In Julie Mehretu’s spacious studio in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood, her sprawling, intricate abstract paintings hold center stage, along with the tools one would expect in the making of them: brushes, paints in a daunting array of colors, and a cherry picker that keeps her elevated at a painting’s height as she works to the music of Nina Simone, John Coltrane, Sun Ra, and Julius Eastman. A less visible tool that sits largely in the background, however, has made all the difference in her recent work: the computer.
Mehretu’s recent paintings have reached epic proportions, some stretching 25 feet wide, and the interaction between the shapes within is incredibly complex. When a painting “feels like it gets to this really heightened sense of this other form of experience,” Mehretu said in a recent video call, she takes a step back and begins photographing it, analyzing it first on her phone and then on her computer screen, where she plays around with pushing it forward, then sketches out those alterations by hand, and finally airbrushes, spray-paints, and sometimes screen-prints them directly on the canvas.
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“The paintings are constantly being processed through the computer,” she said. “In the end, these are just other ways to generate the painting and … think around the visual-ness of it. Because when paintings are of a certain scale, you can only get so far back in whatever space you’re in. The computer or photograph is a way to see differently and … to understand what you’re doing differently.”
Mehretu generally begins a painting by projecting her source images on the canvas, then traces on it a kind of understructure over which she will ultimately layer gestural abstraction. For the newest pieces in her mid-career retrospective that opened at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2019 (and is currently on view at the Whitney Museum in New York), Mehretu used news photographs that she blurred in Photoshop, sometimes merging as many as four photographs in an attempt, she said, to “create this other image from that blurred image.” Oftentimes, the coloration or the lighting within the source images will impact the overall color scheme of her paintings, as with the 2016 painting Conjured Parts (eye), Ferguson in which the blacks and deep grays of police in riot gear in the aftermath of the 2014 killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, give way to fuchsias and pinks, blues and greens, a nod to tear gas being refracted by stoplights and streetlights.
Her goal, she said, is to create an “immersive experience,” in which the viewer feels an “aspect of dislocation inside the painting. From a distance, you can see the whole thing. But as you come close to it, to really see it—because it’s made up of all these small parts—you don’t have a sense of the whole. You’re immersed in what you can see and can only make sense of it from that place. I’m constantly negotiating and thinking about how these paintings are viewed and experienced [in relation to] how I make them.”
Once Mehretu feels an altered image is ready to be translated to the canvas, an assistant grids off the canvas and begins to airbrush it so “it’s just atomized enough, so it’s blurry enough that your eye can’t really focus on it,” Mehretu said. From there, they apply a transparent priming material that locks in the bottom layer of the painting. Over that layer Mehretu adds more layers of paint—and she also subtracts. “This blurred [imagery] is immersed inside the painting and you can cover it up, but you can also go back to it if you need to,” she said. She typically wipes or sands away “more than half, maybe double, what I put down.” She refers to this as an “element of trying to really unveil or excavate something for myself where I have a realization or see something.”
Mehretu compares her process to trying to take a photo on an iPhone. At first, it’s blurry and out of focus, and “then there’s a moment where it comes into focus and you know exactly when that is, and you can take it. It’s like that feeling when you’re painting. When it’s finished, you know that it’s finished. You also have to pay attention because you can easily destroy what you’ve finished, you can easily go too far.” Sometimes a painting is finished in about two weeks, in other cases it can take months or even years.
Since the beginning of her career, Mehretu’s work has involved a complex dance between abstraction and representation. She became known in the late ’90s and early 2000s for her sparse ink paintings of fragmented geometric shapes that at once explode with color and reveal underneath, deeply layered compositions filled with architectural plans of civilizations past and maps of disparate modern-day regions. She views abstraction as “a place for radical thinking and for radical imagining,” and drew a comparison to the spaces Black artists created in music, particularly in jazz.
