It is a relief that Julie Mehretu’s paintings, the subject of an exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, are as innocuous as they are. Mehretu’s encompassing and relatively low-key abstractions are, in aesthetic effect, divorced from the obnoxious nature of much contemporary art—you know, the high-profile stuff that trades in Pop spectacle of one sort or another. She’ll have no truck with outrage; deep thoughts are her thing. Who wouldn’t prefer that to the latest cause célèbre?

Mehretu’s sweeping vortices of architectural tracings, densely layered surfaces and gestural brushwork portend a heady amalgam of information overload, historical memory, “the machinations of politics,” and “the formation of social identity.” What they deliver is somewhat epochal, but more mundane: lobby art for the digital age. The paintings are accomplished enough in their dizzying...


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