Art

Julie Mehretu’s Sublime Abstractions of History

Packed with traced and freehand marks, Mehretu’s artworks inspire awe of what might be called an informational sublime, a 21st-century twist on the artistic tradition.

Installation photograph, Julie Mehretu, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, November 3, 2019–May 17, 2020 (art © Julie Mehretu, photo © Museum Associates/LACMA)

LOS ANGELES — Organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and The Whitney Museum, the mid-career survey of Julie Mehretu takes stock of an artist who has worked for nearly two decades under the glare of international attention. Curators Christine Y. Kim and Rujecko Hockley carve a chronological path through Mehretu’s oeuvre on the third floor, while on the first floor they assemble a group of canvases so monumental they froze me momentarily before I could take them in.

Given Mehretu’s penchant for gigantic works, the small scale of her earliest paintings on display is surprising. Mehretu’s daring is palpable; each canvas is spare, driven, and unselfconsciously establishes imagery so odd and fresh that it’s clear visual culture was going to have to meet her on her own terms. In “Untitled (two)” (1996) and “Untitled (yellow with ellipses)” (1998), Mehretu articulates concerns with migration and dislocation in drawings that suggest aerial views of masses of people, or in loosely structured arrangements suggesting refugee camps. Core elements of her visual lexicon are already evident: a personal vocabulary of symbolic marks, the creation of space through layered compositions, and a few colored geometric shapes floating around.

Julie Mehretu, “Hineni (E. 3:4)” (2018), ink and acrylic on canvas, 96 × 120 in., Centre Pompidou, Paris, Musée national d’art moderne/Centre de création industrielle; gift of George Economou, 2019 (© Julie Mehretu, photograph by Tom Powel Imaging)
Installation view of Julie Mehretu, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, November 3, 2019–May 17, 2020 (art © Julie Mehretu, photo © Museum Associates/LACMA)

“Stadia II” (2004) opens the second room, encompassing all that is now identified as the artist’s signature style: precise black lines tracing architectural forms, overlaid with colored geometric shapes rendered as either two- or three-dimensional, and swarms of small, freehand marks suggesting spectators, competitors, armies, explosions, and the power of nature. Mehretu’s freehand ink strokes recall the flood drawings that Lenoardo Da Vinci made in the last decade of his life: the two artists share a rare ability to make marks that do not describe nature’s energy but embody it directly.

In its pageantry and bombast, “Stadia II” lays bare the hubris of the US war in Iraq, and of American culture more generally during our years of imagined economic invulnerability prior to the 2007–2008 financial crisis. The 12-foot-wide work establishes history painting as Mehretu’s métier; she reinvigorates the dusty genre throughout her career. This phase of Mehretu’s stylistic development reached its apotheosis with an 80-foot-long and 22-foot-high mural that was commissioned by Goldman Sachs and installed in the company’s lower Manhattan offices in 2009, where it remains today.

Julie Mehretu, “Epigraph, Damascus” (2016), photogravure, sugar lift, aquatint, spit bite aquatint, open bite, 8.1 × 18.8 feet, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, gift of Kelvin and Hana Davis through the 2018 Collectors Committee (© Julie Mehretu, photo © Museum Associates/LACMA)

Also in 2009, Mehretu produced a new body of work commissioned by Deutsche Bank, which cast aside the colorful palette, perspectival lines, and curving shapes that energized her paintings in the previous decade. The sober new paintings, entirely in grayscale, were shown at the Guggenheim, New York, in 2009 in an unforgettable and deeply moving exhibition titled Grey Area. This period is represented in LACMA’s retrospective by “Berliner Platze” (2009). Mehretu had already made paintings stripping her visual language down to architectural tracings set against shades of gray (i.e., “Palimpsest (old gods),” 2006, and “Projects,” 2008). Yet the overlapping lines in “Berliner Platze” reach staggering levels of density, while the absence of the artist’s swooping brushstrokes leaves a stillness weighted with the past and present, invoking the buildings we create and destroy, whose ghosts remain.

