Julie Mehretu | The Process Is Both Granular and Galactic

One of 25 art covers for Flaunt's 25th Anniversary Issue

Written by

Erik Morse

Photographed by

Alexei Hay

Styled by

Keita Lovelace

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Julie Mehretu. “Transpaintings (Mask)” (2023). Ink And Acrylic On Monofilament Polyester Mesh. 72 X 60 Inches. © Julie Mehretu. Photo © White Cube (Theo Christelis).

The reason that I work within abstraction and within the language of abstract painting is that it is this place where there isn’t a clear image or perspective. It’s very much that in-between place. So, I don’t think any of these [paintings] are about the drawing in complete opposition to the architecture. In fact, I think they are about the challenge of the one to the other, but also this other thing can emerge within there... They’re intermingling, they are becoming something else, they are becoming fused together.

—Julie Mehretu

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Prologue: Monumentality and Sweetness

Of the many rapturous descriptors employed by art critics and historians to situate the twenty-five-year oeuvre of post-painterly abstractionist Julie Mehretu, one that reappears frequently is that of vast, in terms of both its intellectual moorings and material scale. Mehretu’s individual paintings have climbed to a height of twenty-seven feet (“HOWL,” “eon (I, II),” 2017), numbered hundreds of shades of colors (“Mural,” 2009) (each reportedly labeled and archived by Mehretu during the composition process) and comprised incalculable numbers of digital photographs, architectural renderings, contemporary signs and symbols and micrographic gestures and characters; at the same time, her paintings have synthesized and collaged an immense miscellany of social, political and artistic histories, including Paleolithic mark-making, Enlightenment-era and Beaux Art architecture, midcentury world-building utopianism, postcolonial revolutionary movements and accelerationist fantasies of apocalypse. This breadth of monumentality in both dimension and concept is perhaps best represented in the twenty-three feet by eighty-foot Mural, which stretches over five canvases across the front lobby wall of New York City’s Goldman Sachs Building. Dwarfing some of the largest historical paintings of the Italian and Dutch Old Masters (its dimensions rival that of Paolo Veronese’s “The Wedding Feast at Cana,” 1562-1563), Mehretu described the work as a “spatial history of global capitalism.”

For Mehretu, particularly in her early career, the purpose of this monumentalist abstraction was not simply to invoke non-representational projections of color, gesture, and form but a larger political project to render visible some kinetic principle of modernity through the enfolding and superimposition of vast geographies and epochs onto a discrete, visual plane.

In fact, Mehretu’s unique vision of abstraction has proven so vast, so monumental, so ambitious, that the sheer size of its conceptual and painterly practice can sometimes produce a sublime stutter at efforts to approach it: in the case of the viewer, this might appear as a tentative footfall or moment of vertigo when experiencing a close encounter with one of her canvases, or series of canvases; or, in the case of the scholar, as a silent hiccup that accompanies any hubristic endeavor to examine and circumscribe her entire catalogue on paper. For the latter, this experience of hesitation is exacerbated by the equally vast quantity of reviews, interviews, surveys, periodical features and academic essays already penned on every methodology and historical phase of Mehretu’s evolving catalogue, an archival glut rare for a mid-career artist whose work only stretches back to slightly prior to the millennium. The result is a critical discourse that, collectively, mimics something of Mehretu’s own practice of monumentality, approaching her work with a proclivity for rhetorical loquacity and gnomic concepts that can stun by the weight of its own scholarship.

Perhaps, it is for these reasons that Mehretu’s exploration of intimacy and closeness have not been pursued by critics or scholars much beyond a cursory glance or in service to other, more explicitly socio-political, spatio-structural or identarian conceits. In fact, Mehretu’s use of monumentality has often been viewed by critics in architectural, rather than artistic, terms, and interpreted as a conceptual, if not masculinist, buttress, or antidote, to any aesthetics of intimacy with its approachable dimensions and its invocations of sickly sweetness, femininity and fragility.

