If the Grim Reaper were alive today, it seems he would be wearing sneakers. As the faceless city waits for cabs and hops in cars, he’s busy. He’s running around, jaw dropped—is he about to speak? Both his fists are clenched: one swings up in an even-paced trot, while the other grips a baby-blue case with fingerless gloves. What does he keep in there?
It has been a while since we saw death with a capital D, and it feels strange to see allegory looking so punchy. It’s also strange to see a universal symbol jog through such an updated and familiar place. It’s definitely Manhattan, you can tell by the awnings. There’s the blue stripe of the MTA, and the way everybody is ignoring each other in nice clothes—you’d guess Upper East Side if you had to.
What you see when this painting is real and not computer-screened is the strict flesh of the thing. The paint is so saturated that even the dark colors are bright. The borders are snug and enjoyed. They are so precise that they must have been fought over, but without any scars or remnants from tricks like masking tape. The painting’s last layer, though geometric, has been generously applied. It is the one that has to face the public, so its skin is thick.
The painting builds an expansive space, so there must be air, but you can’t find it anywhere. Nothing is blurry, and you can only see the weather in the coats. The light is severe but not harsh. It obliterates nothing; nothing gleams. No surface is irregular: no cracks, wrinkles, or dents in the sidewalk. So this is and isn’t the City. What is round arcs perfectly. What is straight is straight. The picture is measured.
It does not, however, add up. The space stays fractured and tricky. The sidewalk shifts, unannounced. You notice it sits impossibly on an awning. Everyone is still, but their postures are unsustainable. One woman forever slides into her car, holding the open door, perched on a yellow stiletto heel. The construction worker is also forever on the verge of descent. Their movements are not depicted, but rather caught. They don’t have faces, but other details persist. We know her nails are done, and that he is sturdy. They are anonymous but typical. Dante comes to mind.
All of this puts time in a strange position. Allegory and hard-edge are revived, but they are put to work telling a personal story, something they wouldn’t have done in their heyday. An obvious nostalgia is coupled with a rare devotion to presenting the City as it lives now. One may admire Leger, but those sneakers aren’t retro. The story occurs in a flash which has taken forever to construct.
The picture might best be described as a pattern—it shows us an order but doesn’t reveal more than it has to. It is fixed, but it has implications. Much of the world’s identity has been stripped, and we have a hard time accounting for what remains. The magazine at the bottom left might be one of the art mags the young Gates read and abandoned, but we are not invited to know. And although we are invited to fix our stare on Death’s sky blue bag, we will never know what’s in there.