Julie Mehretu Paints to Make Sense of a Violent, Chaotic World

Alina Cohen
Aug 31, 2018 5:18PM

Julie Mehretu’s paintings are haunted. On a rainy Tuesday afternoon in August, the artist and I are sitting in her plant-laden Chelsea studio, broadly discussing her life and work. She’s energetic and forthcoming, rapidly moving from one idea to the next. We’re surrounded by a series of some of her newest canvases, their somber palettes interrupted by bright, screen-printed zings and soaring, painted lines that add a distinctively supernatural verve.  

Mehretu mentions a recent trip to the Mogao Caves in northern China—intricately decorated grottoes that were carved into the mountains between the 4th and 14th centuries (or 5th and 13th, depending on who you ask). “You walk into them and the entire world is painted around you,” the artist recalls. “It’s all of Buddha and all of the universes and all of these narratives and they’re just dizzying, incredible paintings.” The visit inspired her inasmuch as, she says, the sense “that a human being can’t see something like that and not be moved by it.” One could argue that the 47-year-old Ethiopian-American artist has become famous, in part, for just such immersive, all-consuming artworks of awe-inspiring scale.

Portrait of Julie Mehretu in her Chelsea studio by Daniel Dorsa for Artsy.


Mehretu will debut her newest paintings (many measuring over 7 by 7 feet) on September 21st at White Cube in London. They continue an ongoing body of work that the artist began in 2012, and first showed at Marian Goodman Gallery in 2016. The entire series invokes a similar, and fairly simple (though time-consuming) process: abstracting news images and using them as a background for painterly gestures.

Mehretu begins by manipulating news photographs in Photoshop, then rendering the gray-tinged, washed-out blurs onto canvas via airbrushing. These distorted source images derive from events such as the 2017 Unite the Right rally, and its ensuing riots, in Charlottesville, Virginia; police clashes with Catalan separatists in northern Spain; or the protests against President Trump’s Executive Order 13769 (better known as the Muslim ban).

She then spends months complicating the surfaces with both hand-drawn and screen-printed marks. Sometimes she erases earlier gestures by sanding them away, leaving phantom traces. Black lines ripple and double back on each other. Some passages are wispy, fractured, and reminiscent of mascara swipes. Other curves are stronger, more solid. Vague outlines of body parts—an eye, a foot—appear. The works are a significant departure from the paintings that first gained Mehretu acclaim circa 2002, which often resembled fracturing, floating architectural schematics.  

The artist, even when working in an abstract mode, is thinking about a “bigger political dynamic that’s taking place.” One new canvas uses an image of roaring wildfires demolishing California as its foundation. Mehretu connects this tragedy to the blazes that engulfed Rohingya homes in Myanmar as a result of ethnic cleansing. “I was looking at two big fires happening at the same time,” she says. One was intentional; one was likely exacerbated by environmental neglect.

View from Julie Mehretu’s Chelsea studio. Photo by Daniel Dorsa for Artsy.


But Mehretu’s range of references is broad. She asks me if I’d read Jesmyn Ward’s 2017 novel Sing, Unburied Sing. Like Ward, Mehretu generates apparitions tied to histories of oppression, destruction, and race. The novel in question features ghosts in the American South who are unable to comfortably move onto the next world. “They’re there as this constant reminder of this history—and they’re stuck,” Mehretu explains. The idea resonated with her; she’s even titling one of the canvases Ghosthymn.

Art history, as well, is never far behind. Speaking of the raging orange painting that uses the blurred California fire as its backdrop, Mehretu mentions Mark Rothko; in discussing the news photographs’ compositions, the group scenes of Caravaggio and Jacques-Louis David come to mind. The history of painting is as present in each of Mehretu’s canvases as yesterday’s news. There’s also a deeply human, even humorous element to her work. Many of the abstracted body parts scattered throughout her paintings have thick, cartoonish edges that can recall artists such as Amy Sillman—but darker, busier, and steeped in up-to-the-minute political realities.

Julie Mehretu, Ghosthymn, 2017. © Julie Mehretu. Courtesy of the artist, White Cube, London and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York.

Artist Glenn Ligon contributed a catalogue essay for Mehretu’s 2016 Marian Goodman show (which was called “Hoodnyx, Voodoo and Stelae”), noting the dark and cloudy color palette that underlies the series. “Her work exhibits a seriousness befitting her subject matter,” he wrote, “a gray sobriety that suits the crises unfolding in the Arab world, the disastrous aftermaths of our government’s military strategies across the globe, and police violence against black bodies here at home.”

In some of Mehretu’s earlier paintings, she used photographs related to the Syrian Civil War and the uprising in Ferguson, Missouri, after a policeman fatally shot teenager Michael Brown. Ligon described Mehretu’s work as “social abstraction,” a term coined by Mark Bradford (himself known for salvaged paper canvases that frequently reference the AIDS crisis). While figures and a straightforward narrative never emerge, Mehretu’s paintings are nevertheless rooted in a desire for social change.  

