Installation view, Julie Mehretu, “HOWL, eon(I, II)” (2017), commissioned by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, ©Julie Mehretu (photo by Matthew Millman Photograph)

When Julie Mehretu received the prestigious MacArthur “Genius Grant” Fellowship in 2005, the foundation described what she did as “creating dazzling, layered pictorial planes of geometric abstractions, iconic imagery, and figurative markings that transform canvases into visually compelling excavations of multiple epochs and locales.”

In her latest work, “HOWL, eon (I, II)” (2017), commissioned by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Mehretu set out to explore the vast landscapes and violent history of the American West. The two paintings now hang in SFMOMA’s lobby, accessible to the public free of charge. Mehretu worked on the vast canvases flanking the museum’s stairway, each 27 by 32 feet, at an abandoned church in Harlem, close to her house. She used Photoshop to merge two large landscapes with images of protests following the fatal shootings of black men, then inkjet printed these onto canvases and encased them in acrylic. She wasn’t always working alone — sometimes her friend, the composer and pianist Jason Moran, would come by and play as she worked. When she was visiting SFMOMA for the opening she spoke with me about the evolution that happens working at such a huge scale, and how the election results made work seem more urgent.

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Emily Wilson: What do you like about working at this scale?

Julie Mehretu: There’s something both completely intimidating and exhilarating about working at this scale — it’s almost an impossible scale in a way, which is super daunting. But there’s also this inherent possibility in that. There’s something that happens to you as a viewer when you’re encountering a work of such scale, in that you can have distance from the work, and see it in its entirety, but then when you’re up close to it, it kind of engulfs and swallows you. So those two positions, being far from it and then the immersive experience of being in it, I’m really interested in. Something else that happens at this scale is that totally it’s uncontrollable. So then it’s about the process, and through the process, you go somewhere, you find your way in the painting — unless one has it all predetermined, which I don’t. There’s really an evolution and transformation and becoming that takes place.

EW: Did you look at other works on a similar scale while making this?

JM: Absolutely. When one thinks of the history of American landscape painting, those actual paintings aren’t that big, but they’re about enormity, they suggest enormous space. I also looked at lots of works of scale, from ancient Egyptian friezes to the ancient caves of the Thousand Buddhas in the Dunhuang desert in China; the enormous paintings of Buddhas in the Met, and Italian renaissance paintings of scale, Titian, Veronese, Tintoretto … everything I could.

Julie Mehretu at work, © Julie Mehretu (photo by Tom Powel Imaging, Inc. courtesy the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery)

EW: Do you want people to focus on the details or the overall impression?

JM: Both. When you walk into the lobby, you experience the paintings in their totality, and in conversation with one another, and in the context of the oculus above you. There’s a geometric experience. They’re above you, floating above the space. Then, when you climb the stairs, it literally feels as if you are climbing into the painting, through its color. Then, as you look up into them, you have a very different experience, with more intimate parts. As your eye travels through the paintings, you start to make different types of visual associations and relationships among them. At the end it all comes back to this bigger image, and this visceral feeling, rather than something you can name or articulate. I’m interested in what happens between those places.

EW: In these paintings, you say you wanted to explore the legacy of the West and manifest destiny and protests and global technology. How did you decide on that?

JM: To be honest, it wasn’t a decision; it evolved out of the process of working. What I was thinking about at first was the beginning of San Francisco and its history, and these paintings are located here—this is the edge of manifest destiny. Right now we’re seeing and experiencing the evolution of that. San Francisco now is a point of departure globally in a very different way, through the Internet and Silicon Valley and what is developing in terms of artificial intelligence. So I was thinking of the American narrative that moved and kind of spawned San Francisco, and at the same time how San Francisco is an integral force in that dynamic now. The information we get, how we understand our social context, is not devoid of history — it’s complicated because of social narrative and social struggle and slavery and genocide and land preservation and all of these dynamics that are part of the history of California. All of that is part of the bigger social dynamic that’s taking place right now as well. The issues are elliptical and cyclical in our narrative and experience. There’s this an immense sense of possibility that’s suggested in these images, but there’s also this sense of horror. So all of those inherent contradictions are embedded in the gestures in the paintings.

EW: How did the 2016 U.S. presidential election influence you?

JM: I was going to the studio every day, and staring at the canvases with their underpaintings. For the first month and a half, I was just looking, hours and hours each day, trying to digest the paintings as I had made them to that point. I was trying to work and paint and find a way to intuitively enter and draw into the underpaintings. I was able to finally do that after the devastating, to me, election results. That’s when it became vital, and I was able to just dive in and start painting. I think you see that in intensity of the markings of the painting on the right.

EW: You friend, the pianist and composer Jason Moran, would come and play while you were working on these paintings. How did working with live music influence your work?

JM: It was incredible. Jason came about a half a dozen times to the studio while I was working, and we did a recording in the space with the paintings. We wanted to do something together, and we didn’t know what that would be. One of his ideas was that he would just come and work while I was working. Sometimes he would start, and I was looking. And then I would start. I’ve never done that with anyone. We were working side by side and maybe there was a dynamic of informing one another, but I wasn’t painting what he was playing, and he wasn’t playing what I was painting. It wasn’t that at all. He was creating a score, and I was working on the painting. But there were some uncanny moments, where I was working on the paintings as he played and for a moment it was as if a new sense was invented.

EW: How do you feel about having it here — in this museum and in public?

JM: I thought the paintings would be these two images that would fall into the wall and be portholes out to elsewhere. But it feels like the paintings push out into the atrium — like they’re kind of vibrating and floating in the space.  I didn’t expect as much of a dynamic between the two paintings and the oculus. I’m happy with how they work. It’s exciting to have them here.

HOWL, eon (I, II)” is ongoing at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

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Emily Wilson

Emily Wilson is a radio and print reporter in San Francisco. She has written stories for dozens of media outlets including NPR, Latino USA, the San Francisco Chronicle, SF Weekly, California...