Angeles County Museum
Whitney Museum of American Art
March 5, 2021 - August 8, 2021
High Museum of Art, Atlanta
Walker Art Center, Minneapolis
"Retopistics: A Renegade Excavation," by Julie Mehretu,
ink and acrylic on canvas, 101 1/2 by 208 1/2 inches, 2001
By Carter B. Horsley
Julie Mehretu (b. 1970) is an
abstract artist whose best dense, monumental works are explosive and
Unleashed," by Julie Mehretu, ink and acrylic on canvas, 60 by 84
Their complexity comes from a variety of techniques and styles.
In his introduction to the exhibit's catalogue, Adam D. Weinberg, the
director of the Whitney Museum of American Art, provided the following
"Few artistic encounters are more thrilling than standing close to her
large canvases, enveloped in its fullness, color, forms, and symbolic
content. One is easily swept up, into and away by the works
informational overload and force field of visually magnetic strokes,
lines, routes and trajectories. Viewers can, and do, lose their
bearings in the attempt to read, comprehend, located themselves, and
make meaning from the confrontation....Painting is many things to this
artist: it is conceptual, technical, synthetic, ideational, aesthetic,
political, and memorializing. It is also profoundly existential,
questioning what it means to be alive on this earth, or, as her
art posits, to be floating above and beyond this locus in order to
further grasp, or alleviate, our terrestial existences. Her art
begins and, in many ways, ends with drawing - the most fundamental,
direct, uncensored form of mark-making, as it was with the prehistoric
incisions on the recesses of a cave, the scoring of an ancient vase, or
the scarification of a body. It is about inscribing oneself in
the world as suggested by the title of her recent painting Hineni, which means 'Here I am' in Hebrew."
A Renegrade Exacation," detail 1
Most of her paintings exhibit a fabulous virtuosity in fashioning
intriguing and dynamic "marks" in sharp contrast to the unattractive
and unremarkable squibbles of Cy Tombley. Almost everyone of them
conjures a wonderful Franz Kline painting and unlike the swirling but
similiar masses of Jackson Pollock's better works they suggest an
infinite depth of visual discoveries.
The one rather constant fault is a bland palette and her generally
gigantic scale that can discourage collectors with modest mansions.
A Retrograde Excavation," Detail 2
The impressive catalogue (available at amazon.com) devotes many pages and pictures at its start
to a variety of images the artist collected that do not appear
significant to her art. Indeed, much of its text emphasizes her
interests in black and queer art, neither of which are apparent in most
of her art as they have been sublimated by her layering.
A Renegade Excavation," view in Whitney gallery
In a March 21, 2021 article in The New York Times, Jason Farago
provided the following commentary:
12 months of inactivity, now you can feel it
in springtime New York:
the reanimation, the flow and flux, the lives again in transit. There’s
movement once more in the city, and action of high velocity at the
Museum of American Art, where the roiling midcareer retrospective of
Mehretu has finally made it to view. It opened in November 2019 at the
Los Angeles County Museum of Art and surveys 25
years of rumbling paintings, drawings
and prints. It’s arrived nearly a year late in her hometown, but her
art has only grown in pertinence and power.
came to prominence in the
early 2000s for large, multilayered paintings that incorporated
diagrams and cityscapes. Then, about ten years ago, her art took a
thrilling turn — painting gestural, calligraphic abstractions,
bristling with unsettled tensions that evoke the dislocations of war
disorder of the climate. She’d won fame early. She faced a market that
preferred she stick to one
style. Mehretu kept moving, and in the
process forged a new sort of decolonial abstraction right inside the
of Western art.
lies in motion. Culture never sits
still. Trade, conquest, reproduction, translation, displacement,
Art partakes of these movements, mutates en route, gets new identities
circulates and resettles. Mehretu’s peripatetic art has all the drama
global circulations — the flights of people and capital, the spread of
infections and political uprisings. And this retrospective, spanning
Whitney’s largest floor and accompanied by a spectacularly learned
is a testament to how abstraction can embody multiple flows, without
settling down, and open new vistas of freedom.
