All Eyes on Artist Julie Mehretu

by Natasha Wolff | March 23, 2021 11:00 am

In the contemporary art world, Julie Mehretu[1] is undoubtedly one of the strongest female forces. Beloved by artists and activists alike, she’s a master of composition and brushwork most recognized for her high-profile, large-scale abstract landscapes, as well as her use of multilayered mediums. Since bursting onto the scene more than two decades ago, she’s created momentous paintings and prints that are housed in museum collections across the country and have sold at auction for millions. Chances are, if you’ve walked by the Goldman Sachs tower in Manhattan, you’re already familiar with one of Mehretu’s most famous commissioned works—a colossal, 80-foot-wide “Mural” visible from the street. Now at the midpoint of her career, with countless exhibitions under her belt, the Ethiopian-born, Michigan-bred New Yorker is presenting the most comprehensive overview of her work to date at the Whitney Museum of American Art[2].

Julie Mehretu “Epigraph Damascus” (2016) at Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Photo credit: Niels Borch Jensen)

The exhibition, Julie Mehretu[3], co-organized by the Whitney and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), is set to open on June 26. Her work addresses such diverse topics as ancient civilizations, allegory, modernism, geopolitics, revolution and social spaces. 30 paintings and 32 works on paper, spanning the artist’s entire career to date, cover the realms of abstraction, architecture, landscape, scale and, most recently, figuration. “While Mehretu’s early work offers invitations to consider entangled pasts and potential futures, her new work in the studio is volatile, destabilizing, erratic and provocative, reminding us of the infinite breadth and depth of human consciousness and history,” says LACMA exhibition curator Christine Y. Kim.

Throughout her career, Mehretu has not only turned to the history of painting to understand styles of depiction, she has invested in understanding herself as a painter and a queer, mixed-race immigrant living in the U.S. “I’m working with the history and tradition of painting, and that’s been a consideration of mine since I started really making conscious art,” says Mehretu. “I’m a painter, and that’s what I’m obsessed with. But it’s about trying to understand myself. I keep going back to that, digging deeper into who I am. That’s how I am with the work and trying to push to understand what I make and why I make it the way I do.”

Julie Mehretu

For Adam D. Weinberg, director of the Whitney Museum, the experience of being in front of Mehretu’s large canvases is transporting. “Standing close to one of her large canvases, enveloped in its fullness, color, forms and symbolic content, one is easily swept up, into and away by the work’s informational overload and force field of visually magnetic strokes, lines, routes and trajectories.”

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