Julie Mehretu, a New York-based, Ethiopian-American biracial artist, is one of the most influential painters working today. She is a highly original artist who is pushing abstract art in a new direction, opening it up to social and political content. Her large-scale, sprawling epic paintings, built up in layers starting with a drawing or a digital collage of photographs, are quasi-abstract topographies which convey a sense of movement, reflecting colonialism, displacement, and the velocity of contemporary life.
Born in Ethiopia, Mehretu’s family fled the country in 1977 for Michigan where her father taught at Michigan State University. Mehretu, who received her M.F.A. from Rhode Island School of Design in 1997, always layered her canvases, starting with diagrams, architectural plans, or maps. Mehretu has worked with etchings and has experimented with prints since she was a student at R.I.S.D. and has completed several collaborative projects across America.
In 2004, her works were featured in the Whitney Biennial, the Carnegie International in Pittsburgh, the Sao Paulo Biennial, and Museum of Modern Art. In 2007, she won the Berlin Prize and was awarded a residency in Berlin where she created 7 paintings for the Deutsche Guggenheim, called “Grey Area” 2008-2009, in which she explored the urban landscape of Berlin. In 2005, at the age of 34, she won a MacArthur Foundation genius award.
In 2009, she chose to accept Goldman Sachs’s commission to paint the lobby of their banking headquarters in the Wall Street area of New York City. Her work was painted on a gigantic wall, clearly visible from the outside of the building, able to be seen by a broad public. The scale of this work, 23 feet by 80 feet, was unprecedented even for her. Her “Mural” maps the world of global trade and communications. It is composed of four layers of work and refers to the history of finance and capitalism – maps, trade routes, financial institutions, and cities. The first layer consists of a map-like network throughout the whole painting. The next two layers consist of pen and ink architectural drawings, some of which are: a Massachusetts bank; the New Orleans cotton exchange; the facade of the New York Stock Exchange; the market gate from the ancient Greek city of Miletus; and a very early London Stock Exchange where farm animals were sold. For the fourth and last layer, Mehretu worked alone without assistants as she applied her brush with sumi ink to make “ very small markings that cluster together in formations that suggest human activities – migrations, crowds, battles.”
For the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Mehretu merged two majestic landscape paintings of 19th century artists, Albert Bierstadt and Frederic Edwin Church, with blurred news images of riots and protests of the fatal shootings of young black men. These composites were printed onto bare canvases, stretched on walls, and encased in 20 layers of clear acrylic to create the hard surfaces on which she would paint. She has been working and reworking these two towering paintings – each stretching 27 feet by 32 feet – in an unused Harlem church. She is completing them in the museum before the installation, where they will remain on view for more than three years.
In her most recent paintings Mehretu introduces bold gestural marks and employs a range of techniques such as airbrushing and screen printing. The works draw on her media images of global events and environmental catastrophes. The California fires of 2017 informed her painting “Hineni (E.3:4),” which translates to “Here I am” in Hebrew, which was Moses’s response to God, who called his name from within the burning bush. She integrated three types of fires – environmental, intentional, and prophetic – in this painting. She worked with her assistants to digitally manipulate photos of the fire before an assistant air brushed the distorted images onto the canvas. The artist then painted on top of the manipulated images and edited out unnecessary marks. For her 2019 “Haka (and Riot),” she incorporated news images of U.S. government detention centers for immigrants, using acrylic paint and calligraphic lines of ink.
Mehretu has been part of group shows in New York, London, Korea, Lithuania, and Venice. She has had innumerable solo exhibitions in Spain, Ethiopia, Athens, France, Germany, and the United States. In 2015, she received a U.S. Department National Medal of Arts. In 2019, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is giving a comprehensive retrospective of her work, consisting of 30 paintings and 32 works on paper from 1996 to present time. This show, organized with the Whitney Museum of American Art, covers Mehretu’s engagement with displacement, diaspora, and the human condition.