“Her move away from marks that represent a collection of individuals to ones that reference the sweep of an individual’s hand or the scale of her body signal a new focus on the role each of us play in helping imagine a new world.”

Yet Mehretu’s paintings aren’t just haunted with violence, destruction, and images of protest. They’re also specters bearing the traces of her process. As the artist works and reworks, and erases and reconsiders, her marks, she—like all painters—records her own labors on canvas. Through a series of aesthetic decisions, she wrestles the chaos of current events within a fixed space. With each glimpse, the works reveal subtle new details and encourage the viewer to reconsider her perceptions—of politics, bodies, art, images—anew.

Often, to incorporate her myriad ideas about history, place, and the body, Mehretu requires a massive canvas; it’s no surprise that monumental commissions have become her bailiwick. In 2017, Mehretu inaugurated an imposing diptych for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art foyer, entitled HOWL, eon (I, II). The artist spent two years painting a pair of 27-by-32-foot canvases for the institution (and continued to add finishing touches in situ). The project was too large for her Chelsea studio, and she temporarily relocated to a high-ceilinged former church in Harlem to complete the work.

Portrait of Julie Mehretu by Daniel Dorsa for Artsy.

SFMOMA curator Gary Garrels notes how important it was for Mehretu to make paintings on canvas, rather than working directly on the museum’s walls. This way, SFMOMA can eventually roll up and preserve the work. (It’s an issue that had arisen previously; Kerry James Marshall once made murals for the institution, which the museum had to eventually paint over.) The finished work, according to Garrels, considers such disparate aspects of the city as the 49ers, the Spanish mission system (which helped devastate San Francisco’s native culture), and early local photographers like Carleton E. Watkins and Eadweard Muybridge.

“It’s a place with a lot of incredible optimism,” Garrels says, noting the popular perception of San Francisco as the “summer-of-love” hippie destination where you leave your heart. “But there’s also a very dark underbelly here. I really think she captures that complexity of this place and this history.”

A work in progress in Julie Mehretu’s Chelsea studio. Photo by Daniel Dorsa for Artsy.

The enormously ambitious commission, among others, has garnered Mehretu comparisons to both Renaissance masters and the Mexican muralists known for working on such grand scales (notably, most of them were men). It was while working on the SFMOMA project, Mehretu says, that the motif of detached body parts really began to emerge. Eyes, arms, and wings—rendered in giant, almost calligraphic scrawls—appear to soar across her panels. Such organic forms, according to Mehretu, replaced the structures she’d previously found in architectural materials.

Ligon offered his own lyrical assessment of the artist’s turn from building schematics to bold gestures. “Her move away from marks that represent a collection of individuals to ones that reference the sweep of an individual’s hand or the scale of her body,” he wrote, “signal a new focus on the role each of us play in helping imagine a new world.”

In Mehretu’s studio, her assistants are preparing for what the artist calls “an experiment”: an early test that may or may not result in a finished artwork. They’d printed a canvas with an image that thousands of Reddit users had collectively and collaboratively designed over April Fools’ Day weekend in 2017. Some errant Redditors tried to insert hateful messaging (swastikas, the adopted white-supremacy mascot Pepe the Frog) into the larger, digital tapestry—though others quickly replaced the offending pixels with alternate colors and designs.

The final Reddit work merged pictures of the Mona Lisa, a penguin, a skull, hearts, and national flags. The project amalgamates Mehretu’s current considerations: unexpected juxtapositions, the potency of popular protests and imagery, creation and erasure, and disembodied voices. If Mehretu chooses to follow through on this line of work, it could mark another significant formal departure.

Photo by Daniel Dorsa for Artsy.

Portrait of Julie Mehretu by Daniel Dorsa for Artsy.

Yet flexibility and innovation have consistently characterized Mehretu’s practice over the past 20 years. After the artist graduated from the MFA program at the Rhode Island School of Design in 1997, she used architectural plans (an airport diagram, for example) as source materials for her paintings’ underlayers. In the early 2000s, she began working from actual photographs of buildings, again excerpting or quoting their elements to create an underlying compositional structure. Her early work often featured gridded sections and hard-edged shapes that swirled to create a sense of three-dimensionality.

For example, in a suite of three 2004 paintings, Stadia I, II, and III, rows and columns of thin ink lines underlie brightly hued circles, linked triangles (which resemble hanging pendants), and thicker straight and curved lines that appear to shoot from the canvas. The paintings incorporate tracings made from hundreds of sports stadiums spanning 2,500 years of global history: from the Olympiastadion that Hitler built to Chile’s National Stadium, which dictator Augusto Pinochet used as a prison camp. Mehretu thinks of the stadiums as a “metaphoric structure of our collective history for spectacle, propaganda, and crime.”