In the opening volume of his Spheres trilogy, German media theorist Peter Sloterdijk accounts for just such a prejudice toward a wider, speculative philosophy of intimacy, which he claims is due to its “subversive effects” on the “proud subject” by “maki[ng] it the scene of invasive sensualities.” He compares such an intellectual discomfort with intimacy to the experience of popping a sugary lozenge into one’s mouth. “For many intelligences, the thought of homely intimacies is associated with a spontaneous disgust at too much sweetness—which is why there is neither a philosophy of sweetness nor an elaborated ontology of the intimate,” he writes. Spheres’s multi-thousand page history of interiority no doubt bears a certain multidisciplinary kinship with Mehretu’s work as it shuttles insistently between the intimate and the monumental (what Sloterdijk refers to as the micro and macro-spherological), incorporating histories of the geopolitical and phenomenological, the aesthetic and vernacular and the symbolic and pre-linguistic.

In the course of many lengthy interviews, Mehretu has, herself, weighed in on the tendency by critics to enisle themes of intimacy from her larger project and offered something of a rapprochement by referring to her work’s origins with terms like “intermingling,” “emergence,” “psychological space,” “surround,” “near and far,” and the “in-between place.” This is particularly true of Mehretu’s work since 2010, which has relied less overtly on discernible symbols, histories or landmarks and has instead become, in her own words, “more intuitive.”

So, while spatial or motile architectures continue to influence much of the formal and intellectual foundation of Mehretu’s practice, descriptors such as those above increasingly suggest something far more elusive: that Mehretu’s particular form of post- painterly abstraction extends beyond a strictly object-oriented or spatial monumentality into an e-motive form of architecture, one that takes it shape from a multi-sensory exploration of intimacy and closeness. 

Featured: Julie Mehretu. “Your Eyes Are Two Blind Eagles,That Kill What They Can’t See” (2022-2023). Ink and Acrylic On Canvas. 96 X 120 Inches. Courtesy Of The Artist And Marian Goodman Gallery.© Julie Mehretu. Photo By: Tom Powel Imaging

The Cave and the Womb

How might a writer standing before Mehretu’s abstracts and stricken with the dreaded stutter begin to approach and engage with them? And what originary history or concept might she deploy to wind her way out of this darkened silence, this base informe, and toward some measure of articulate thesis? Or, put another way, how might a writer become intimate with Mehretu’s work?

Two images of intimacy, one historical and the other phenomenological might offer a unique entry point into the e-motive architecture at work across Mehretu’s canvases.

The first image is a documentary photograph of French transgressive and journeyman anthropologist Georges Bataille sitting beneath one of the painted ceilings of Lascaux Cave, the world’s largest and most well-preserved monument to Paleolithic mark-making—often referred to as the “Sistine Chapel of Prehistory.” Bataille first visited Lascaux in the Centre-Val de Loire in the spring of 1954, only a decade after its accidental discovery by a group of local schoolchildren, and he obsessively returned there to document his experiences for his 1955 text Lascaux: Or, The Birth of Art: Prehistoric Painting. Posing with notebook in hand and staring upward at the sooty chamber’s marked walls, which are partially illuminated by a spotlight or lantern, Bataille appears as if in a reverie.

According to Bataille’s publisher, Albert Skira, Bataille and the expedition team spent many arduous nights inside Lascaux’s underground lair, working between intense artificial light and complete darkness, then sleeping during daylight hours. Such hypnotizing conditions must have heightened the cave’s atmosphere. Indeed, in the photo, it is not only the thousands of eighteen-thousand-year-old figures that seem to capture Bataille’s attention but the permanent night into which these marks were inscribed and which only the hallucinatory flickers of the hearth would have originally illuminated like a primeval form of cinema. Lascaux’s rough-hewn, calcite canvases suggested that the earliest traces of art-making consciousness, even on this monumental scale, were formed in the intimacy of almost complete darkness.

