Gary Simmons, “Plaza Inferno Grid” (2008) (all images courtesy Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, Washington University in St. Louis, unless otherwise noted)

Ezra Pound wrote that all great art is born from the metropolis, so it’s no surprise that the metropolis itself has become one of art’s primary motifs. The city has been depicted in ancient Greek and Roman frescoes, late Gothic religious paintings, and Edo-period Japanese prints. In the 20th century, artists like Fernand Leger, Robert Rauschenberg and Ed Ruscha paid it tribute. 

Today, the nature of the metropolis is changing. In 1950, 746 million people lived in urban areas; in 2014, 3.9 billion do. By 2045? The number could reach 6 billion. The global move from the country to the city has reshaped contemporary life, and new questions surrounding urban sprawl, gentrification, and social fragmentation (to name just a few) have formed. 

What are artists today making of this diverse urban stew? That’s the jumping-off point for Encountering the City: The Urban Experience in Contemporary Art at Washington University’s Kemper Art Museum. The show includes works by Wolfgang Tillmans, Isa Genzken, Jakob Holding, Andrea Gursky, Sarah Morris, Gary Simmons, and Andrea Zittel. Simmons’s “Plaza Inferno Grid” (2008), for instance, considers the symbolic weight carried by our built environment. His four-part painting was inspired by the infamous skyscrapers in the dystopian 1972 film Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. The film has long been seen as a metaphor for race relations, especially during the Los Angeles Watts riots in 1965, which, the museum writes, “came to symbolize strife in midcentury urban America.” Simmons painted his work in response to the politics of race that infected the 2008 presidential election — though its meaning has become freshly relevant with the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri.

Writing to Hyperallergic via email, curator Meredith Malone said that she hopes these artworks stimulate innovative thought about “the possibilities for and limitations on the city and the lives of its inhabitants.” Could it be that great metropolises are also born from art?

"Untitled (yet)" by Franz Ackermann, 2008-9 (Image courtesy of

Franz Ackermann’s works, such as “Untitled (yet),” explore how our concepts of place and space change as the world becomes not only more urban, but also more globalized.

Jakob Kolding, How to Build a Universe that Falls Apart Two Days Later, 2014. Offset posters, 33 1/16 x 23 3/8" each. Courtesy of Team Gallery, New York.

In his poster, “How to Build a Universe that Falls Apart Two Days Later” (2014), Jakob Kolding provides a critical response to the failed aspirations of modernist architects like Le Corbusier. (image courtesy Team Gallery, New York)

Isa Genzken, Little Crazy Column, 2002. Reflective glass and holographic foil on fiberboard support, 102 3/8 x 12 3/16 x 12 3/16". Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, Washington University in St. Louis. University purchase, Charles H. Yalem Art Fund, 2003.

Isa Genzken’s “Little Crazy Column” (2002) looks at the relationship between sculpture and the environment. On its website, the museum writes that the skyscraper-like column “[brings] the built environment down to a more human level.”

Andrea Zittel, Wall Sprawl #6 (Between Enterprise and Henderson), 2011 (installation view). Inkjet on J15 Blueback paper, dimensions variable. Courtesy of Regen Projects, Los Angeles and Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York. © Andrea Zittel.

Andrea Zittel’s 2011 installation “Wall Sprawl #6” explores the environmental impact of large-scale urban development in the desert outside Las Vegas. The museum website states that Zittel’s patterned wallpaper “extends across the gallery wall in identical, repeating units much the way urban sprawl expands across natural areas.” (image courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles, and Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York, © Andrea Zittel)

Andreas Gursky, Beijing, 2010. Inkjet print, 120 7/8 x 83 7/8 x 2 3/8" (framed). Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, Washington University in St. Louis. University purchase with funds from the David Woods Kemper Memorial Foundation, 2012. © 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

Andreas Gursky’s work explores how culture, commerce, and politics inform built environments. “Beijing” (2010) offers a unique view of the Bird’s Nest stadium designed by Ai Wei Wei for the 2008 Olympics. The much-talked-about stadium is rarely used today.

Laura C. Mallonee is a Brooklyn-based writer. She holds an M.A. in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU and a B.F.A. in painting from Missouri State University. She enjoys exploring new cities and...