Julie Mehretu 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, convey a sense of movement reflecting 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 MoMA. 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. 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 from 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 her latest commission 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 had been working and reworking these two towering paintings – each stretching 27 feet by 32 feet – in an unused Harlem church and is completing them in the museum before the installation, where they will remain on view for more than three years.
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 2019, LACMA is scheduled to give Mehretu a retrospective.