Paula Scher is an award-winning New York City–based graphic designer whose decades of work include creating the Citibank logo and executing commissions for high-profile clients, including Microsoft, Bloomberg, the Museum of Modern Art, Tiffany & Co., the High Line, and the Metropolitan Opera. But for many years she has pursued a side passion: hand-painting vibrant, sprawling, unapologetically subjective maps of the world that offer a painterly twist on the visualization of data.
Scher’s work has been exhibited internationally and is held in the public collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, and the Library of Congress. In 2011, she published Paula Scher: Maps, a book of maps that included a map of India painted in bright pink and a 2000 Florida presidential election map. Since 2014, she has been concentrating her efforts on America with a new series that will be on display starting Thursday in a show titled “U.S.A.” at the Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery in New York (until March 26).
“It’s an election year,” Scher told me by phone from her New York City office at Pentagram, where she has been a principal since 1991, “and I am fascinated by the ways different parts of the country think and looking at demographics and geography in the U.S. and making connections.”
Titles like “U.S. Area Codes and Time Zones,” “U.S. Driving Times and Mileage,”and “U.S. Geography and Climate” are reminiscent of old-school classroom maps. But if school maps were deliberately simplistic and easy to read, Scher’s maximalist map paintings are captivating, complex works of art that draw you in with color and movement then spiral into dizzying cyclones of text data that claims every spare inch of canvas.
“My paintings are pretty dizzying,” Scher said. “More than you ever wanted to know about everything. They’re about information overload.”
Scher’s father was a civil engineer who worked on mapping for the U.S. Geological Survey and invented technology to correct distortions in aerial photographs for mapmaking that is still used today. He taught her to look critically at maps and to note how easy it is to distort information to emphasize a point of view.
While Scher is as influenced by vintage classroom maps as she is by the atlases, road maps, infographics, and Google Maps that she studies while making the paintings, she said that those multiple sources are filtered through an instinctive, emotional process that transforms cartography into interpretive works of art. She paints by hand, never penciling in an outline first. While the maps seem to communicate an obsession with data, Scher sometimes misspells place names, leaves off entire states, and makes other accidental or intentional omissions and errors. She is struck by how cities and towns connect in ways that are not reflected on conventional maps when cultures build up around the relationships between places and in the subjective connections that can be made by looking at her hand-drawn boundaries of these United States.
“There’s nothing scientific about it,” Scher said. “It’s all emotional and has been since the first series of maps.” While her work has evolved over the years, she said, all the map paintings share the same DNA. “They’re all connected in that they’re based on what I call abstract expressionist information,” she said, “used in painting versus digital form to create a sense rather than trying to be accurate.”
After all, correcting errors would be too much like her day job, which demands perfection. “It’s not perfect, but it asks questions,” she said of her paintings. “And I like a little imperfection in my life—and work.”