Julie Mehretu at the Whitney

Julie Mehretu, Retopistics: A Renegade Excavation, 2001. © Julie Mehretu

Julie Mehretu

Whitney Museum of American Art

March 25 through August 8, 2021

By ZOË HOPKINS, May 2021

A mid-career survey of Julie Mehretu occupies the fifth floor of the Whitney Museum, where her work sprawls across the gallery walls, poised to devour us into vortices of sweeping lines, symbols, and architectural forms. Gazing at Mehretu’s abstractions, many of which are monumental in scale, it is all we can do to not get completely lost in the canvases, which encircle us in uncontainable rhythms. Co-organized with LACMA and the High Museum of Art, the exhibition is the first retrospective of Mehretu’s work, encompassing over two decades of painting and drawing. Over its course, Mehretu repeatedly reconfigures abstraction. Her paintings call upon us to relinquish the comfort of being stable in time or place, and to instead embrace that which is unknown and perhaps even unknowable. 

Installation view of Julie Mehretu (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, March 24-August 8, 2021). From left to right: Migration Direction Map (large), 1996; Migration Direction Map, 1996; Untitled (sketch), 1996; Transcending: The New International, 2003. Photograph by Ron Amstutz.

Opening the exhibition is Transcending: The New International, a monochromatic work which explodes the language of cartography into an open rebellion. Responding to the melange of possibilities and anxieties that texture postcolonial Africa, the painting assembles architectures from every African capital city, layering them together in a chorus that suggests a Pan-African possibility of transcending borders and nation states. Buildings and monuments seep out from underneath soaring forms that move across the canvas with an urgency that feels forceful yet balletic. 

Julie Mehretu, Untitled 2, 1999. © Julie Mehretu and White Cube Gallery.

Following this bold opening is a gallery focused on the period after Mehretu’s move to New York city. Paradigmatic examples of Mehretu’s style and method, these dizzying paintings burst with centrifugal force. Titles like Babel Unleashed (2001) and Dispersion (2002) exude motion, visceral release, and the sense of scattered being that is so central to Black spatial realities. Products of Mehretu’s characteristic technique by which she builds layers of graphite, ink, and paint underneath several intervening coats of translucent acrylic, the forms on the canvas grow out from endless depth. The paintings seem to gesture towards a center, yet lack any definable vanishing point. Nearby, a set of drawings demonstrates the absolute precision and rigor that laid the foundation for the works on canvas, which are really equal parts draftsmanship, painting, and dance. 

Julie Mehretu, Mogamma (A Painting in Four Parts) Part 2, 2012. © Julie Mehretu

Moving further into the exhibition, we encounter a set of yet even more monumental, primarily monochromatic paintings that seek to revise our understanding of public urban space. Berliner Plätze (2009) and Aether (Venice) (2011) re-enliven cities that were partially destroyed during moments of war and trauma. In these cascades of gravity-defying architectural blueprints, phantom buildings rush together with the contemporary structures, revealing a maze-like articulation of what could have been. Also among the giants of this period is the Mogamma series (2012), a cycle of four paintings which clamor with various landscapes of revolution: from Tahrir Square in Cairo to Zuccotti Park in New York. Here, the linear narrative style of classical painting cycles is upended, drowned in a sea of orthogonal lines swarming at the surface of the canvas. Dense with history, the paintings are jumbled, yet rendered with a clarity of direction and line that calls Constructivism to mind. In these displays of tangled movement—ripe with the potential for rupture—we sense the same tension that might characterize the moments of assembly and protest Mehretu was responding to.

Julie Mehretu, Conjured Parts (eye), Ferguson, 2016. © Julie Mehretu

The final galleries of the exhibition offer a triumphant showcasing of Mehretu’s work from the past decade. Marking a significant departure in style, here, soft color washes melt together behind a buzz of thick, calligraphic swirls that evoke a spray-painted graffiti. In works like Conjured Parts (eye), Ferguson (2016) and Haka (and Riot) (2019), new methodical interventions also surface, with photography emerging as a visual and conceptual touchstone: Mehretu incorporates blurred and disassembled photographs that reference contemporary incidents of violence, struggle, and rebellion. Mehretu literally deconstructs any notion of these photographs and the moments they represent as static or fixed in time. Instead, they glide endlessly amidst the gestures on the canvas, swept up in a torrent of motion and resistance. 

Recently interviewed by Whitney director Adam Weinberg, Mehretu illuminates that at the bedrock of her work is a spirit which “invents on the possibility of resurrection...uprising, the insistence on reconstruction, the insistence on new possibility.” Gazing at her paintings, which seem to tumble outside the region of legibility or ease, this spirit gains a palpable air. In these explosive ensembles of visual relation and interconnectivity, Mehretu dares us to become ungrounded, animating within us a search for the possible. WM



Zoë Hopkins

Zoë Hopkins is a student at Harvard College, where she studies Art History and African American Studies. She is a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellow and has previously been a Carol K. Pforzheimer Fellow. Zoë has worked in various capacities with Creative Time, Artforum International Magazine, the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Harvard Art Museums, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.


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