was born in 1970 in Addis Ababa, to an
Ethiopian father and an American mother. They immigrated to Michigan
later that decade, after the
military junta known as the Derg began a campaign of terror. While
the Rhode Island School of Design, she made maps and charts that
kind of demographic analysis, but whose dashes and squiggles never
what was being graphed.
intriguing pencil drawings here, both titled 'Migration Direction Map'
dating to 1996, comprise dozens of cells and circles overlaid with
all directions. What’s migrating? Birds, people, illegal weapons? All
of them. What Mehretu was beginning to picture were the dynamics of
came to New York at millennium’s end, taking up an artist’s residency
at the Studio Museum
in Harlem. Her work grew larger, more
architectural and more explicitly occupied with mapmaking and urbanism.
accreted in an essentially radial configuration, with large arcs
absent central axis, and orthogonal spokes sprouting from the core.
plans of African capitals, or wire frames of housing blocks and
commingled with sweeping curves and vivacious scratches. Rectangles and
diamonds overlaid the compositions like flags at a stadium, or signs at
airport terminal. In places she interpolated cartoonish clouds and
intricate and proudly
global, these dense paintings and drawings made Mehretu the breakout
star of a
maverick Harlem gallery called the Project, and a standout in
hotly debated 2001 show of 'post-Black art.'
at 20 years’ distance, I’ve got to say that the early works look pretty
mannered. The over-elaborate surfaces seem to evoke globalization as a
excess. Many seem like remnants from a circa-2000 vogue for recondite,
inscrutable maps and diagrams, produced by artists like Matthew
Mark Lombardi and Franz Ackermann.
spending time with them again, I
still appreciated the seriousness with which she built a whole
language (she wasn’t even 30 at the start), and how she engaged with
diaspora and violence without leaving the terrain of abstract painting.
this above all through an innovative layering technique, revealed at
Whitney in two films of her in the studio, shot by her friend, the
artist Tacita Dean. Mehretu
usually began by drawing wire-frame outlines across the whole canvas,
then shellacked with a clear acrylic layer that would be sanded down to
a new painterly surface. She’d repeat the process three or four times,
saturating each layer with radial lines and geometric shapes. You get a
vertiginous sense of depth — as if the one-point perspective of
painting had collapsed, from a 'window on the world' into a whirlwind
Her early abstractions, beginning about 2001, are very exciting compositions
with great dynamism and complexity contained in a layered, central
What distinguishes them is that virtually all the "marks" appear very
comfortably within their own "space" even as they "dance" through
floating layers of other marks.
"Babel Unleashed" is an ink an acrylic on canvas that measures 60 by 84
inches and was created in 2001. It is in the collection of the
Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.
2," by Julie Mehretu, ink and acrylic on canvas, 60 by 84 inches, 2001
Delirium," by Julie Mehretu, ink and acrylic on canvas, 90 by 144
Delirium" is an ink an acrylic on canvas that measures 90 by 144 inches
and was created in 2002. It is in a private collection.
Delirium" by Mehretu, detail
"Renegrade Delirium" has several black "splotches" that conjure the
glories of Chinese calligraphy.
by Julie Mehretu, ink and acrylic on canvas, 90 by 144 inches, 2002
2002 work is "Dispersion," an ink and acrylic on canvas that measures
90 by 144 inches. It is in the collection of Joanne Greenberg
Rohatyn and Nicholas Rohatyn.
It is a cacophonous, dense, staccato work of enormous complexity,
rhythms, squiggles and dashes tied together with a few long curves. It is a ticking masterpiece.
by Julie Mehretu, ink and acrylic on canvas, detail
"Dispersion" is a tumultuous composition.
II," by Julie Mehretu, ink and acrylic on canvas, 108 by 144 inches,
Another good example of Mehretu's swirling compositions is "Stadia II,"
an ink and acrylic on canvas that measures 108 by 144 inches and was
created in 2004. It is in the collection of the Carnegie Museum of Art
in Pittsburgh, the gift of Joanne Greenberg Rohatyn and Nicholas Rohatum
and the A. W. Mellon Acquisition Endowment Fund.
"Black City" is an
ink and acrylic on canvas that measures 120 by 192 inches and was
created in 2007
City," ink and acrylic on canvas, 120 by 192 inches, 2007.
