Julie Mehretu mid-career survey at Whitney Museum of American Art

The Whitney Museum had planned on hosting Julie Mehretu’s stunning, expansive, mid-career survey last summer. You know what happened. COVID pushed it back into 2021. Her self-titled exhibition now opens in New York on March 25, remaining on view through August 8.

Julie Mehretu must see art the way Einstein saw math or Mozart music. She must observe her canvases with a level of depth and complexity the scope of which can scarcely be comprehended.

Her genius allows for the asking of deeper questions and the finding of deeper solutions. While years are spent pondering the significance of what she’s done, she strides confidently towards her next achievement.

The exhibition unites nearly 40 works on paper with 35 paintings by Mehretu dating from 1996 to the present.

What is Julie Mehretu known for?

“I think viewers get the most out of the experience of the exhibition when they approach the work as one artist’s reflection on, as opposed to a reflection of, the world today and her bold attempts at making sense of the 21st century through visual languages that are consistently in flux and shifting, with both criticality and optimism,” Christine Y. Kim, curator of contemporary art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the curator of “Julie Mehretu.”

That’s a mouthful.

The intricacy of Mehretu’s work invites this sort of response from curators and critics as they empty their fine arts doctoral dissertations attempting to explain it.

I spoke to Kim when writing about the exhibition for Forbes. Before Julie Mehretu came to the Whitney Museum, opened at LACMA.

Julie Mehretu, Conjured Parts (eye), Ferguson, 2016, ink and acrylic on canvas, 84 × 96 in., The Broad Art Foundation, Los Angeles.
Julie Mehretu, Conjured Parts (eye), Ferguson, 2016, ink and acrylic on canvas, 84 × 96 in., The Broad Art Foundation, Los Angeles.© JULIE MEHRETU, PHOTOGRAPH BY CATHY CARVER

“Mehretu’s unique form of abstraction is connected to a deep meditation at the crossroads of mapping social and political sites and actions, shifting points of entry, new visual languages, mediated images and corporeality,” Kim said. “Her compositions are at once all-encompassing and destabilizing, offering a radical incoherence, which can trigger multiple experiences and senses.”

Woof. Get all that?

Further obscuring Mehretu’s work to everyday museum-goers are the near infinite number of topics she has taken on.

“Her canvases and works on paper reference the histories of art, architecture and past civilizations while addressing the most immediate conditions of our contemporary moment including migration, revolution, climate change, global capitalism and technology like no other artist today,” Kim said.

That’s not all.

Julie Mehretu: Painter of Everything

Publicity materials for the show state, “Mehretu interrogates sports and military typologies to disrupt modern conceptions of leisure, labor and order.”

Throughout her work are found references to the Nazis, the War on Terror and the Iraq War, imperialism and patriarchy. Her art draws on an archive of images of global horrors, crises, protests and abuses of power. She takes on police brutality in Ferguson, Missouri, ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, California wildfires, the Bible and the Arab Spring.

None of which are easily identifiable on first glance.

Mehretu is an artist working in a style impossible to simply decipher, depicting–essentially–everything.

What, then, is a layperson to make of her and this show?

Who is Julie Mehretu?

Julie Mehretu’s name is pronounced “muh-RAY-two”

Mehretu is a native Ethiopian who turned 50 in 2020.

She is an essential contemporary artist.

Mid-career surveys for female artists remain shockingly rare. Rarer still are mid-career surveys for female artists co-organized by two of the most prestigious art institutions in the United States. Attention like this can be registered by the number per decade, not the number per year.

Her’s is the must-have work which will fill the best collections of 21st century art. The heads of museum visitors in 2050 will snap at peripheral glimpses of her paintings as they excitedly exclaim to their companions, “there’s a Mehretu,” as surely as visitors today head’s snap and say, “there’s a Pollock!”

Why?

Because even if her work can’t succinctly be explained, it’s self-evidently brilliant. One needn’t be able to comprehend the math behind Einstein’s equations to appreciate their genius as long as you know the numbers “work.” When it comes to Mehretu’s art, the numbers “work.”

Her prints place her on a through line with Rembrandt; an example of his which inspired Mehretu has been included in the exhibit.

Her drawings are breathtaking whirlwinds of fearless lines.

Her monumental paintings are gorgeous explosions of color–or not–and shape and movement and emotion that seem to combine everything which has come before in art history and synthesize all that material into completely fresh marks and imagery. Each painting exists as its own universe for viewers to explore.

The paintings alone in this show could be inspected for hours a day for days on end and continually reveal new discoveries.

It’s easy to imagine the Big Bang looking something like Untitled 2 (2001).

An instance of the cacophonous political debate in America appears captured in Invisible Sun (algorithm 4, first letter form) (2014).

You will find no livelier painting anywhere than Stadia II (2004).

Julie Mehretu, Invisible Sun (algorithm 4, first letter form), 2014, ink and acrylic on canvas, 119 11⁄16 × 167 in., private collection.
© JULIE MEHRETU, PHOTOGRAPH BY CAROLINA MERLANO

“She has consistently articulated new dynamisms and tensions in painting, drawing and printmaking,” Kim says of Mehretu’s gargantuan talent on display in this first-ever comprehensive survey of her career.

Cutting to the core, in language everyone can understand, L.A. Times art critic Christopher Knight best summarized “Julie Mehretu” by stating, simply, “this show matters.” And so does the artist. And for everyone to whom art matters even the least little bit, an effort should be made to attend.

Julie Mehretu Whitney Museum hours and tickets

Timed tickets for Julie Mehretu at the Whitney Museum are required and must be purchased in advance. The Whitney is operating at limited capacity and same-day admissions may be limited. General admission tickets cost $25.

The museum is closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays and open from 10:30-6PM Thursday-Sunday and 10:30-5PM Mondays.

Having already been to LACMA and the High Museum of Art, “Julie Mehretu” wraps up at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis in Spring of 2022.

Can’t make it to New York to see the show? Check out the exhibition catalog.

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