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Julie Mehretu
Los 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 Renegrade Excavation"
"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 mind-boggling.

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 commentary:

"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."


Retopistics: A Renegrade excavation 94 detail 1
"Retopistics: 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.


Retopistics: A Renegrade Excavation detail 2
"Retopistics: 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.

"Retopistics" view in Whitney gallery
"Retopistics: A Renegade Excavation," view in Whitney gallery

In a March 21, 2021 article in The New York Times, Jason Farago provided the following commentary:


"After 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 Whitney Museum of American Art, where the roiling midcareer retrospective of Julie 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 disquieted art has only grown in pertinence and power.

"Mehretu came to prominence in the early 2000s for large, multilayered paintings that incorporated architectural diagrams and cityscapes. Then, about ten years ago, her art took a profound and thrilling turn — painting gestural, calligraphic abstractions, bristling with unsettled tensions that evoke the dislocations of war and the 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 tradition of Western art.

"Meaning lies in motion. Culture never sits still. Trade, conquest, reproduction, translation, displacement, intermarriage: Art partakes of these movements, mutates en route, gets new identities as it circulates and resettles. Mehretu’s peripatetic art has all the drama of these global circulations — the flights of people and capital, the spread of viral infections and political uprisings. And this retrospective, spanning the Whitney’s largest floor and accompanied by a spectacularly learned catalog, is a testament to how abstraction can embody multiple flows, without ever settling down, and open new vistas of freedom.

"Mehretu 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 studying at the Rhode Island School of Design, she made maps and charts that suggested some kind of demographic analysis, but whose dashes and squiggles never disclosed what was being graphed.

"Two intriguing pencil drawings here, both titled 'Migration Direction Map' and dating to 1996, comprise dozens of cells and circles overlaid with arrows in all directions. What’s migrating? Birds, people, illegal weapons? All and none of them. What Mehretu was beginning to picture were the dynamics of systems on the move.

"She 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. Lines accreted in an essentially radial configuration, with large arcs orbiting an absent central axis, and orthogonal spokes sprouting from the core.

"Street plans of African capitals, or wire frames of housing blocks and highways, commingled with sweeping curves and vivacious scratches. Rectangles and diamonds overlaid the compositions like flags at a stadium, or signs at an airport terminal. In places she interpolated cartoonish clouds and explosions.

"Ambitious, 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 'Freestyle,' the Studio Museum’s hotly debated 2001 show of 'post-Black art.'

"Now, 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 simple excess. Many seem like remnants from a circa-2000 vogue for recondite, inscrutable maps and diagrams, produced by artists like Matthew Ritchie, Mark Lombardi and Franz Ackermann.

"But spending time with them again, I still appreciated the seriousness with which she built a whole painterly language (she wasn’t even 30 at the start), and how she engaged with hybridity, diaspora and violence without leaving the terrain of abstract painting. She did this above all through an innovative layering technique, revealed at the 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, which she then shellacked with a clear acrylic layer that would be sanded down to create 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 Renaissance painting had collapsed, from a 'window on the world' into a whirlwind of motion and migration.

"Babel Unleashed 92
"Babel Unleashed," by Julie Mehretu, ink and acrylic on canvas, 60 by 84 inches, 2001

Her early abstractions, beginning about 2001, are very exciting compositions with great dynamism and complexity contained in a layered, central vortex.

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.


Untitled 2
"Untitled 2," by Julie Mehretu, ink and acrylic on canvas, 60 by 84 inches, 2001

"Renegrade Delirium" 96
"Renegrade Delirium," by Julie Mehretu, ink and acrylic on canvas, 90 by 144 inches, 2002
"Renegrade 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.

Renegrade Delirium detail 96
"Renegrade Delirium" by Mehretu, detail

"Renegrade Delirium" has several black "splotches" that conjure the glories of Chinese calligraphy.



Dispersion
"Dispersion," by Julie Mehretu, ink and acrylic on canvas, 90 by 144 inches, 2002

Another 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.

Dispersion detail
"Dispersion," by Julie Mehretu, ink and acrylic on canvas, detail


"Dispersion" is a tumultuous composition.

Stadia II
"Stadia II," by Julie Mehretu, ink and acrylic on canvas, 108 by 144 inches, 2004

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" by Mehretu 122
"Black City" is an ink and acrylic on canvas that measures 120 by 192 inches and was created in 2007

"Black 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 Pinault Collection.



Invisible line detail
"Invisible Line (Collective)," by Julie Mehretu, ink and acrylic on canvas, 136 3/4 by 298 3/4 inches (whole painting), 2011

"It took some time, but around 2011 — triggered, significantly, by the Arab Spring, which seemed so hopeful that year — Mehretu started to push into new territory. 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 instead 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.