The black "splotches" of "Renegrade Delirium" are now less prominent
and are dominated by a few large, delicate and thin white accents that
standout above an ocean of grey smudges. It is part of the
Line (Collective)," by Julie Mehretu, ink and acrylic on canvas, 136
3/4 by 298 3/4 inches (whole painting), 2011
took some time, but around 2011 — triggered, significantly, by the Arab
which seemed so hopeful that year — Mehretu started to push into new
First in her tremendous panorama 'Invisible Line,' and
then in the dramatic 'Mogamma' quartet,
she eliminated the orbital axis that structured her early works. She
overlaid wire-frame drawings of New York, Cairo and Addis Ababa with
forests of short, sharp, freely drawn lines,
made with a watery black sumi ink used in East Asian calligraphy.
freed of the early paintings’
strict radial structure, the countless watery marks coagulated into
which seemed to be blowing from one corner of the painting to the
other. The marks
were bodies in Tahrir Square,
or seized-up financial markets. They were murders of crows; they were
was painting current crises as a bodily experience, free from the
of narration, and as she did so she grew confident enough to let the
architecture disappear. The pictures got darker, more tremulous. The
bolder, more corporeal; even her own handprint appeared. In the
series "Invisible Sun” (2014), longer and
more calligraphic black lines mustered into raven-like migrations,
through evocative gray erasures. (The Mehretu black line is a thing of
as confident and unmistakable as Schiele’s trembling contours.) It’s as
discovered, after years translating cities and buildings into abstract
that whole urban systems were already embedded inside her strokes.
something dramatic in how this show, curated by Christine Y. Kim of
Rujeko Hockley of the Whitney, builds to the abstractions of the last
years. Now the backgrounds begin as JPGs from news websites —
pictures, of riots or wildfires or refugee camps — that are blurred to
illegibility in Photoshop. She covers these turbid, hot-colored grounds
those deft black lines and smudges, plus airbrushed spumes of white or
also multicolored halftone dots that form a bridge between image and
less invested in movement and mixing than the early work, these
paintings present much more volatility. The clean, centripetal
that once stood for the global has given way to contaminated streams
surges. And their deep layering of printed, stenciled and handmade
suggests how data, as much as ink, can be a painterly tool. That’s a
she shares with numerous abstract painters, such as Jacqueline
Keltie Ferris, and one that builds on the explorations of Jack Whitten
Albert Oehlen, who both translated brush strokes back and forth between
canvas and digital tools (Whitten with a Xerox machine, Oehlen with an
Whitney’s wall texts lean hard on
Mehretu’s hidden source material, disclosing that this one began with a
document of ethnic cleansing, that one with a white-supremacist
They aren’t 'about' riots or wildfires, though, any more than Monet’s
are 'about' farm feed, and they shouldn’t be treated as a game of Magic
They are abstract paintings, first and always. Their force and furor
from uncountable inputs, and in these paintings the burning Grenfell
and the gestures of Chinese calligraphy can’t be easily sundered.
may sound strange, but for all her
success, and all the attention to her cosmopolitan sources, Mehretu has
consistently underestimated as an abstract painter. Her achievement
only through urbanism and protest, but through acrylic, ink, spray
tracing paper. Yet in the catalog, the artist justifiably grouses that
was largely left out of conversations about abstraction, out of
out of the dialogue with other abstract painters, even outside the
as her art has sold for millions
at auction, she has had to contend with the minimizations that attend
artists. We still afford full creative freedom, and a full reckoning
images and ideas, first to the unmarked artist (white, male, straight,
none of which get designated as an 'identity'). The marked artist
female, queer, immigrant) usually gets a lesser job, tasked by our
collectors to deliver cheery uplift of her assigned group, or
criticism of previous wrongs.
Whitney retrospective has one value above all, especially for young
it’s Mehretu’s absolute refusal to accept a role so reduced. The new
reveal their workings more slowly than before. They’re more haunted,
more difficult. Their mass overpowers all attempts to fix the artist’s
position within some neocolonial matrix. They demand attention to form,
long minutes of looking. And even then — here is their pleasure, and
political potency — they will not give up all their secrets."
A March 21. 2021 article by Robin
Pogrebin in The New York Times
said that Mehretu argued that only now "are the artists who inspired
her - like Sam Gilliam, Coco Fusco, David
Hammons and Daniel Joseph Martinez - finally getting their due from
institutions, galleries and collectors."