“At Lascaux, gazing at these pictures, we sense that something is stirring, something is moving,” Bataille writes in his text. “That something touches us, we are stirred by it, as though in sympathy with the rhythms of a dance...”

For Bataille, the ritual of mark-making inside Lascaux is something between a compositional scene and a delirious immersion. This mark-making originates in an excess of libidinal energy that Bataille calls a mouvement de danse, both a visual and haptic movement, which is awakened in the feverish intimacy of the cave—the very opposite of the Platonic cave, which deceives the seeing human with false shadows to prevent his emergence into the eidetic clearing.

Bataille’s fascination with Lascaux’s cosmology of visuality, language and scenography presages Mehretu’s experimentation with elaborate mark and map-making in the form of pre-linguistic glyphs, popular symbols and atlases, all of which became a staple of her late 1990s and early 2000s works. But Bataille’s more rapturous assertions of the cave’s immersive and intimate space from which an inexplicable “dance” of language emerges hints at Mehretu’s own kinesthetic language. Such flirtations with mapping a language of movement appear from the very beginning of Mehretu’s practice, particularly in ink and paper experiments like “Migration Direction Map” (1996) and “Inkcity (circle)”(1996), and extend to the elaborate, architectural tracings and grids of her monumental early canvases. Yet it is with her so-called “grey period” works like “Mogamma (A Painting in Four Parts)” and “Chimera” (2013) that Mehretu begins to replace these mappings of movement with something resembling a more abstract dance of smudges and blurs, even going so far as to daub impressions of her own hands and arms in ink onto the canvas in “Being Higher I” (2013) and “Being Higher II” (2013). This intimate act of touching and smudging becomes less of a choreographic mapping or trace and more of an act of dancing itself.

It is no coincidence that Mehretu has collaborated on artworks for music and dance pieces throughout her career, including performances at the Metropolitan Opera House, the Dutch National Opera House, Park Avenue Armory and the San Francisco Ballet.

In his essay “The End of the World Picture,” written on the occasion of Mehretu’s 2019 retrospective at both the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art, cultural critic Fred Moten similarly describes Mehretu’s grey period works in terpsichorean terms, as a “fugal, fugitive, centrifugal disbursal of expression...” and a “painterly swerve from depiction.”

“When viewing turns to dance, is this an attribute of the painting?” Moten asks rhetorically. “Is there a politics of displacement when displacement is induced and, as it were, depicted as impossible to depict?”

Moten situates this disbursal as an “irruption through position” but also as a “bring[ing] forth hither and coming out of itself.” But to go where? As Moten describes it, Mehretu’s works are in a state of constant movement not to go somewhere but “through something... to get [t]here”—an intimate threshold between itself and another, the hither and the whither, the familiar and the unknown. The paintings desire to leap from their windows of depiction, over object-hood, dimensionality and perspective, like a dancer who suddenly vaults from the apron of the proscenium stage into the darkened setting of the auditorium. But dance in Mehretu’s work is not simply an aesthetic gesture: it is a deeper, more intimate act of drawing closer to the mystery of the world’s otherness, what Moten calls—following a Heideggerian turn of phrase—“one’s fallenness into shared proximity.”

The second, related image for considering Mehretu’s work is itself a type of cave—the intimate cavern of the mother’s womb. For both Peter Sloterdijk and German psychoanalyst Thomas Macho, the womb serves not only as a fetal incubator but as an immersive, multi-sensory interior for pre-subjective and pre-linguistic world-building. Inside of it, a growing fetus first begins to engage with the world not through the Freudian object or mimetic language game but through what Sloterdijk and Macho call “nobjects,” the intimate surrounds of the womb (or a “being-close-to-here,” according to Sloterdijk). This “bipolar ether of relationships” between child and womb occurs through an immersion into dyadic media like placental blood, amniotic fluid and uterine sound waves that produce an intimate shelter against the out-there.

