Inside the Market for Julie Mehretu’s Swirling Abstract Works
Julie Mehretu, installation view, from left to right, of Six Bardos: Transmigration and Six Bardos: Luminous Appearance, both 2018. © 2018 Gemini G.E.L. LLC. Courtesy of the artist and Gemini G.E.L.
Julie Mehretu’s large-scale, explosive abstract artworks are often imposing and introspective, registering the movements and rhythms of contemporary life in paintings, drawings, and prints. In her looming compositions, Mehretu documents current events, urban life, and sociopolitical climates, with elements of architectural drawing, maps, symbols, and mark-making comprising the visual geography of her work.
With immense technical prowess and a painstaking process that allows her to complete a limited number of paintings per year, Mehretu is easily one of the most sought-after living artists. Her paintings have been known to fetch several millions both on the primary market and at auction, while new drawings and prints can go for up to $450,000. A major mid-career survey currently on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art showcases Mehretu’s remarkable skill and reflects her market success.
“Mehretu’s works visualize what’s happening in our contemporary world and encapsulate the present moment we’re in,” said David Galperin, senior vice president and head of evening sales at Sotheby’s. “They’re extremely labor-intensive, laborious paintings, with tremendous scale and level of detail. They take a lot of time to make. It’s a unique opportunity for collectors.”
Born in Ethiopia in 1970, Mehretu’s family fled the nation during the Derg military junta when the artist was just seven years old. Her parents, both educators, settled in East Lansing, Michigan, where Mehretu completed high school. Taking classes at the small liberal arts school Kalamazoo College, Mehretu realized she wanted to be an artist—and a year abroad in Dakar studying batik-making with local artisans proved formative for her own mark-making and artistic trajectory.
Eventually, Mehretu went back to school, this time at the Rhode Island School of Design, where her professor and mentor Michael Young helped her find her stride. It was there that she began thinking of the marks within her abstract drawings “as little communities, and then they started to look like maps, or aerial views of cities,” she told The New Yorker in 2010.
Those breakthroughs would form the foundation of her aesthetic exploration, which she has referred to as “story maps of no location.” Drawing on particular histories and geographies, Mehretu renders cityscapes, political conflicts, and environmental disasters in stunning abstract forms that teem with life and frenetic energy. Her process utilizes layering as a primary mode of construction—she will usually complete a series of abstract marks, make sure they’re set, and then sand them down to a smooth support before beginning work on the next layer. She often superimposes digital architectural renderings onto canvas to initiate a work, though recently she has incorporated more painterly forms and gestures. Notably, Mehretu’s painting, drawing, and printmaking practices interweave and inform one another, with many of the ideas or marks she creates in her drawings eventually making their way into her prints and paintings.
After completing her MFA at RISD in 1997, Mehretu was invited to the Core Residency at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and accolades, exhibitions, and market success quickly followed. Several prominent residencies, including at the Studio Museum in Harlem, the Walker Art Center, and the Headlands Center for the Arts, propelled Mehretu’s career. After being included in a group show at the fabled nonprofit Exit Art in 1999 and MoMA PS1’s bellwether quinquennial “Greater New York” in 2000, Mehretu was sought out by storied gallerists like Jeffrey Deitch, Mary Boone, and Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn. She ultimately landed at Christian Haye’s Harlem gallery The Project, while White Cube would eventually take on her European market. (Today, White Cube still represents the artist in the U.K. and Europe, while Marian Goodman handles her work in the United States.) Before long, Mehretu was showing in venerable institutions like the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, the Smithsonian’s National Museum for African Art, and REDCAT in Los Angeles.
Joni Weyl, who shows the work of L.A.’s revered Gemini G.E.L. print publisher in New York, remembers Elizabeth Murray excitedly recommending Julie Mehretu’s show at REDCAT in 2004. The publisher’s initial collaboration with Mehretu was a small drypoint etching the artist produced to fundraise for then-senator Barack Obama’s presidential bid in 2008.
Julie Mehretu, Six Bardos: Hymn (Behind The Sun), 2018. © 2018 Gemini G.E.L. LLC. Courtesy of the artist and Gemini G.E.L.
From there, Mehretu continued to produce smaller-scale prints with Gemini G.E.L. until she eventually felt ready to scale up the relationship. “Once she felt really comfortable with Gemini G.E.L.’s etching team, she embarked on this extraordinarily complex 12-panel etching, called Auguries, and that was published in 2010 and debuted at the Metropolitan Opera House,” Weyl said.
In total, Gemini G.E.L. has published 13 works with Mehrehtu, and a survey of those prints is now on view in the exhibition “Julie Mehretu: A Decade of Printmaking at Gemini G.E.L.” at Weyl’s New York space. Works range in price from $7,500 to $450,000, depending on their scale and complexity.
Because of their complexity and the time and care Mehretu’s process demands, her works are relatively hard to come by, which influences just how much they can command. According to Weyl, Mehretu’s prints are worth more than double what they were when they first started working together, with larger works—like Auguries—selling in editions of 24 to 30, and mid-size and smaller works selling in editions of 45 and 150, respectively.
Julie Mehretu, installation view of Myriads, Only By Dark, 2014. © 2014 Gemini G.E.L. LLC. Courtesy of the artist, the Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation, and Gemini G.E.L.
“A number of collectors who would typically collect her paintings also collect her prints because the access to her paintings is pretty, pretty tight,” said Weyl. Galperin of Sotheby’s added that Mehretu’s paintings are “very hard to come by,” primarily because most collectors of Mehretu’s work are either institutions or serious collectors who prefer to live with the work than resell it.
When her paintings do trade hands, they command extraordinary figures, buoyed by the 2010 commission that catapulted Mehretu into the seven-figure stratosphere. Mural, a monumental painting in the lobby of Goldman Sachs’s Lower Manhattan headquarters, was commissioned for $5 million and helped set a new bar for her prices.
“The first really big auction results were in 2010, and this significant commission was quite a benchmark moment in her market,” said Galperin, pointing to The Seven Acts of Mercy, a 2004 painting Sotheby’s sold in New York for $2.3 million in 2010. Galperin also noted that her current survey at the Whitney Museum—which debuted at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2019 and later made its way to the High Museum of Art in Atlanta—also helped her market realize another significant jump. Her two biggest sales at auction to date, Black Ground (Deep Light) (2006) and Rise of the New Suprematists (2001), both happened at Sotheby’s in 2019, fetching HK$44.2 million (US$5.6 million) and US$4.8 million, respectively.
Galperin noted that while her paintings are certainly the most sought after, her drawings and prints also remain in demand, with the former typically commanding slightly higher prices. Drawings fetch around $150,000 to $300,000 on the secondary market, while prints usually sell for prices between $25,000 and nearly $90,000, depending on their size. Mehretu is particularly sought after by private museums and collecting institutions such as the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and the Eli Broad Foundation, each of which have purchased works at auction in recent years.
Mehretu’s undoubted position as one of the most ambitious artists of our time is bolstered by her fearless experimentation and propensity to dig deeper. “She has consistently reinvented herself, all the while staying within the same arena of conceptual principles,” Galperin said. “She’s an artist who has continually pushed the boundaries of her own abstract painting style.”
Correction: This article has been revised to more accurately portray Gemini G.E.L.’s relationship with Julie Mehretu and her printmaking practice.
Thumbnail image: Julie Mehretu, “Six Bardos: Transmigration,” 2018. © 2018 Gemini G.E.L. LLC. Courtesy of the artist and Gemini G.E.L.