Painting in Four Parts)," by Julie Mehretu, ink and acrylic
on canvas, this is second of the paintings in the work, each 180 by 144
An article at theartstory.com discusses the "Mogamma" series:
"In this series, Mehretu brings together architectural drawings of
public spaces where uprisings have occurred, including Tahrir Square in
Cairo, Red Square in Moscow, Plaza de la Revolucion in Havana,
Assahabah Square in Darnah, and Zuccotti Park in New York City. These
images overlap with one another to such an extent that they can only be
identified in particular areas of the canvas. On top of these layers of
drawing, Mehretu has added brush marks, lines, and shapes inspired by
the graphic design of protestors' flags and banners.
"In these works, she is exploring public space as a site of political
conflict, ceremonial significance, and social charge without
necessarily drawing a conclusion. According to Flaunt Magazine,
Mehretu uses artmaking as a way of drawing attention to, if not coming
to understand 'an unconsidered realm that flourishes with the dark
matter that lives between individuals and groups, paint and ideas, the
canvas and activism.' For her, there is a direct link between
architecture and politics: 'I don't think of architectural language as
just a metaphor about space, but about spaces of power, about ideas of
"The pieces reference political events that are part of Mehretu's
personal experience, including the Arab Spring and the Occupy Movement
in the United States. She is particularly interested in exploring the
contradictions between the expectations and the reality of those
events, seen in relation to the spaces in which they occur. The artist
notes, 'There are historic sites where that type of action has taken
place and those sites are ones that are used in the paintings, but also
there's this kind of desire and symbolism ... [versus] what really does
get achieved, what real social change does happen.' This idea is very
significant to Mehretu, who sees it as having shaped her upbringing: 'I
was born in the midst of the utopianist gestures on the continent of
Africa ... there was a very different perception of and sense of
possibility of what a place could be, but that completely fell apart
... The failure of this optimism composed most of my life.'
"The title of the series comes from the name of the government building
in Tahrir Square in Cairo, 'Al-Mogamma,' which was a key site of the
2011 revolution in Egypt and the uprisings in the Arab world at that
time. The word 'Mogamma' also means 'collective' in Arabic and has been
used to refer to multi-faith spaces. Here, it perhaps references the
function of the series as 'a memorial to collective sites of communal
resistance,' as explained by the Tate Galleries."
Part 2 in the series is in the collection of the High Museum of Art in Atlanta.
by Julie Mehretu, ink and acrylic on canvas, 118 1/4 by 287 inches, 2013
article at theartstory.com discusses "Cairo,"an ink and acrylic on
canvas that measures 118 1/2 by 287 inches. It was created in
2013 and is in the collection of the Broad Art Foundation in Los
"Mehretu made this work following a trip to Tahrir Square in Cairo,
which was the scene of popular demonstrations in 2011 that saw
President Hosni Mubarak (whom she describes as 'the most visible
dictator of my entire life') step down from power. For the artist, this
was a poignant moment of both optimism and uncertainty. The need to
process these emotions, brought about by real world events, was her
driving inspiration in this work.
"In Beloved (Cairo), Mehretu explores the 'tension and
contradiction' within that historic moment. She depicts the Egyptian
city caught in a desert wind, its features stretched out as if pushed
and pulled by external forces. The work is neither a map nor an
illustration, but an expression of the movement and life of the city
that exists in a state of change.
"Mehretu's devotion to her subject matter is demonstrated by the level
of detail across such a large work (the canvas measures 24 x 10 ft), and
is reflected by her chosen title. The subject matter is close to her
heart as it relates closely to the experiences in her own youth, of the
decolonizing of parts of Africa and the Arab/African spring.
"She has commented: 'I was born in the midst of the utopianist gestures
on the continent of Africa ... there was a very different perception of
and sense of possibility of what a place could be, but that completely
fell apart ... The failure of this optimism composed most of my life,
but with the Arab/African Spring, it felt that there were new
"The artist sees this tension as characteristic of political history,
describing it as 'this weird entropic cycle of utopian ideals and the
impossibility of that ... the moment of imagining what is possible and
yet not knowing what that is.' Museum director Kathy Halbreich concurs,
in saying, 'Without being pedantic, or politically naïve, or
ideological, [Mehretu's work] deals, I think, with anxiety - the
promise and despair we live with now.'"