These nobjective entities or environments extend beyond the closed shelter of the womb, however, and into the intimate surrounds of the postpartum world beginning with the invisible envelope of breathable air, the interfacial gaze between parent and child and the initial sounds of one’s own breath and cries, among others. Nobjects, according to writers René ten Bos and Ruud Kaulingfreks, “are not in front of us but...surround us,” and thus are “forms of togetherness,” which are “incomprehensible when looked upon from the outside... from a distance.”

Moreover, according to Bos and Kaulingfreks, certain media environments, like cinema, also produce nobjects, in which the viewer becomes immersed in the intimate experience, and the difference between subject and object is momentarily lost to the surround. In the same way, painterly abstraction is a kind of nobject. Although Mehretu does not reference it by name, the nobject appears throughout her work via various techniques, from micrographic drawing, palimpsest, blurring, and smudging, which she often explains using no-objective terminology and neologisms, like immersion, opacity, “surround,” “no-space” and “in-betweenness.” Her use of nobjects always seeks to draw the viewer in closer to her paintings for an intimate experience of immersion or becoming lost in the surround. This phenomenon occurs both in her monumental, architectural paintings like Mural, where as Mehretu explains, the built environment “becomes atomized” and the transparent physical form allows the viewer “...to see through everything,” encouraging him to experience the painting up close and become immersed in its various sections and layers; as well as in her “grey period” works like “Untitled” (2012) and “Tsunemasa” (next to Kaija) (2014), the latter of which was used as part of the set design for the opera “Only the Sound Remains” (2016), and which Andriana Campbell describes as Mehretu’s turn toward theatrical scenography to “converge... fantastical and fantasy-based constructed environments.”

In these works the traces of architecture and deep space are remanded to the background, concealed or swallowed up by the blurring and smudging of ink and acrylic paint. The results are paintings that often evoke climatological imagery: those of a fog bank or a weather map bearing thick cloud masses and zigzagging air currents.

Perhaps, unsurprisingly, blurred photographs of weather events and titles referring to weather and atmosphere pop up in numerous Mehretu works. “[She] came to understand meteorological patterns— with their cyclical, regenerative, and inexorable nature—as agents in the long arc of geologic time,” writes curator Christine Y. Kim of Mehretu’s abiding interest in weather as a metaphor for mapping global currents of migration, finance and history. Yet, weather is not merely a symbol in Mehretu’s work—it is also the literal creation of an immersive surround, an atmosphere in which the panoramic canvas and viscous paint are absorbed by the approaching viewer in a discursive and somatic blurring of solidity and liquidity. This is where abstraction becomes an intimate nobject. Or where, to borrow a phrase from Mehretu herself, the painting becomes “entangled spaces without articulation of place.”

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The Face of Abstraction

Having found an initial entry point into Mehretu’s catalogue with the images of the cave and womb, one final conceit might help to better illustrate the artist’s recent turn from conventional forms of world-building and monumentality and toward something approaching an architecture of intimacy, or what Kim calls a “bodily sense of existential presence.” This demagnification by Mehretu from the scale of the global to that of the personal finds its most intimate expression in the artist’s recent paintings on the elusive conceit of faciality.

Although Mehretu’s previous work in abstraction, architecture and mark-making never deviates into conventional portraiture, Mehretu herself has often referred to the importance of portraits and figurative paintings, particularly those of the Baroque era, to her development as an artist. Among these, she has singled out two particular paintings as paramount: “Rembrandt van Rijn’s The Sacrifice of Isaac” (1635), an emotional depiction of the Biblical scene on Mount Moriah, and Diego Velázquez’s “Portrait of Juan de Pareja” (1650), a painting of a Spanish Morisco slave indentured to Velázquez. In both paintings, Mehretu described seeing in the faces of their subjects a depth of humanity that she compared to the visceral experience of breathing, either by the act of inhalation or that of crying. For Mehretu, these Baroque images of faces provoked moments of literal inspiration.

