“Algorithms, digital automation, machine learning, and predictive visualization.” “Graffiti, tagging, script, and even musical notation.” “Plato’s Cave.” “Hurricane Sandy, the Syrian civil war, the second Egyptian revolution, and the death of Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe.” “Archaeology.” “9/11, the War on Terror, Hurricane Katrina, and the economic collapse of 2008.” “The 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville and the 2018 wild fires in California.” This is just a smattering of the topics that Julie Mehretu tackles in her vauntingly ambitious paintings, at least if the expansive catalogue that accompanies her mid-career survey on now at the Whitney Museum of American Art is to be believed.
Is it to be believed? Mehretu is an abstract painter. The whole project of modernist abstraction, especially as it developed through the middle of the twentieth century, was to strip painting of its illustrative or didactic function, distilling it down to its material or visual essence. Mehretu’s panoramic, improvisational canvases appeal to this tradition, and little evidence of figuration is visible in her work. How, then, can her paintings be said to engage with such a thrilling assortment of global subjects?
Organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Christine Y. Kim and the Whitney’s Rujeko Hockley, the exhibition is a welcome chance to ponder the work of perhaps today’s most prominent “political abstractionist,” a seemingly oxymoronic designation that nevertheless could be applied to a considerable body of contemporary painters. The show includes about thirty paintings and forty works on paper, taking up the entirety of the museum’s fifth floor. The works span from 1996 (when the Ethiopian-born American was in graduate school) to the present day, but greeting us upon entry to the exhibition is a painting from 2003: Mehretu’s Transcending: The New International. The painting is typical of the artist’s early period in its enormous size (nearly nine by twenty feet), its multi-layered use of divergent paint applications, and its flat ground of workmanlike, unlovely beige.
Also like many other early paintings, the picture’s underlying substructure is a faint, mechanical-looking line drawing. The accompanying wall text tells us this includes maps of every African capital city, as well as architectural diagrams of both colonial buildings and liberation-movement structures in the utopian modernist style. The subjects, we learn, relate to her personal history: born in Addis Ababa in 1970, Mehretu fled to America with her parents in 1977 after the Derg, Ethiopia’s ruling Communist dictatorship, embarked on a vicious purge.
Importantly, Mehretu’s representations are iconographic, not figurative. They are rational, idealized plans of cities and diagrams of buildings. Icons are, of course, designed to be legible, but Mehretu obfuscates hers by covering them with innumerable hand-painted brush strokes in black and gray. Seen from afar, these aggregate to suggest two interrelated but distinct broad masses that float aimlessly in dead space. Up close, we find an impressive array of different kinds of marks, from smudgy scrawls to staccato blips, dotted lines, smoky wisps, sweeping hard-edged curves, and Rorschach-like blots. These jostle about on the canvas in an incomprehensible arrangement, deconstructing our sense of perspectival and atmospheric space.
What does it all mean? It’s not a question you’d have asked of a Hans Hofmann or Clyfford Still, whose canvases are what they are, communicating a visual experience that resists verbalization (not that many haven’t tried). But for Mehretu, every ostensibly abstract form is a vehicle for conceptual and political content. Consider, for example, how she discusses her repeated use of the color gray in a 2010 interview, reproduced in the catalogue: “Gray because of that place of indeterminate space, erased space, space that disappears, space that is in-between, what could be and couldn’t be.”
Gray does indeed proliferate here at the Whitney, but Mehretu often also populates her outsize canvases with various colored lines and shapes that owe much to Kandinsky circa 1923. The five-by-seven-foot Untitled 2 (2001) is an early example, the arbitrary hues of its sweeping curves, triangles, and quadrilaterals tastefully accenting the monochrome underdrawing. It was a winning formula, so Mehretu supercharged it. We continue on to Retopistics: A Renegade Excavation (2001), Renegade Delirium (2002), and Dispersion (2002), all of which seem to visualize the superhuman scale and infinite complexities of global systems—geopolitical boundaries, migration patterns, supply chains, digital cloud infrastructures, etc. Seen in series, though, the ubiquitous chaos quickly becomes numbingly monotonous.
That’s not to say that Mehretu’s paintings aren’t powerful in a sense. Their initial impact on the retina is striking. Mural-sized paintings like Stadia II(2004), with its disembodied national flags and its enormous amphitheater substructure, provoke an instant if vague recognition (“oh, the Olympics”), and it’s hard to imagine an abstract painting doing more to convey the grandeur and excitement of such global spectacles.
These paintings won Mehretu early, astonishing success in the art market, but as time went on the artist began to eschew those linear underdrawings, allowing the gestural markings—Twombly-esque calligraphies—to cohere into their own idiosyncratic architectures. Paintings like the colossal, six-part Epigraph, Damascus (2016) skew grim and foreboding, with their dark grays and blacks over grounds made of misty gray gradients, and are said to have been inspired by the promise and disappointment of the 2010–12 Arab Spring uprisings, though you wouldn’t know it if not for the explanatory wall text.
Most recently, Mehretu has introduced “all-over” compositions, more colors, and an even wider gamut of digital and painterly processes—masking, cymk halftone printing, airbrushing, stenciling—to her pictures. These new works take up a large final room at the Whitney. A wall text sheds light on the process: “She creates the base layers of her newest works by digitally blurring, rotating, and cropping photographs—of police in riot gear after the killing of Michael Brown in 2014, or of fires raging simultaneously in California and Myanmar in 2017—and then marking over them.”
The result is a series of pictures that are more visually indulgent than anything Mehretu has made before. They cannily reference art history: works like Hineni (E. 3:4) (2018), with its scalding orange field, are obviously indebted to Norman Lewis’s incandescent mid-century compositions, in which forms seem to crystallize and emerge out of chromatic fogs. The crude mystification of Albert Oehlen also comes to mind. As in a “squeegee” abstraction by Gerhard Richter, the original source images are rendered unrecognizable by Mehretu’s interventions. This prompts the obvious question: does it matter that they were ever there? To the curators, the answer is a resounding yes. But a member of the uninitiated public might wonder if the undernourished historical references serve only to render “radical” and “challenging” a group of florid, dull, and anesthetic canvases.
In her contribution to the exhibition’s catalogue, Adrienne Edwards proposes another escape from the formalist trap, writing that, with Mehretu,“The black mark is the event, conceptualizing, spatializing, mattering, sensualizing, generating the irreconcilable and the incommensurable as revolutionary acts of change and defiance.” It’s heady stuff for a MacArthur Fellowship–winning artist who has hired up to thirty assistants at a time and is perhaps best known for decorating the lobby of Goldman Sachs’s New York City headquarters (Mural, 2009). At heart, though, it’s an embellished recapitulation of Harold Rosenberg’s half-baked assertion, circa 1952, that “What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event.” But in light of Mehretu’s canvases, consider Rosenberg’s rather more astute diagnosis of Action Painting gone wrong:
Satisfied with wonders that remain safely inside the canvas, the artist accepts the permanence of the commonplace and decorates it with his own daily annihilation. The result is an apocalyptic wallpaper. . . . The man who started to remake himself has made himself into a commodity with a trademark.
“Apocalyptic wallpaper”: it could’ve been the subtitle to this exhibition.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 39 Number 10, on page 50
Copyright © 2021 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com