Paula Scher Makes Enormous Maps That Are Only Sort of Right

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A partner in the design firm Pentagram, Scher started painting maps because it forces her to have patience, a trait she lacks in daily life

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Who among you does not find comfort in maps? They are the most authoritative of the genus information graphicus. They are to be trusted. They must be trusted. Yet the foreword to a new book published this week, Paula Scher MAPS: Paintings, Installations, Drawings and Prints, is titled "All Maps Lie." And this coming from Scher herself, a map maven whose hand-painted extravaganzas are, it seems, celebrations of map veracity. I asked her how this contrary revelation could be true.

"Because of the complications of the paintings and the patterns they create, some people say they remind them of aboriginal art."

"My father invented a device called 'stereo templates' for the government which corrects the lens distortion in aerial photography. There would be no Google Maps today without that advancement," Scher proudly told me. Indeed, it was Marvin B. Scher who taught his impressionable daughter that all maps are distorted, not literal truth; that information changes based on the point of view of the mapmaker.

"My painted maps are opinionated, biased, erroneous, and, also, sort of right," Scher admits. I have a lithograph of her world map -- a birthday gift from the artist -- with handwritten names of every possible macro and micro landmass, framed in my office. I stare at it often, admiring the craft but also thinking about the ports-of-call where I could be. The obsessive details are unfailingly seductive. Nonetheless, they're only sort of right. Why, then, devote so much time to them?

"The process of painting these maps is time consuming and sometimes mindless," Scher says. "It's a good respite for me until I realize I may be going a little crazy. Adding the details forces me to have patience, a trait I lack in my daily life."

Before tackling maps, Scher, who is a partner in the design firm Pentagram and creator of many familiar New York graphic and environmental design icons (think The Public Theater), did watercolors of flowers as a respite from her design work. It was then that she started seeing maps as the foundation of a new art.

"I had been painting small-scale opinionated maps for about five years," Scher explained. "They were political. Sometimes I was hired as an illustrator to make them. I was also invited to exhibit them. A collector of world paintings [Marvin and Ruth Sackner] bought South America. That encouraged me. At some point after that, I realized they would work better on an enormous scale. At first I didn't think I had the energy to accomplish it with the same detail and density."

In those earliest maps one sees traces of the primitive painter Howard Finster, who captured a rural vernacular on canvas. Was Finster -- or any other primitive -- the inspiration for these maps?

"When you hand-draw typography, it looks like Finster or other primitive artists," Scher says. "Because of the complications of the paintings and the patterns they create, some people have commented that they remind them of aboriginal art. There is this primitive quality to them, but I wouldn't describe them as primitive."

In fact, it would be naïve to call them primitive. Scher knows exactly what she's doing, and each stage of development has become more sophisticated than the last. Her new book is a testament to that. Arguably, she prefigured the current trend in artful data visualization. She is often associated with -- even considered a precursor of -- this "movement."

Story continues after the gallery.

"I have been obsessed with charts, graphs, diagrams, and maps for thirty years and have used them as a form of satire and social comment in my design work," Scher says. "The Data-Vis movement is different. Initially, charts, graphs, diagrams, and maps existed in support of an article to emphasize a point, so the authorship was clear. In the current Data-Vis craze, information exists as an end in and of itself. It's not ironic or satirical. It is supposed to look scientific, as if a computer mechanically selected the data. The last line of an article I wrote about Faux Info says, 'the information does your thinking for you and you don't have to think at all.' I may be a precursor of that, but I hope not."

Stories in the news often inspire Scher's maps. But she also takes requests (i.e. commissions). "I have been extremely gratified by people's response to them," she says. "It inspires me to make more. Also, there is nothing like the deadline of an exihbit to force me to make them. I guess, the more I show them, get commissions. or sell them, the more they are a vocation."

Scher adds, "there is no grand plan" for the future. But does she see maps in her future, when she's done designing for a living? "The painting began as an antidote to design," she says. "Design happens quickly on a computer and the painting is laborious. Design is social. Painting is isolating. Design has a purpose. Art has no purpose. I can't imagine one without the other."

Image: Princeton Architectural Press.

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Steven Heller is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and the co-founder of its MFA Design Criticism program.

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