At this time Mehretu also embraced erasure, sanding away portions of paintings to create evocative voids. The gentle, black and white “Untitled” (2012) reflects this development, consisting primarily of smudged and effaced marks. Throughout her career, Merhetu has achieved her greatest lyricism when she has eliminated color. Nowhere is this more evident than in “Epigraph, Damascus” (2016), a six-panel print nearly 19 feet wide, alive with the corporal energies of her gestures. Retracing the dance of her arm and hand in my mind lulled me into an almost trace-like state. The print reveals not only the majesty she attains in black and white but also the physical and conceptual freedom she found by leaving behind the strictures of her architectural tracings.

Installation view of Julie Mehretu, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, November 3, 2019–May 17, 2020 (art © Julie Mehretu, photo © Museum Associates/LACMA)
Julie Mehretu, “Mogamma (A Painting in Four Parts)” (2012), installation view in Documenta 13, Kassel, Germany, 2012 (© Julie Mehretu, photograph by Ryszard Kasiewicz, courtesy of the artist, Marian Goodman Gallery, New York, and White Cube)

In the most recent work, Mehretu fills up her canvases again, but now the grounds of her paintings are composed of shifting tones, which have transitioned from grays and muted colors to vibrant hues. Exemplary of this new direction are “Hineni (E. 3:4)” and “Sun Ship (J.C.)” (both 2018), two enormous canvases with saturated color, a few geometric shapes, and elaborate choreographies of layered, swirling marks. The paintings begin with photographs that she crops and blurs before transferring them to canvas. Her subjects range from the 2014 shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, of Michael Brown, an unarmed Black teenager, by a White police officer, and subsequent riots, to the slew of wildfires worsening every year in California. In the catalogue Mehretu states, “I am fascinated with the blur … with how much of these images still comes through.” However, I felt the blurring dissolved the force of the original content. In place of specific architectural and cartographic references, there is only fuzzy color, an inadequate foil to the artist’s dynamic drawing (which itself feels somewhat generic in these most recent paintings).

The first floor concentrates on a selection of paintings offering Mehretu’s unique take on the sublime, with works as large as 15 feet tall and 24 feet wide. The rooms include “Mogamma (A Painting in Four Parts)” (2012), and “Cairo” (2013), masterpieces by any measure. Packed with traced and freehand marks, the abundance of visual data inspires awe in what might be called an informational sublime, a fitting 21st-century twist on the artistic tradition of sublime nature made famous by such Romantic painters as Caspar David Friedrich. Made in 2012 and 2013, they are Mehretu’s response to contemporaneous popular uprisings around the world (for instance, the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street), as well as historical protests such as those in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989. The paintings are at once meditations, elegies, and celebrations of citizens’ attempts to resist political and economic tyranny. Ironically, their grand monumentality and unparalleled elegance is doubtless a reason Mehretu appeals to global banks and other institutions with an interest in projecting power. Mehretu’s coded political sympathies pose few challenges to oligarchs whose actions her works may implicitly criticize.

Julie Mehretu, “Conjured Parts (eye), Ferguson” (2016), ink and acrylic on canvas, 84 × 96 in., The Broad Art Foundation, Los Angeles (© Julie Mehretu, photo by Cathy Carver)

A final room on the third floor is filled with drawings on mylar. Profoundly exciting, this miniature showcase allows a more intimate, informal encounter with Mehretu’s visual and conceptual language. As a coda, Rembrandt’s etching “The Three Trees” (1643) hangs on the wall; Mehretu identifies the Dutch master as a key influence. After spending several hours with Mehretu’s work, Rembrandt’s etching suddenly dissolved into a whirlwind of individual lines and marks I had never before perceived with such clarity, and the four centuries separating two artists collapsed in a heartbeat.

Julie Mehretu continues at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, California) through March 22, and will later travel to the Whitney Museum of Art (June 26–September 20, 2020); the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, GA (October 24, 2020–January 31, 2021); and the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, MN (March 13–July 11, 2021). The exhibition is curated by Christine Y. Kim with Rujecko Hockley.

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