March 27, 2010

Power and Patronage

I’m struck this week by Calvin Tompkins’s piece in the March 29 New Yorker on Julie Mehretu‘s recent commission for Goldman Sachs in NYC.

“It took me a long time—six months or so—to decide I wanted to do this,” Mehretu told the writer. Mehretu is thirty-nine, friendly, and open. “One reason was this wall, which is so clearly visible from outside the building…I could never make a painting this scale anywhere else.”

I’m intruiged by the relationship between Mehretu’s work, the creative process used by the architects of the building in which “Mural” is housed, and the story of Goldman Sachs history as a financial institution and patron of this creative work.

As described in Tompkin’s piece Mehretu’s work the result of the rigorous application and accumulation of layers of markings covered with silica, sanded smooth and then repeated. In this case the layers implicity refer to the history of finance capitalism – maps, trade routes, population shifts; then sets of architectural drawings projected and traced onto the canvas; followed by several other sets of markings and graphics. Because the upper layers are created with transparent colors, elements of the previous layers are visible enabling the viewer to look deep into the painting conveying ” a sense of embedded time”.

In landscape architecture pedeagogy,  this type of layering in referred to as palimpsest.

Drawing by T. Kelly Wilson for Pei Cobb Freed & Partners Architects L.L.P.

Mehretu’s process of layering and tracing was undoubtedly used by the architects during the process of designing the building. The glass- and stainless-steel tower, designed by architect Henry Cobb of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, will house six high-tech trading floors, three floors of meeting and amenity spaces, and 30 floors of office space.


Sunset Transparency at the new Goldman Sachs World Headquarters, New York City

Sunset Transparency at the new Goldman Sachs World Headquarters, New York City

Architectural works of this scale are only possible via the patronage of global corporate capital and are potent symbols in every city of current global power relationships. In other words these buildings would not exist without billionaire patrons to cultivate architectural talent and astounding feats of engineering.  Interestingly, great effort and expense has gone into crafting corporate identity through the building’s design: it incorporates environmentally sustainable features and the latest green-building technologies — including use of ultra low-sulfur diesel fuel — with the anticipation of earning a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold certification. Its big bad global corporate capital cloaking itself in an environmentally and socially responsible skin.

Eighty feet long by twenty-three feet high, “Mural” dominates the entrance lobby of the new building.  Its the largest piece undertaken my Mehretu  to date.   The billionaire patronage of Goldman Sachs has enabled this artist to realize a creative feat otherwise impossible to achieve.

To what degree has the desire to shape corporate identity guided the creation of Mehretu’s enormous new piece?  How much has the capital intensive global art market driven or suppressed artistic innovation.  What  and whose narrative will be legible through the palimpsest of history?

Comments (4)

  • I’m so happy I stumbled on this. This article is very informative and I hope to read more like this. You should see review to

  • chris kargotis says:

    Visually Julie Mehretu’s work looks like a controlled and very calculated explosion – a destruction that is begun but never happens to an end; halted in perfection; snapped like stopped light. Calculated explosion is one way you could look at the financial disaster. The departure is in the money delusion of incentivised destruction by Credit Default Swaps.

    George Soros on Credit Default Swaps:-

    “It’s like buying life insurance on someone else’s life and owning a licence to kill him,” he said of the swaps, which pay the buyer face value if a borrower defaults, in exchange for the underlying securities or the cash equivalent. ” – incentivised destruction.


    Goldman Sachs hand in the Sovereign debit crisis :

    ‘We now know, for example, Goldman Sachs helped Greece hide its public debt and then placed financial bets that Greece would default, using credit-default swaps to avoid risking its own capital. It’s the same tactic Goldman used for (and against) American International Group (AIG): Hide the ball, and then bet against the ball and fob off the risk to investors and taxpayers, using derivatives to remove the risky tactics from the balance sheets. Even today no one knows the fair value of the complex derivatives underlying these and related maneuvers, which is exactly the point.’


    Goldman Sachs over-arching hand in the financial crisis:-

    Lene Hau stops light :


  • Anne Walsh says:

    Medici is not a name that will ever disappear. But the artworks that survive from the House of Medici are certainly what I know better than the specific history of Medici rule. What that means, of course, is that Medici excesses, sleaziness, and brutality are vagaries in my mind compared to the deeply affecting works by Masaccio, Donatello, Fra Angelico, Brunelleschi, Rubens, et. al, that I’ve come to know in my life. I’m grateful that culture was grown and nurtured by centuries of Medici patronage. I’m also aware that the history of art I learned never EVER taught me what the politics of these patrons were, never discussed where the money came from, never pointed out that one could be a Medici AND a pope simultaneously.

    A piece in the New Yorker written by Calvin Tomkins can’t be expected to challenge Mehretu on her work or her choice to take the $5 million from GS. Ethics is not one of Tomkins’s interests or concerns. I think, to Mehretu’s credit, she makes the legitimate point that given the location of the mural, GS offered her the opportunity to produce a PAINTING that was going to be visible to the public. A work of public art, so to speak. It might be nice to calculate what portion of this painting we, the “public” that is paying in vital fluids for some of GS’s venal and rapacious practices, actually OWN. I’d like to think I own some tiny part of MURAL, by Julie Mehretu. If I can figure that out, I feel okay too about asking Mehretu why the piece had to be titled MURAL, instead of something maybe a bit gutsier? Or am I just hoping that Mehretu feels something more than curiosity about the rendering of global financial movements? DId she know Mark Lombardi’s work when she set to work on this project?

    Is it too much to hope that when Mehretu’s work is taught in the future, that the fortunes of Goldman Sachs will be discussed too?

  • Vance Maverick says:

    On the one hand, I have no stomach for Goldman. (You can’t even defend them, like a manufacturing company, on the grounds that they create value — their wealth is opportunistic, parasitic even, on the economic system.) On the other hand, art and particularly architecture have almost always followed power and wealth. It’s possible to consider the work of, say, Palladio without reference to the specific powers of the Veneto in his day — but not to disentangle it from the abstraction of hierarchical landed power. Space, and the experience of space, is something we all share; architecture orders and creates beauty in space; but to order or control shared space is a privilege, so architecture makes beauty out of privilege. And the same goes for architectural (decorative, monumental) art like this.

    (Partial exception granted for public art and architecture, of course, depending on how public it really is; but obviously this isn’t such a case.)

    Mehretu’s project is pretty, at least in the photos. I’d like to see it. It may be great, and if so, good on her; but the narrative of power and wealth will always be legible in it, even after Goldman fulfils its recent promise of financial self-destruction.

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