Initially, Mehretu’s abstract approach to faciality appeared throughout her grey period work through effacement or defacement, either by graffitied drawings resembling individual anatomies or by the manipulation of digital photographs of faces. These methods are apparent in works like “Invisible Sun” (algorithm 7, spell form) (2015), the “Conjured Parts” series (2016) and “When Angels Speak of Love (Barcelona)” (2018). In the first two, gestural marks suggest the isolated features of faces, like eyes, tongues and heads—those reflected in the subtitles of the “Conjured Parts” series—while in the last an image of an arrested protestor serves as the blurred background for Mehretu’s additions of colored shapes, clouds and marks. Most of these works center on scenes of political violence or war (for example, those in “Aleppo,” “Ferguson,” and “Homs”), yet they do so while prioritizing the faces (and bodies) of those persons who are both victimizer and victim, rather than through references to global systems of finance or architectural sites of power as had appeared in Mehretu’s earlier works. And while the human face is not made explicit, its tentative figurations hint at her desire to integrate faciality into her practice of abstraction in an effort to explore a more personal intimacy.

For this reason, Mehretu’s recent work also increasingly seems to embrace a vocative dimension, like the form of an invocation or address, as if calling out for an ethics of intimacy. Similarly, Mathew Hale writes on “When Angels Speak of Love” (Barcelona), “Approaching a Mehretu painting, we can feel that we are being made witness. We are being asked to “Come and see...” Such an invocation for intimacy appears borne out by the painting’s title, a reference to a collection of love poems (2007) written by the late cultural critic and feminist bell hooks. In the collection hooks describes love’s intimate encounter as the sanction of angels.

“bring me angels
to keep away hurt
shield and solace
offer divine sanctuary
in love there
is no need to find
a hiding place
and when beloved
you come again
i will know your face
and speak your name”

In hooks’ poem, love’s sacred commitment to the Other fully emerges in the face and name of the lover. Her words echo Jewish phenomenologist and mystic Emmanuel Levinas’s description of the divine interdiction against murder—“Thou shalt not kill”—which he claims emanates from the intimate site of the face. According to Levinas, the face of the Other is the trace of God passing by “in the infinity of his absence”; it is the ethical demand for the care of the stranger, the unrooted and the lost that precedes the ontological call to being, the freedom of the self and all visual representation.

Levinas continues: “The face is meaning, and a meaning without context... [It] is not “seen.” It can only be embraced by your thought processes: it is uncontainable, it takes you beyond...” The face, according to Levinas, is itself a form of abstraction. Interestingly, religious scholar Steven Shankman opens his recent book on Levinas Other Others with the image of Rembrandt’s “The Sacrifice of Isaac,” one of Mehretu’s formative influences, describing it as the depiction of the moment that Abraham bears witness to the face of an angel bringing a message from God to release Isaac, his son, from his bindings. Shankman writes that, “The face of the Other, for Levinas...is not experienced as part of the order of the visible. It is, rather, “heard,” as Abraham suddenly hears the voice of the angel speaking to him.”

So, might Mehretu’s intimate abstractions contain a similar command for bearing witness to this invisible face of the Other?

In her most recent exhibition, They departed for their own country another way (a 9x9x9 hauntology), Mehretu uses elements of figuration, surface and color to suggest the intimate experience of the Levinasian face. The series title, a reference to the Gospel Magi who returned from Christ’s nativity to their homeland in the East by a strange route, suggests Mehretu’s deepening fascination with the site of departure as the encounter with the unfamiliar and unhomely. Part of the series is anchored in a longstanding dialogue between Mehretu and artist Nairy Baghramian, who contributes an abstract sculpture “S’asseyant” (2022), a slab of dimpled aluminum and silicon that sits heavily on the gallery floor. This small monolith establishes a gravitational mooring to which Mehretu’s paintings appear to hover. The proximity of Baghramian’s sculpture also produces a perception, or proprioception, of physical emplacement that is alien to Mehretu’s practice—it as if her paintings have been dragged downward into the realm of the unhomely by the weighted body of a stranger. Yet, as Mehretu has explained of Baghramian’s sculpture, “It is the impression of a body that has gotten up and walked away....”