In painting, however, that radical space of abstraction has been forged largely by white men (think Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning). “One of the reasons I’ve been so immersed in abstraction and insisted on it and explored it, is that it allows for this other space of complicated representation,” she said. “That tradition, that form of trying to reinvent, that form of finding a space to explore oneself, but also what is possible in the joy of trying to invent and explore and create, is important.”
She sees her own work as a space where abstract painting “folds in on itself and then maybe suggests something else because of that.” That kind of space, she said, is “not something that you can actually put direct language to, but you can have these visceral experiences with it. That allows there to be a different form of possibility in it—in its refusal of exact language.”
In her early work, the source materials that Mehretu blended with abstraction tended to be architectural in nature—images of buildings, or plans. More recently, she has been interested in the news, particularly news related to the world’s ongoing migration crisis and the protests it has generated, as well as other protests, like Arab Spring or those in Ferguson and across the country in support of Black Lives Matter, all of which unfold in the public square, another of Mehretu’s architectural interests.
“Part of my interest in the blurred image,” she said, “is how it offers the specter of the image, the ghost, and a haunting dynamic that was captured in the image.”
For a painting she made specifically for the LACMA iteration of her mid-career survey, Mehretu used photographs of the conditions in which migrant children separated from their families were being held at detention centers along the U.S.-Mexico border—the bleak-looking bunk beds and common areas.
“I don’t really think of the paintings as being about [those things], if you will, but they become this point of departure,” she said. “They both deal with the global migrant crisis that comes out of a lot of the basic inequities of our post-colonial world, and climate change and climate catastrophe and how that really affects and changes socioeconomic patterns for people in these places. These issues have been part of my work for a long time.”
A new piece for the show’s Whitney stop, titled Ghosthymn (after the Raft), 2019–21, draws from photos depicting anti-immigration rallies in Europe, but also contains direct quotations from Théodore Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa (1818–19). Like numerous observers on Twitter, Mehretu has noticed how certain news photographs—from the 2017 clash between counterprotesters and white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, to images of hundreds of migrants densely packed in waterborne boats—resemble paintings from history.
As an artist, she is far more attuned to the nuances of those similarities. Her paintings, she said, “pay attention to the megastructure of history paintings that looked at these issues from the other side, meaning from the perspective of the colonial project.” The news photographs, she said, are, in turn, “really reminiscent of that colonial gesture of the destitute of Europe trying to go elsewhere.” Putting references to history paintings and photographs in the same space, she said, is “this really interesting way to play with time and space and the conflation of them.” At the Whitney, Ghosthymn has been installed in a space facing the Hudson River. “When you look at the river from the city you can see Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty,” Mehretu observed. “New York City still is a massive port of entry for many people.”
In addition to history painting, Mehretu sees her work as being in conversation with the history of mark-making across the span of human existence. “None of us can make marks that have never been made before,” she said. Whatever mark an artist makes is “always referential to some other mark.”
Ultimately, for Mehretu, the studio is a place for “digesting” what is happening in the world; that process of digestion, ultimately reflected on the finished canvas, is aided by what Mehretu has been reading, which includes heady texts from Saidiya Hartman to Avery F. Gordon’s Ghostly Matters to The Radical Imagination by Alex Khasnabish and Max Haiven. “I’m interested in books that are trying to think through a lot of possible futures around this condition that we’re in,” she said.
One book in particular that she’s been spending time reading and rereading is Anna Tsing’s Mushroom at the End of the World, which she described as “thinking through the imaginary on the edge of destruction, studying this mushroom as a way to make sense of precarity and … to reinvent the imagination on the edge of precarity—not in a pessimistic way, but in a super generative way.”
The images Mehretu gathers as source material for her paintings enter a vast archive—both physical and digital—that includes maps, architectural plans, clippings from newspapers and magazines, and much more. Whenever she is interested in creating a new painting around a specific topic or issue, she works with a research assistant to build an archive for it. Someday those archives, alongside Mehretu’s paintings, will serve as a testament to how one artist made sense of her times.
A version of this article appears in the June/July 2021 issue of ARTnews, under the title “Julie Mehretu Paints a Picture.”