Parts (eye), Ferguson" by Julie Mehretu, ink and acrylic on canvas, 84
by 96 inches, 2016
work from the Broad Art Foundation is "Conjured Parts (eye), Ferguson,"
an ink and acrylic on canvas that measures 84 by 96 inches and was
created in 2016.
(E.3:4)," by Julie Mehretu, ink and acrylic on canvas, 96 by 120
One of the more colorful works in the exhibition is "Hineni (E.3:4),"
an ink an acrylic on canvas that measures 96 by 120 inches and was
painted in 2018. It is in the collection of the Centre
Pompidou in Paris.
A March 5, 2021 article by Tobias Gray in The Wall Street Journal discusses the exhibition:
"The artist Julie Mehretu, 51, likes to work on a grand scale. A
silent short film by the British artist Tacita Dean shows Ms. Mehretu at work
on her monumental painting 'Mural' at the New York headquarters of Goldman Sachs in 2009, high up on a cherry picker as
she grapples with a canvas 80 feet long and 23 feet high. 'The scale of the
Goldman Sachs painting was the reason why I decided to take that challenge on,'
Ms Mehretu says. 'It was scary, but exhilarating and wonderful to do.'
"The show includes one of her best-known paintings, 'Retopistics: A Renegade
Excavation,' which at nearly 20 feet wide was Ms. Mehretu’s largest painting
when she made it in 2001. The multilayered work reflects on the transitory
nature of a global existence, with an initial layer of architectural drawings
of airports around the world almost obscured by painted motifs, drips, lines
and colorful streamers, in a precise yet cartoon-like dynamic.
"Ms. Mehretu says that she wanted people 'to not see the
edges and get lost in the minutiae of the drawing and then be able to move back
to see the whole picture.' As she explains, 'That’s why my paintings became
bigger, so you couldn’t see both [aspects] at the same time.' 'Retopistics,'
which is being lent to the Whitney by Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, fetched
a record auction price for the artist in 2013 when it was sold by Christie’s New York for $4.6
"As a child
growing up in East Lansing,
Mich., Ms. Mehretu often
accompanied her father, a geography teacher, to the Detroit Institute of Arts
Museum. It was there that she discovered Diego Rivera’s 27-painting fresco
known as the 'Detroit Industry Murals,' depicting workers at the Ford Motor Company. The large-scale work is a
touchstone: 'Seeing it again is always better than the memory of it,' Ms.
Mehretu says. 'Every time it’s more than whatever I remembered it to be.'
Ms. Mehretu was never enchanted with the idea of becoming a figurative artist
like Rivera. Abstraction provided her with a creative space to make sense of
her place in the world as an Ethiopian-American who arrived in the U.S. at the age
of six. 'It’s in this complex, contradictory and rich mix of the two that I
find myself,' Ms. Mehretu says. 'It’s one reason why abstraction has always
been more interesting to me, because you can invent that in-between place and
this other way of being rather than trying to call on just a particular set of
cultural imagery and signifiers.' Ms.
Mehretu is similarly interested in the hidden perspectives of architecture and
city planning. The Whitney exhibition includes 'Mogamma (A Painting In Four
Parts),' a 2012 work whose title refers to the Egyptian government headquarters
in Cairo’s Tahrir Square,
which protesters occupied in the Arab Spring revolt of 2011. The painting uses
architectural drawings of the Mogamma to create a spidery abstract grid with
occasional shards of color that maps the building’s haphazard past. Built in
the 1940s on a site formerly occupied by a British barracks, it began as a
symbol of liberation from colonial occupation but later became a bastion of
(After the Raft)" by Julie Mehretu, 12 by 15 feet, 2021
to Farago's article in The New York
Times, "Ghosthymn (after the
raft)...references the 2018 Chemitz far-right protests in
Brexit anti-immigration rallies and the 19th Century painting 'The Raft
of the Medusa' by the French Romantic painter Theodore Gericault."
video of Mehretu painting
short video of exhibit installation