomly, making it seem as if the painting has been polluted or that we are looking at it through a dirty screen.
When all of these painted and drawn forms, lines, and marks come together in Mehretu’s paintings, they create very different and even contradictory descriptions and representations of space. The distance between the surface of the painting and the canvas is only millimeters thick, but because each layer is so independent, and the deepest layers are veiled beneath semi-transparent higher ones, the impression of depth is intensified. Many components of the paintings establish an illusion of even deeper space, such as the Suprematist shapes that appear to tip away from the canvas plane; meanwhile, the architectural sections recede at different angles, implying conflicting viewpoints. The actual dimensions of the canvas itself are emphasized by the dispersal of forms and lines across its entire breadth. This lateral expanse is even exaggerated by the numerous lines, circles, and planes that are truncated by the canvas edge: We imagine the composition extending on and on.
By now we have a partial inventory of the components of the two Black City paintings: the different painted forms, the diverse languages of drawing, the varied representations of space. But this list does little justice to the works’ effect on us as viewers—because we never see these components separately. We might attempt to follow a painted swooping line, but our attention is caught by the pen lines describing a building. Our eyes then trace these lines only to see them disappear beneath a layer of paint. Next we focus on
a row of neat red stars, or a cluster of blue dots. Near to the painting’s surface, it is hard to concentrate on one part of its makeup for any length of time because our gaze is so waylaid, our thoughts so easily distracted. Close-up photographs of the paintings capture this well: Taken from a slanted viewpoint with low depth of field, these shots present just a small part of the surface in focus, and everything else is a blur. Yet when we step back to view the work from a distance, we feel a powerful sense of loss: The overall composition might now be apparent, but so much of what seems important about the work is no longer clear.
What is at stake for Mehretu in making work that acts this way on its viewers? While most critics begin essays on the artist with formalist descriptions, as I have here, these have led them in many different interpretive directions. Some explain Mehretu’s paintings as elegies to the end of utopian modernism and its irretrievability; indeed, a painting from 2003 is titled Looking Back to a Bright New Future, and it can often seem that we can only glimpse the bright, clean spaciousness of once-futuristic modernist forms through the bustle of lines and clouds of smoke that crowd her paintings. Another reading of her work, which teases out its considered criticality, argues that it enacts a critique of traditional ways of depicting and controlling space: Where perspectival images of buildings give the viewer a sense of mastery, Mehretu’s paintings will always defeat the viewer’s attempts to comprehend their space. Critic Brian Dillon puts forth yet another interpretation, setting the work in the context of a history of art about ruins. Analyzing Mehretu’s 2009 painting Berliner Plätze, Dillon describes how Mehretu presents layer upon layer of architectural images of Berlin, a city whose past is fast becoming kitsch.
Yet none of these approaches seems a viable response to the Black City paintings. Little is mournful or critical about these works. While not as colorfully festive as other paintings by Mehretu, they engender a sense of excitement and energy. In creating a kind of delirium, the works analogize the subjective experience of the city today. In his landmark text of 1903, “The Metropolis and Mental Life,” Georg Simmel considered the experience of the metropolitan subject and described “the intensification of emotional life due to the swift and continuous shift of external and internal stimuli.” Famously, Simmel went on to discuss how many city dwellers respond to this overstimulation by developing a “blasé outlook”—but we are in no such danger in front of the Black City paintings. They evoke the experience of places where different moments of time interpenetrate, as signaled by past and present architectural structures; of environments that we navigate at different speeds by road, underground, or on elevated railways. Today we pass through space with one eye on our smart phone, its screen showing us our connections to cities across the globe. In the Black City paintings, Mehretu conveys the overwhelming nature of such experiences but releases the pleasures as much as the dangers of disorientation.