 This spectrality—or “hauntology” as Mehretu describes it in the series subtitle—extends to the paintings themselves, in which the phantom impressions of faciality often seem to emerge from the margins of the visual spectrum. More than the isolated facial anatomies of her earlier works, however, paintings such as “Panoptes” (2022) and “Out of The Dreaming” (2022-2023) experiment with facial pareidolia, teasing the possibility of facial patterns from within the tessellations of vivid color and blurred splotches and lines as if the abstract face of the Other is struggling to rise to the surface of perception.

Similarly in the “TRANSpaintings” series (2023), Mehretu’s interest in spectral faciality takes the form of strange, Fauvist bodies and hints of creaturely faces produced in vivid, pastel inks and acrylics on translucent polyester mesh. These works are propped up, rather than hung on the wall, by Baghramian’s bespoke aluminum scaffolding, creating an in the round effect that mirrors the en face staging of “Mogamma (A Painting in Four Parts)”; yet crucially, the “TRANSpaintings’s” polyester mesh allows each vivid work to communicate the light, shadow and movement appearing from its obverse side. All virtual depth of field is flattened so that the paintings become an intimate architecture—a sur-face and inter-face—upon which to gaze both on and through. Moreover, this strange, optical effect allows two viewers to look simultaneously from both sides of the paintings and to meet one another’s faces.

In so doing, the paintings themselves help to bring into intimate contact the abstract face of the Other through the surface and inter-face of the canvas.

Indeed, with these “TRANSpaintings” Mehretu attempts to illustrate Levinas’s claim of the face that, “...[it] enters into our world from an absolutely alien sphere... that which in fact is the very name for fundamental strangeness.” In Mehretu’s paintings, the face is not the site of the familiar but the elusive figure that by its very strangeness draws one out of oneself and into an intimate encounter with the Other.

Despite the vast size and complexity of Mehretu’s multi-decade practice, using the conceits of the cave, womb and face offers an intimate way to approach an oeuvre that often stuns by its very unapproachability. In such a way, Mehretu’s abstraction can be considered beyond its early appeals to spatial monumentality and epic history and, instead, as a career-long illustration of intimacy and closeness, writ large. Yet, even with her most recent turn toward faciality, Mehretu has not completely broken from her former focus on architecture and the monumental, as some critics and art historians might claim. Rather, she has continued to pursue a fascination with abstraction’s unique ability to produce an e-motive form of architecture under the elusive sign of intimacy.

If there has been one constant, however, in Mehretu’s desire to forge in abstraction this e-motive architecture, it is that the shape it takes on the canvas is ever-changing. As JaBrea Patterson-West writes, “...abstraction has been the hallmark of Mehretu’s practice since she began painting and... [she] has remained dedicated to the practice, though not at all limited by it.” Mehretu herself has called her work’s resistance to any such limitation, “the possible.” For her, abstraction, as a form, is, much like intimacy, incongruous with any desire for self-sameness or reserve. Rather, it consists of a peripatetic movement between the unhomely and the familiar, the strange and figurative, the far and the near; it is the concurrent act of journeying outward and drawing the outside close. In Mehretu’s work, it is only when abstraction travels the furthest from itself that it becomes the most intimate. 

Julie Mehretu. “Transpaintings (Skull)” (2023).Ink And Acrylic On Monofilament Polyester Mesh. 108 X 84 Inches. © Julie Mehretu. Photo © White Cube (Theo Christelis).

Photographed by Alexei Hay

Styled by Keita Lovelace

Written by Erik Morse

Hair: Edris Nicholls

Makeup: Regina Harris

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Julie Mehretu, Flaunt Magazine, Issue 190, The 25th Anniversary Issue, Under The Silver Moon, Erik Morse, Alexei Hay, Keita Lovelace, Michael Kirkland, Coach, Moncler, Tiffany & Co.,