On ViewWhitney Museum Of American Art
March 25 – August 8, 2021
Central to Julie Mehretu’s work is her own life story. Exilic experience offers a very particular view, different from the purview available to those who remain within one’s own country of birth and grow up within a singular if evolving culture. Mehretu was born in 1970 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. At age seven, together with her family, she escaped Ethiopia’s ongoing civil wars and moved to Michigan. Since graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design she has lived in New York City. With this background, it is her own experiences, not only research, that informs a continuing exploration of effects both in the local, immediate lives of people and globally of geopolitical changes: war, migration, and cultural dissonance.
This exhibition, although a midcareer retrospective—Mehretu is far from done yet—gathers an impressive corpus of works. It arrived at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York after iterations at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Atlanta’s High Museum of Art. The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis will be the final venue this coming fall. LACMA’s Christine Y. Kim and the Whitney’s Rujeko Hockley deserve much credit as curators of this ambitious exhibition. Comprising 40 paintings and 30 works on paper, and occupying the complete fifth floor of the Whitney, the exhibition begins with detailed ink drawings of various signs and maps from Mehretu’s time at RISD. We can observe the beginnings here of a consistent trajectory to structuring thoughts and utilizing materials to represent the world. Given the topographical nature of much of this and later work it is interesting that Mehretu’s father was an economic geographer.
A diminutive work in most contexts, and obviously in this exhibition, is Migration Direction Map, (1996), an 18 × 12 inch work in ink on Mylar. The drawing is both perfunctory and elegant, informative, and in its topographic overlaps and curvilinear energy, lyrical. Oddly it recalls for me Warhol’s “painting by numbers” works; in both cases there is a conceptual deferment to diagram an idea of something still remote, a kinesthetic event—the act of painting in Warhol’s case, migratory movements in Mehretu’s. The surface of the Mylar is key for some of Mehretu’s works on canvas, specifically those that have a primed smooth, acrylic surface that replicates the sheer milky opacity of Mylar. The marks on either of these skins appear literally flat or in, rather than on or in front—this is the topology of the print or drawing, rather than the pentimenti or métier of painting.
From these modest beginnings Mehretu’s works enlarged in scale, whilst retaining the use of ink and acrylic. Retopistics: A Renegade Excavation, ink and acrylic on canvas, roughly 100 × 200 inches is a key work from 2001. It embodies the formal qualities—a vortex of clashing linearity and thematic direction, schematic representation of population movement—that would typify the works to come. And it established size as one more crucial component. The painting as another example of Mehretu’s exploded, suspended fictive three dimensionality put me in mind of Antonioni’s famed slow-motion disintegration of a detonated house in Zabriskie Point (1970). This viewpoint, rather than calm and even as in Renaissance perspective, is unmoored and moving, a 20–21st century view of an out of kilter ever-expanding universe of social, intellectual, and political contingency. As people we are increasingly over informed and displaced abundantly—overwhelmingly in fact. The graphic quality of this painting is such that it suggests an instruction manual illustration, and a frantic Calder mobile.
In 2009, Mehretu created Mural, an 80-foot canvas that took the issue of scale to another level entirely. It was commissioned by Goldman Sachs and exists downtown from this current exhibition at a private lobby of the company. Strangely, it engages with the histories of global capitalism, trade, population distribution etc. that this nefarious bank is part of. One wonders if they are proud of this, I suspect that they would balk at mural size works of overt criticality—think of the Mexican muralists, Alfonso Ossario to name one. Their endeavors and experiments certainly inspired and informed Jackson Pollock and his “all over” painting compositions, an artist referenced by commentators who cite Mehretu as an abstract painter.
One of a suite of four very large paintings, Mogamma (A Painting in Four Parts) (4 of 4) (2012), is itself 180 × 144 inches. Formal colored geometry overlays descriptive tonal drawing, though the significance of either is withheld in that deciphering can be achieved only via wall text or catalog text. The scale and accomplishment of the work inspires curiosity beyond the enjoyment of the image and toward thoughts about sources for the configurations present. The dynamism alone, and at this size, is impossible to ignore.
Hineni (E. 3:4), 2018, consists of ink and acrylic on canvas, and at 96 × 120 inches is one of the paintings that typifies something of a sea change, a move toward a more coloristic pictorial zone, though the surfaces remain redolent of screens or mechanically produced images, adamantly universal in their physicality—the actual stuff of the world, paint slurries, contrast of any kind other than graphic are absent. Obviously, this is by choice. Other painters that have elected to work with reproduction methods or print/photography related surface include Gerhard Richter, Bernard Frize, Sarah Morris, and Christopher Wool. What is interesting is the nature of the image in the more recent paintings by Mehretu. Not only are the sharp linearity and planes missing, but also an atmospheric palette has emerged. Hineni not only put me in mind of Arshile Gorky, but also cave paintings. The earth color, subtle tones, and distribution of soft rounded shape recall both the modernist master and the cave wall drawings. The animated cyphers have an energy that also recalls surrealist interior panoramas such as Joan Miró’s. I thought that Mehretu’s super-size scale could be a dimensional compensation for the haptic presence that is absent.
Photographs of social and ecological disturbance and distress are used to initiate some of her more recent paintings. Consider Conjured Parts (eye), Ferguson, (2016) an ink and acrylic on canvas; the photograph is sublimated under subsequent additions to the painting—colors, layers, marks. Connections to the source image are deliberately obscured: submerged, and incorporated into the painting’s finished appearance. This has been compared to Gerhard Richter’s “Birkenau” series, based on grainy photos taken at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. This is very mistaken I think. There is no formal integration of image in Richter, simply a painful and profound discovery that the images with whatever good intention could not remain visible as part of the finished painting. Mehretu is pursuing a picture making that is not invested in the use of paint; hers is a very different path. It is evolving quickly and continuously and these recent works are an exciting development, and leave me very curious about what comes next.