Artist Dossier: Julie Mehretu
by Ladun Ogidan
From the Lascaux cave drawings to the Bayeux Tapestry, as well as Michelangelo’s David to the pyramids of Egypt, throughout the history of human creation, large-scale creations have always been fascinating. It is, therefore, no surprise that artists have long sought to exploit the awe that generous dimensions elicit as today’s art market clearly reflects with several works impressing collectors who are willing to pay hefty sums to acquire them. An example is the Ethiopian artist Julie Mehretu, born in 1970. Her mural, commissioned by Goldman Sachs and tracing the history of capitalism, is more than 24 metres long and 7 metres high. She is one of the most sought-after artists by major Western collectors, including French billionaire businessman and CEO of Kering, François Pinault. Exhibited worldwide and supported by Marian Goodman in New York and White Cube in London, her secondary market prices are high enough that even her coloured drawings sell for million-plus prices such as her Untitled 2, ink, polymer/canvas/board, 151.8 x 182.2cm with pre-sale estimates £739,360 – £1,109,040, sold for £1,874,277 (buyer’s premium incl.) at Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Afternoon Auction on May 17, 2018 to achieve the year’s 103rd best result and equal to the prices that some of Rudolf Stingel’s and Richard Prince’s paintings generate.
Her highest selling work is a painting Retopistics: A Renegade Excavation, 2001, ink, acrylic/canvas, 257.2 x 529.5cm, previously estimated between £916,160 – £1,177,920 and sold for £3,012,694 (buyer’s premium incl.) at Christie’s Post-War and Contemporary Art Sale on May 15, 2013. Others include; Looking Back to a Bright New Future, 2003, acrylic, ink/canvas, 241.3 x 302.89cm with pre-sale estimates of £1,800,000 – £2,500,000, sold for £2,210,500 (buyer’s premium incl.) at Christie’s Post-War and Contemporary Art Sale on June 30, 2015; and Rising Down, 2008, synthetic polymer, ink/canvas, 243.8 x 365.8cm, previously estimated between £1,313,399 – £1,970,099 and sold for £ 2,020,665 (buyer’s premium incl.) at Sotheby’s Contemporary Art auction in Doha, Qatar on April 22, 2013.
Blending elements of Abstract Expressionism with Pop Art, Mehretu’s work bears the influence of important 20th-century painters such as Kazimir Malevich, Piet Mondrian and Wassily Kandinsky. Working as both painter and printmaker, her large-scale, gestural paintings are built up through layers of acrylic paint on canvas, which are then overlaid with mark-making using pencil, pen, ink and thick streams of paint. This, in turn, conveys a layering and compression of time, space and place, as well as a collapse of art historical references, from the dynamism of the Italian Futurists and the geometric abstraction of Malevich to the enveloping scale of Abstract Expressionist colour field painting. The artist’s points of departure are architecture and the city, particularly the accelerated, compressed and densely populated urban environments of the 21st century. Her paintings present a tornado of a visual incident where gridded cities become fluid and flattened, like many layers of urban graffiti. Mehretu has described her rich canvases as “story maps of no location”, seeing them as pictures into an imagined, rather than actual reality. Through its cacophony of marks, her work seems to represent the speed of the modern city depicted, conversely, with the time-aged materials of pencil and paint. Mehretu utilises the concept of the ‘third space,’ as articulated in Post-Colonial theory, as the basis of her works to illuminate the visible and invisible networks of globalisation. According to T.J. Demos, “The ‘third space,’ for Mehretu, is “a term that provocatively designates the visual relation between architecture and gesture, representation and abstraction, a relationality that remains determinedly and productively uncertain”.
In 1992, Julie Mehretu graduated from Kalamazoo College and began pursuing an art career independently before attending the MFA programme at the Rhode Island School of Design, where she received her degree in 1997. She was the recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship in 2005, and in 2009, Goldman Sachs unveiled Mehretu’s sprawling mural in the lobby of their Manhattan headquarters. Her works are also held in the collections of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, and The Museum of Modern Art in New York, among others.
In 2005, Mehretu was the recipient of the American Art Award from the Whitney Museum of American Art, as well as the prestigious MacArthur Fellows Award. In 2015 she was awarded the US Department of State Medal of Arts Award.
Mehretu’s impressive list of exhibitions include solos at; Serralves Museum, Porto, Portugal (2017); Centro Botín, Santander, Spain (2017); Gebre Kristos Desta Center, Addis Ababa (2016); Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York (2010); Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin (2009); The Detroit Institute of Arts, Michigan (2007) touring to Williams College Art Gallery, Williamstown, Massachusetts and North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh (both in 2008) Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Castilla y León, Spain, touring to Kunstverein Hannover, Germany and Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebaek, Denmark (2006−07; and St. Louis Art Museum, Missouri (2005); Her selected group exhibitions include; the 10th Gwangju Biennale, South Korea (2014); Document 13, Kassel, Germany (2012); 15th Biennale of Sydney (2006); 26th Bienal de São Paulo (2004); 54th Carnegie International, Pittsburgh (2004); Whitney Biennial, New York (2004); and the 8th Istanbul Biennial (2003).
In 2017, a monumental two-part painting, HOWL, eon (I, II) commissioned by San Francisco Museum of Modern Art was unveiled as a major, long-term installation in the lobby. In January 2019, Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge, UK, hosted an exhibition of Mehretu’s works on paper titled Drawings and Monotypes presented alongside Louise Bourgeois: Artist Rooms.
Biography: Julie Mehretu retrieved on March 7, 2019, from http://www.artnet.com
Biography: Julie Mehretu retrieved on March 7, 2019, from http://whitecube.com
Big means expensive… retrieved on March 12, 2019, from https://www.artprice.com
T.J. Demos in Painting and Uprising: Julie Mehretu’s Third Space, New York 2012, p. 59
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