“I don’t think of architectural language as just a metaphor about space, but about spaces of power, about ideas of power.”
Julie Mehretu made Empirical Construction, Istanbul to show at the Istanbul Biennial in 2003. She has called it a “portrait of a city,” and the painting pays homage to the Turkish cosmopolis that straddles Europe and Asia across the Bosporus Strait, but it is nowhere pictured as a place. Rather, traces and fragments of images are overlaid into a dynamic visual vortex. Intermixing the city’s past, present, and future, delicate outlines lifted from 360-degree panoramic photographs that Mehretu took of the Old City from the top of the medieval Galata Tower, and from blueprints for the city’s modernization, appear along with colored planes that evoke urban architectural forms. Angled and arching lines shoot across the canvas away from the center, the point of lowest density, where the ghostly skeleton of the cityscape can be discerned.
With paintings like this one, Mehretu seemed to reinvent abstraction for a new generation. Her lines are not deployed in a static grid, the structure that grounds and rationalizes so many of our cities and buildings, as well as the work of modernist painters such as Piet Mondrian, and that in doing so can be seen to represent certain 20th-century ideals. Rather, they hint at a new paradigm for the 21st century, suggesting something in motion: developmental vectors, which in their totality invoke ideas of universe or system, of mass movement and the passage of time. Mehretu’s lines, in her words, “behave, battle, migrate and civilize.” They are resonant of things we know: maps, weather systems, traffic patterns, urban sprawl, flight plans. Interspersed within this nexus are fragments of architectural renderings, topographical symbols, and multiple forms of mark-making, the shards of information systems of various kinds. These are the languages we use to convey knowledge, and Mehretu’s paintings seem to survey and make visible the ever evolving ways in which we speak about our world, each a form of abstraction in and of itself.
Empirical Construction, Istanbul, like other works by Mehretu, foregrounds how new technologies produce images that structure thought. She builds her works by projecting photographs and blueprints—but often also images made with computer-mapping and graphic-design tools, or the video-game technologies that help to create immersive, fictional worlds—onto prepared canvases, tracing them, erasing and effacing elements, then adding layer upon layer, each separated by thin coats of acrylic. “I work with source material that I am interested in conceptually, politically, or even just visually,” she has explained. “I pull from all of this material, project it, trace it, break it up, recontextualize it, layer one on the other, and envelop it into the DNA of the painting.” The resulting works are assertively hybrid, and they suggest a certain temporal hybridity, too: for while Mehretu uses the languages created by technological tools for expansive future thinking, paintings like this one also seem to offer a retrospective perspective, allowing one to look back onto the world from outside, surveying it in all its chaotic motion, fragmentation, and ruin.
Mehretu’s paintings have been seen as analogues for our globalized domain, its information networks and dispersive political, social, and cultural economies. They may also carry the imprint of her own life history: Mehretu was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in 1970, to an Ethiopian father and an American mother. Her family fled to the United States in 1977, when the military leadership began a campaign of terror. Her experience of migration and diaspora lends perspective to how politics create world currents. She has spoken of her paintings in this way as “psychogeographies,” touching on issues of memory across time, space, and place.
Originally published in Among Others: Blackness at MoMA, ed. Darby English and Charlotte Barat (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)
Note: The opening quote is from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019).
Leah Dickerman, Director, Editorial and Content Strategy