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For a painter, mark-making is tantamount to the practice of writing. When presented together, collections of strokes might typify a distinctive visual language, particular to the mark-maker. As a graduate student at the Rhode Island School of Design in the 1990s, Julie Mehretu developed a system of mark-making to record mercurial geopolitical processes like migration and globalization. These communities of emphatic strokes and gestures would go on to live in monumental abstract paintings, charged with political inquiry, that distinguish Mehretu as one of today’s most exceptional and critical visual artists.
Mehretu’s remarkable mid-career survey blazes through the fifth floor of the Whitney Museum of Art, illuminating over two decades of her extensive practice. The retrospective is curated by Christine Y. Kim with Rujeko Hockley and was first installed at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art through September of 2020 before traveling to the Whitney. Across nearly 30 paintings and 40 works on paper, Mehretu, in this profound and timely survey, captures riotous geographies. Often overrun with communities that dispute, collide, and protest, the artist’s works remind us that borders are designed to be trespassed.
Mehretu’s earliest pieces, displayed in the first of nine galleries that weave through her practice chronologically, include a collection of small sketches and drawings that employ sharp line work and unique symbols to index political conflict and recount global histories of migration. In “Migration Direction Map” (1996), for example, arrows fill contour lines that diagram nomadic populations transnationally. Though these figures are closed shapes, they maintain porous boundaries, repeatedly overlapping and merging to indicate something akin to “contact zones” — places where itinerant communities converge, clash, and form sociocultural bonds.
In mapping these sites of contact, Mehretu also inserts her own personal history of migration. The vigor and clamor of the cities in which she has lived, from Addis Ababa to New York and Berlin, animate enormous paintings that consume the galleries that follow. Mehretu leans into abstraction with these impressive works and positions architectural renderings as underpainting.
Buried beneath an avalanche of festive symbols and flags lies a faint, monochromatic skeleton of a stadium in “Stadia II” (2004), which inhabits the third gallery. As public spaces home to transnational competition and conflicting nationalisms, stadiums are sites where political borders are made visible under the scrutiny of international audiences. Mehretu teases out this tension, stripping flags for their parts and distorting their significance. Stars, crosses, and stripes whirl in aimless disarray amid drifting lines and ellipses. Collectively, these colonies of symbols overwhelm the stadium itself, as if threatening to uproot the structure entirely.
This feud between architectural space and the bodies of marks that populate it intensifies as we move through Mehretu’s work. In “Black City” (2006), frenzied smudging and stippling accumulate on the canvas like thick clouds of smoke, overriding layers of urban architecture below. Frequently, these dense groupings of marks scurry across the painting as if pedestrians swarming a busy intersection. Color is used sparsely here: swift red lines and streams of blue partition the otherwise dim visual plane, directing the movement.
As I wander into the fifth gallery, which reveals four extraordinarily grand works that comprise “Mogamma (A Painting in Four Parts)” (2012), I am overcome with the feeling of being part of infinite publics — locally and globally — that refuse to cooperate within the systems established to curtail them. Produced in response to the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, Cairo’s Tahrir Square (widely understood as the epicenter of the uprising) functions as the architectural source material for these works. Again, vibrant, stray lines shoot across these paintings, linking assertive striations with unruly blemishes. Together, these protesting communities of marks nearly overthrow the federal buildings that watch from behind.
In the wake of the Arab Spring, Mehretu pivoted away from centering architectural space. Across six panels, “Epigraph, Damascus” (2016) unleashes the spirit of civil unrest that seized Damascus during the Syrian Civil War with feverish ink drawing. A provocative departure from previous works, Mehretu’s freehand strokes take greater liberties here: lawlessly scouring through a dismal grey climate, they descend much like debris coating a fallen city.
In this current moment of augmented contention and protection of borders — whether these may be geographical, political, or migrational — it can be difficult to envision total structural subversion. In Mehretu’s most recent work, color becomes a liberatory force, stimulating us to feel what we can’t yet see. Smoldering palettes flecked with Mehretu’s signature dark mark-making engross heated moments of defiance and disorder. Culminating with a brazen work titled “Ghosthymn (after the Raft)” (2019-21) that imprints global catalysts like the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, this riveting survey uplifts over two decades of collective resistance.
Julie Mehretu continues at the Whitney Museum of Art (99 Gansevoort Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through August 8. The exhibition is curated by Christine Y. Kim with Rujecko Hockley.