"Now freed of the early paintings’ strict radial structure, the countless watery marks coagulated into swarms, 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 clouds of tear gas.

"She was painting current crises as a bodily experience, free from the obligations of narration, and as she did so she grew confident enough to let the architecture disappear. The pictures got darker, more tremulous. The marks got bolder, more corporeal; even her own handprint appeared. In the breakthrough series "Invisible Sun” (2014), longer and more calligraphic black lines mustered into raven-like migrations, flocking through evocative gray erasures. (The Mehretu black line is a thing of wonder, as confident and unmistakable as Schiele’s trembling contours.) It’s as if she discovered, after years translating cities and buildings into abstract form, that whole urban systems were already embedded inside her strokes.

 

"There’s something dramatic in how this show, curated by Christine Y. Kim of Lacma with Rujeko Hockley of the Whitney, builds to the abstractions of the last seven years. Now the backgrounds begin as JPGs from news websites — catastrophic pictures, of riots or wildfires or refugee camps — that are blurred to illegibility in Photoshop. She covers these turbid, hot-colored grounds with those deft black lines and smudges, plus airbrushed spumes of white or red, and also multicolored halftone dots that form a bridge between image and information.

 

"No less invested in movement and mixing than the early work, these churning new paintings present much more volatility. The clean, centripetal choreography that once stood for the global has given way to contaminated streams and surges. And their deep layering of printed, stenciled and handmade marks suggests how data, as much as ink, can be a painterly tool. That’s a concern she shares with numerous abstract painters, such as Jacqueline Humphries or Keltie Ferris, and one that builds on the explorations of Jack Whitten and Albert Oehlen, who both translated brush strokes back and forth between the canvas and digital tools (Whitten with a Xerox machine, Oehlen with an early laptop).

"The 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 demonstration. They aren’t 'about' riots or wildfires, though, any more than Monet’s haystacks are 'about' farm feed, and they shouldn’t be treated as a game of Magic Eye. They are abstract paintings, first and always. Their force and furor derive from uncountable inputs, and in these paintings the burning Grenfell Tower and the gestures of Chinese calligraphy can’t be easily sundered.

"It may sound strange, but for all her success, and all the attention to her cosmopolitan sources, Mehretu has been consistently underestimated as an abstract painter. Her achievement passes not only through urbanism and protest, but through acrylic, ink, spray guns, tracing paper. Yet in the catalog, the artist justifiably grouses that 'my work was largely left out of conversations about abstraction, out of ‘Painting 2.0,’ out of the dialogue with other abstract painters, even outside the story of queer abstraction.

"Even as her art has sold for millions at auction, she has had to contend with the minimizations that attend certain artists. We still afford full creative freedom, and a full reckoning with images and ideas, first to the unmarked artist (white, male, straight, native — none of which get designated as an 'identity'). The marked artist (Black, female, queer, immigrant) usually gets a lesser job, tasked by our museums and collectors to deliver cheery uplift of her assigned group, or digestible criticism of previous wrongs.

"If the Whitney retrospective has one value above all, especially for young artists, it’s Mehretu’s absolute refusal to accept a role so reduced. The new paintings reveal their workings more slowly than before. They’re more haunted, and far more difficult. Their mass overpowers all attempts to fix the artist’s own position within some neocolonial matrix. They demand attention to form, and long minutes of looking. And even then — here is their pleasure, and their 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."


Mogramma 2 of 4
"Mogamma (A 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 inches, 2012

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 power.'

"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.


Cairo
"Cairo" by Julie Mehretu, ink and acrylic on canvas, 118 1/4 by 287 inches, 2013

An 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 Angeles.

"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 possibilities.'

"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.'"

Conjured Parts (eye), Ferguson
"Conjured Parts (eye), Ferguson" by Julie Mehretu, ink and acrylic on canvas, 84 by 96 inches, 2016

Another 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.

"Hineni (E.3:4)"
"Hineni (E.3:4)," by Julie Mehretu, ink and acrylic on canvas, 96 by 120 inches, 2018

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 million.

"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.'


"But 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 Egyptian bureaucracy."

Ghost
"Ghosthymn (After the Raft)" by Julie Mehretu, 12 by 15 feet, 2021

According to Farago's article in The New York Times, "Ghosthymn (after the raft)...references the 2018 Chemitz far-right protests in Germany, Brexit anti-immigration rallies and the 19th Century painting 'The Raft of the Medusa' by the French Romantic painter Theodore Gericault."


See good video of Mehretu painting

See excellent short video of exhibit installation



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