Studio assistants at work in Julie Mehretu’s Chelsea studio. Photo by Daniel Dorsa for Artsy.

Despite her paintings’ often radical messaging, the art world swiftly—and richly—rewarded Mehretu. In 2005, she won a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant, with its generous $500,000 cash award. The artist is an institutional darling: Her work has been on view in major American museums including the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Walker Art Center, and in international venues from Denmark to Ethiopia.

Mehretu welcomes the support, at least partially because her ideal scale is often far larger than even the wealthiest domestic sitting room allows. That’s not to say that private collectors don’t snap up her work: During a Christie’s post-war and contemporary evening sale in 2013, Mehretu became one of the highest-grossing women painters at auction, ever, when her Retopistics: A Renegade Excavation (2001) sold for $4.6 million. Her paintings regularly hammer at over $1 million, while prints go for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Given her passion for social justice, it’s no surprise that Mehretu has spoken of her market and corporate commissions with curiosity, skepticism, and ultimately self-determination. In 2007, Goldman Sachs commissioned Mehretu to create a massive artwork for its Lower Manhattan office lobby. Entitled Mural, the painting spans 80 by 23 feet and cost the bank $5 million. A year later, of course, the global economy crashed. As foreclosures plagued the country, a new multimillion dollar mural for the workplace didn’t exactly convey a new culture of restraint.

Portrait of Julie Mehretu by Daniel Dorsa for Artsy.

Photo by Daniel Dorsa for Artsy.

Instead of getting bogged down in the ethical dimensions of the bank’s commission, Mehretu (who began working on Mural in the spring of 2008, just months before the market’s meltdown) considered the commission as an opportunity for both herself and for Lower Manhattan. (The funding of major artworks has always been fraught, of course—murderous families and the Catholic Church supported most art throughout the Renaissance.) In 2010, she told Calvin Tomkins that she thought of Mural as a public work—the painting is visible through the glass façade to anyone who passes outside the building. Its potential reach, perhaps, is even greater than it might be at a museum.

Mehretu, along with her family and studio, relocated to Berlin to complete Mural. The finished piece, which appears to hover just above Goldman Sachs’s lobby floor at 200 West Street, recalls much of Mehretu’s early-2000s work in its symphonic, Kandinsky-esque amalgamation of shapes that swim and collide. Thin lines of varying magnitude jut up and across, like vectors directing the eye. It’s an abstract composition, but one that still resonates with its site, referencing the trade routes, growing cities, maps, and additional frameworks that have been integral to the history of capitalism.  

Photo by Daniel Dorsa for Artsy.

In Germany, Mehretu simultaneously completed a suite of “Gray Area” paintings for the Deutsche Guggenheim. In these, she employed a predominantly gray palette for the first time, addressing the “destruction and rebuilding that had taken place in Berlin,” according to Joan Young, the Guggenheim’s director of curatorial affairs.

In such paintings from the aughts, Mehretu demonstrated a serious concern with placemaking. Her father was a geographer, and she told Tomkins that her early career manifested a “subconscious awareness of his way of dissecting the world, to try to make sense of it.” Though she was first renowned for the precision of her lines—a 2018 Sotheby’s auction catalogue described the underlayer of her 1999 work Untitled 2 as “drawn with the unwavering line of technical architectural drawing” and an “impenetrable but orderly system” that gives way to a dream-like urban landscape—her aesthetic has shifted towards more personal improvisations.

Portrait of Julie Mehretu by Daniel Dorsa for Artsy.

Julie Mehretu, Mumbaphilia (J.E.), 2018. © Julie Mehretu. Courtesy of the artist, White Cube, London and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York.

“I find the evolution in the work fascinating and reflective in many ways—of the world we live in, combined with how Julie’s life has changed,” Susannah Hyman, head of exhibitions at White Cube, wrote via email. She believes that Mehretu’s recent work reflects everything from Barack Obama’s election in 2008 to recent global upheavals and her own experience with motherhood (Mehretu has two boys, Cade and Haile, with fellow painter, Jessica Rankin).

Though Mehretu’s work has, on a macro level, shifted from the diagrammatic to the intimate, she hasn’t entirely abolished maps and precise geometries from her practice. In addition to the hazy paintings destined for White Cube, Mehretu was also working on a triptych called Iridium over Aleppo when I visited her studio, which incorporates an underlying grid referencing the city’s architecture. She began the piece in 2012, the year that opposition forces in Syria began rebelling against the dictator Bashar al-Assad.

The artist’s allusions have always traversed vast territory—both geographically and conceptually. From graffiti to voodoo, and from Catalonia to Virginia, the numerous comparisons and inspirations marshalled for press releases and wall texts can risk seeming random, or excessive. Yet they also suggest a greater, globe-spanning ambition: Mehretu’s ultimate goal, it often seems, is to get the history of the whole world onto canvas, where it might finally make sense.  

Alina Cohen