Global events inform Julie Mehretu’s large-scale abstracts

Julie Mehretu's "Hineni (E. 3:4)" (2018), produced in ink and acrylic on canvas, will be on view at the High Museum of Art. 
Courtesy of Tom Powel imaging /copyright Julie Mehretu.
Julie Mehretu's "Hineni (E. 3:4)" (2018), produced in ink and acrylic on canvas, will be on view at the High Museum of Art. Courtesy of Tom Powel imaging /copyright Julie Mehretu.

Credit: photograph by Tom Powel Imaging

Credit: photograph by Tom Powel Imaging

Artist named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People of 2020

“Tottering on the precipice of an abyss,” is how some people describe the sensation of looking at a Julie Mehretu painting, says curator Christine Y. Kim.

A bright light in the world of contemporary painting, the New York-based artist will bring her remarkable range of work — 40 drawings and prints and 35 paintings spanning more than two decades — to the High Museum of Art in the traveling exhibition “Julie Mehretu” opening Oct. 24.

The self-titled, mid-career retrospective is the first comprehensive look at Mehretu’s body of work, and it stops at some of the most prestigious art institutions in the country, including the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Walker Art Center.

“Julie Mehretu” debuted a year ago at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), where it was co-curated by Kim and Rujeko Hockley, representing, respectively, LACMA and the Whitney Museum of American Art, which co-organized the show.

Her paintings are vortexes of visual information often sourced from architecture, maps, calligraphy, graffiti and news archives. They are famously large — so enormous that Mehretu and a team of assistants work on them using a mechanical platform that extends 27 feet high. Her abstractions are defined by both historical events and fantastic “story maps of no location,” as Mehretu calls them.

Mehretu often creates paintings by sandwiching layer after layer of drawings, mark-making and paint between sheets of transparent acrylic. Viewing them is an immersive experience due to the sheer three-dimensional depth of visual information and their epic scale. They are virtuosic and transportive and have made Mehretu one of the most celebrated abstract painters today, named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People of 2020.

“My interest is really in abstraction, in the paintings, and in what happens in the experience of viewing the paintings; what transpires,” says Mehretu speaking by phone from her home studio in Harlem.

Artist Julie Mehretu.
Courtesy of Teju Cole
Artist Julie Mehretu. Courtesy of Teju Cole

Credit: Teju Cole

Credit: Teju Cole

“Everybody’s experience is a little different, but they are engaging in these paintings physically. They’re quite large, a lot of them, and the paintings have really shifted over the last 25 years,” she says. “Those different types of experiences and the coalescing of all of those on top of each other is what I’m hoping is in the show.”

The High owns several works by Mehretu that will be included in the local version of the exhibition, including the 12-panel composite print “Auguries” (2010) and a suite of four hand-colored relief prints titled “Sapphic Strophes” (2011).

In a major coup, the High acquired one of four panels from one of Mehretu’s signature works, “Mogamma (A Painting in Four Parts)." The piece is a rumination on the Arab Spring and is named for Cairo’s main government building. “Julie Mehretu” will be the first time all four parts of the piece, including the High’s “Mogamma (Part 2),” will be shown together in the United States.

The work was created in 2012 and incorporates architectural drawings of the Mogamma as well as of other sites of public protest, including New York’s Zuccotti Park, Addis Ababa’s Meskel Square, Moscow’s Red Square and Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. “Mogamma” clarifies Mehretu’s interest in global intersections and connections between her present home in the United States and her birthplace in Africa.

Julie Mehretu's "Mogamma (A Painting in Four Parts)" (2012). 
Courtesy of Ryszard Kasiewicz/copyright Julie Mehretu, courtesy of the artist, Marian Goodman Gallery, New York, and White Cube.
Julie Mehretu's "Mogamma (A Painting in Four Parts)" (2012). Courtesy of Ryszard Kasiewicz/copyright Julie Mehretu, courtesy of the artist, Marian Goodman Gallery, New York, and White Cube.

Credit: photograph by Ryszard Kasiewicz,

Credit: photograph by Ryszard Kasiewicz,

Born in 1970 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to an Ethiopian father and an American mother, Julie Mehretu’s family immigrated to East Lansing, Michigan, in 1977.

Mehretu’s work, says curator Kim, “expresses her bold attempts at making sense of the 21st century with criticality and optimism."

“She’s an artist who’s been able to synthesize so many concerns that are geopolitical in nature and relevant to the present moment and present them in a way that allows the audience to find themselves in the sort of chaotic world that we live in today,” says Michael Rooks, the High’s curator of modern and contemporary art.

Mehretu references a number of contemporary topics in her work, including Sept. 11, Hurricane Katrina, migration, war, California wildfires, climate change, the Syrian civil war, the 2008 financial collapse and racist violence in the the United States and abroad.

“She’s employing the language of abstraction to communicate — to make sense out of chaos in a way,” says Rooks. Her works are complex in the span of time they represent, “layering information and data that spans millennia, from ancient times to the present moment,” he says. He describes them as a kind of contemporary, abstract version of “history paintings,” akin to the classical European oil paintings that define art history, depicting assassinations, revolutions, famous battles and coronations.

The works are a give-and-take between the often cataclysmic and destructive social and political movements Mehretu references, and the optimism that Kim describes in her work.

Mehretu attributes that optimism to having absorbed much of the hopefulness of the ’70s, even if her artwork often contends with tragedy and injustice.

“I came from a very utopic, hopeful moment. I was a child of the ’70s," says Mehretu. “And I think in the ’80s you start to see the falling apart of that, not just in the U.S. but all across the world in the post-Colonial moment."

Julie Mehretu's "Berliner Plätze," (2009), ink and acrylic on canvas.
Courtesy of Kristopher McKay/copyright Julie Mehretu, Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York.
Julie Mehretu's "Berliner Plätze," (2009), ink and acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of Kristopher McKay/copyright Julie Mehretu, Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York.

Credit: photo © Solomon R. Guggenheim F

Credit: photo © Solomon R. Guggenheim F

“So for me, these conditions are the continual conditions of violence and oppression, all these intense things," she says. "But there have also been incredible moments of possibility and reinvention and insistence and joy and all of that. Part of the importance of art is it offers this radical space of how that can be possible. It offers something else.”

Mehretu is eager to bring the show to Atlanta and to an international, historically black city that has “been a force on the cultural stage and on the bigger landscape” for its political activism, television, music and film industries.

“I was really excited by the High for several reasons,” says Mehretu. “The High has been a supporter of my work for a while.”

Having grown up in the Midwest, Mehretu is delighted to have her retrospective showing outside the art centers of New York and Los Angeles.

“Her whole body of work really emanates from her desire to figure out who she is,” says Rooks “to really investigate and explore her identity. For this artist, trying to figure out who she is to begin with — and think about her roots and the place where she was born, and to locate herself in her new life as an artist in New York — is really important to the origins of her whole project.”

EVENT PREVIEW

‘Julie Mehretu.’ Oct. 24-Jan. 31. Timed tickets and face coverings required. $14.50. The High Museum of Art, 1280 Peachtree Street NE, Atlanta. 404-733-4400, www.high.org

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