Julie Mehretu (b. 1970)
Julie Mehretu (b. 1970)


Julie Mehretu (b. 1970)
diptych—acrylic, ink and graphite on canvas
each: 72 x 96 in. (182.8 x 243.8 cm.)
Painted in 2001.
Project Gallery, New York
Private collection, London
carlier gebauer, Berlin
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Julie Mehretu, Black City, exh. cat., León, Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Castilla y León, 2006, pp. 68-69 (illustrated in color).
Vilnius, 8th Baltic Triennial of International Art, Centre of Attraction, September-November 2002.
Ghent, Stedelijk Museum voor Actuele Kunst, Casino 2001: 1st Quadriënnale voor Hedendaagse Kunst, October 2001-January 2002.
San Francisco, John Berggruen Gallery, Julie Mehretu: Paintings and Works on Paper, April-May 2015.


With its sumptuous pyrotechnic eruption of line, color and form, Julie Mehretu’s Untitled from 2001 is a monumentally-scaled example of the artist’s celebrated practice. A catatonic panorama of rich optical splendor, the work engulfs the viewer like a surging visual mind-map. Upon an underlay of precise architectonic markings, Mehretu constructs an explosive cartography, evocative of atlas illustrations, weather maps and ordinance survey contours. Since the late 1990s, Mehretu has deftly combined multiple graphic languages with her own intricate vocabulary of symbols and gestures in an attempt to visualize the social and geographic networks that underpin contemporary global development. Building upon studies of army terrain maps, NFL game plans, airport diagrams and construction blueprints, Mehretu’s interest in the manmade world is tied to a concern with the power structures that have determined our existence since the dawn of civilization. The individual marks that efface the diagrammatic backdrops of her works are imbued with identity and social agency, conceived as characters in narratives of struggle, rebellion and uprising. Like a densely layered snapshot or sound bite the present painting offers a quasi-apocalyptic vision in which we are invited to glimpse the collision of entire histories and universes.

Mehretu’s teeming pictorial surfaces represent a tour de force of art historical reference. As opulent as Baroque ceilings and as virtuosic as Sigmar Polke’s wild alchemical experiments, her works fuse the geometries of Piet Mondrian and Kazimir Malevich with the schismatic linearity of Cy Twombly and the automatism of Surrealist drawing and writing. Influences from Le Corbusier to Jackson Pollock jostle alongside allusions to graphic systems spanning Chinese calligraphy, graffiti, comic book illustration and tattoo design. As Douglas Fogle has observed, Mehretu’s ability to entwine real and imaginary topographies ultimately casts her work as a new kind of history painting. ‘Her paintings ... do not rely on the recognizable but on evocative shards of graphic iconography,’ he writes. ‘She shows us a vision of history as though told through the fractured prism of a Robbe-Grillet novel or projected into a painterly version of the computer game Sim City’ (D. Fogle, ‘Putting the World into the World’, in Julie Mehretu: Drawing into Painting, exh. cat., Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 2003, p. 5). Ancient civilizations and futuristic empires join hands in Mehretu’s work, which the artist frequently conceptualizes in militaristic terms of mobilized armies, battles won and lost, and worlds on the brink of formation or demise. As the artist explains. ‘I am also interested in what Kandinsky referred to in “The Great Utopia” when he talked about the inevitable implosion and/or explosion of our constructed spaces out of the sheer necessity of agency ... it is in these same spaces that you can feel the undercurrents of complete chaos, violence, and disorder. Like going to see fireworks - you feel the crowd at the same time as you feel the explosions’ (J. Mehretu, quoted in ‘Looking Back: Email Interview Between Julie Mehretu and Olukemi Ilesanmi, April 2003’, in Julie Mehretu: Drawing into Painting , exh. cat., Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 2003, pp. 13-14).

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