The relative danger of contemporary abstraction made by famous artists is that it engenders among art critics an outpouring of words that are most certainly lyrical, but also incomprehensible, as though the vocabulary should match the artwork described.
Tour of America
Take Julie Mehretu: for a long time she’s not only been one of the stars of American painting in a rather abstract vein, but she has also been the subject of a major tour of the country with a retrospective of her oeuvre. In 2019 her work was displayed at Lacma in Los Angeles, and in 2021 at the Whitney Museum and at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. I have not, unfortunately, seen these exhibitions but I’ve been able to admire some of her paintings on various occasions in the past.
State of confusion
To attempt to understand what’s been happening in recent years I therefore read the reviews before meeting her. And I found explanations that talk about the “absence of bodies but presence of humanities” or “ambitious history paintings made in and for a century when metanarratives no longer hold and collapse into multiple perspectives”. Suffice to say, I was in a state of confusion before meeting the artist.
She is exhibiting her most recent work in Paris with Marian Goodman until 14 May. We don’t see the works she is best known for, which resemble giant urban cartographies. We could say these are direct heirs to the paintings of Maria Helena Vieira da Silva, with her sort of luminous traces of movement, only in an XXL format. When I mentioned the Portuguese artist she told me she was flattered by the comparison.
In the past, painting by women has often been associated with pleasant, small-scale works. Mehretu makes things that are big, powerful, although during lockdown the size of her works has reduced. She works on her abstractions like the results of a choreography in which it’s also about volume and thickness. A large part of her current method consists of starting with images that are later erased, rendered illegible and covered up. It’s interesting to note that in a period where there is a proliferation of images taken from daily life, certain painters, like her and Mark Bradford, use deliberate erasure to allow something else to emerge.
When it comes to discourse, as it happens, Julie Mehretu puts her work clearly into words. And this is worth returning to. In order to understand her engagement, we recall that Julie was born in Ethiopia in 1970 to an American mother and Ethiopian father. Her father did a PhD in geography at John Hopkins University. After a stay in Ethiopia the family relocated to the United States in 1977 due to the dictatorship.
The first painting
“The first painting I can remember was in a book on Rembrandt that belonged to my mother. One Saturday morning, I was about 7 years old, while I was flicking through it I noticed “The Sacrifice of Isaac”. It stayed in my memory. The white of the neck… I saw it in person in Munich, just before the onset of Covid. Then there are many paintings that have impacted me since, like Diego Rivera’s mural at the Detroit Institute of Art where we would often go.
Figuration / Abstraction
There’s so much in abstraction that can also be of something else. It’s a sort of liberatory space. And so many elements of abstraction that can be embedded in figurative paintings. You can go back to Rembrandt and you’ll see. So that binary is something that I just think is exaggerated.
One of the reasons that I’m interested in the blurring of the image, reducing it to these ghosts, is to use it as suggested energy. If you read a blurred image of January 6 or ambulances coming to the rescue of someone who’s dying during the pandemic, you can have a visceral kind of experience. I’m interested in it: the sensual experience from this place of the constant haunting of time. My interest is not in a particular form of legibility. I’m much more interested in what can be suggested. Can those blurs be a portal to something?
He is a magnificent painter. For decades he has worked with the materiality of art. He is an exceptional colourist. It’s incredibly fresh and powerful. I’ve met him. He’s a great man, generous, who opened up for us infinite possibilities in abstraction, the freedom of colour and light.
Vieira da Silva, Torres Garcia
I had already been working for some time when I discovered her work. I saw her latest paintings and couldn’t believe I was unaware of her oeuvre. In the United States at that time there wasn’t much that had been reproduced by her. She plays with imaginary spaces, urban life. Like Torres Garcia. They are both kind of constructivist artists who are also thinking about what it’s possible to do with the imagination.
Scale to me is intentional and I work with different scales. I am interested in the relationship between the body and the size of the work, when it’s near or far away. In this show the paintings are small. In my previous works I wanted to interact with old maps. I desired a very different vision of the painting seen from afar or up close. The question of scale arises through the work itself.
Maps are places of fiction and mythologies.
My favourite story of the Map is the Borges story where the map is the size of the city. They are specific to the function that is assigned to them. I collect maps. I have archives of maps, documents on the structure of the universe, old maps of Jerusalem. It’s fascinating. The map gallery at the Vatican is extraordinary.
The shift in your work
I’m always looking for what can be opened up in the work. I’m looking for new thoughts. The interesting thing about this intense occupation that is painting is to get to that next place. It’s like chasing the dragon. Getting older you trust in the power of the imagination.
The exhibition in Paris
Some of the paintings were made in the first few months of the pandemic, during the time of intense “shutdown” – I don’t like the word “lockdown”. All the small paintings come from this period and the blurred photos were collected in recent years. It was a very challenging time for the world. A lot has come up to be questioned. But I also really like the idea of a choreography in their gestation”.
In the exhibition Julie Mehretu has also included an installation by the poet Robin Costes Lewis. Until 14 May.
(Portrait of Julie Mehretu: Josefina Santos, New York Times)
Support independent news on art.
Your contribution : Make a monthly commitment to support JBH Reports or a one off contribution as and when you feel like it. Choose the option that suits you best.
Need to cancel a recurring donation? Please go here.
The donation is considered to be a subscription for a fee set by the donor and for a duration also set by the donor.