Julie Mehretu’s HOWL, eon (I, II) (2017) is an expansive exploration of the American West — its transcendent landscapes and violent colonial history. Created as part of SFMOMA’s new art commissioning program, this site-specific diptych’s two vast abstract canvases flank the main staircase in the soaring Haas, Jr. Atrium, which is freely accessible to the public.

Born in 1970 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Mehretu conjures the sublime incomprehensibility of our ever-changing world through abstraction. HOWL, eon (I, II) examines the competing impulses of annihilation and preservation at the heart of nineteenth-century westward expansion, and explores how the Bay Area’s history of colonialism, capitalism, class conflict, social protest, and technological innovation have transformed the social and physical landscape.

It features a base layer of distorted digital images of contemporary race riots, street protests, and nineteenth-century depictions of the American West, topped with thick, luminous layers of paint and ink applied with brushes, spray painting, and screen printing. Layered tangles of abstract gestures and erasures reflect a landscape that is continually reshaped by physical movement and struggle, reminding us of the conjoined genealogies of chaos, exploitation, and hope in the making of the American West.