‘When Language Isn’t Enough’: Watch Jason Moran and Julie Mehretu Blend Jazz and Painting to Make Something New

As part of a collaboration with Art21, hear news-making artists describe their inspirations in their own words.

Production still from the Art21 "Extended Play" film, "Julie Mehretu: Politicized Landscapes." © Art21, Inc. 2017.

What would happen if you could hear painting and see music? For Jason Moran, it’s just another day at the office.

The jazz pianist, composer, visual artist, and all-around genre-defying creator is displaying his lesser-known artwork alongside his collaborations with visual artists including Kara Walker, Joan Jonas, and Glenn Ligon at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio (through August 11). The exhibition is the first to present Moran’s visual art in a museum context. But it also illustrates just how much Moran blurs the lines between modes of art-making.

In one of his most high-profile collaborations, the Texas-born musician teamed up with painter Julie Mehretu to create MASS {Howl, eon}, an interdisciplinary project at Performa in New York City that combined Moran’s music with Mehretu’s paintings and video. In an exclusive interview as part of Art21‘s Extended Play series “Politicized Landscapes,” the pair discuss the origins of the endeavor.

Production still from the Art21 “Extended Play” film, “Julie Mehretu: Politicized Landscapes.” © Art21, Inc. 2017.

“Jason wrote me after seeing some paintings,” Mehretu said. “He talked about them as a score, and I was super interested in that.” Their work took place in the months after the 2016 presidential election, as Mehretu was making her largest paintings to date, commissions that are now on view in the lobby of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

She took up residence in a decommissioned Harlem church to make them because no other studio was large enough. Moran would frequently join her to play in the dramatic, sacred space, transforming both of their works along the way. “I really try to think about painting… [as] dealing with things that we don’t have proper language for,” Mehretu said, “when language isn’t enough.”

For his part, the composer said he could feel specific notes in Mehretu’s visual language, which informed his own composition: “I started in the note A-flat, I started to build around that, and every once in a while, look up and see where Julie was in her work.”

In the end, the final piece was, for both artists, a reflection of the politicized state of the country, especially with relation to black bodies in America. Well-versed in the history of his genre, Moran believes that the origins of all music, and jazz specifically, are in the greater cultural and political sphere. “Jazz has been that form of music that’s been the model of letting people know what’s happening,” he said.


Watch the full segment, which originally appeared as part of the “Art in the Twenty-First Century” television series on PBS, below. “Jason Moran” is on view at the Wexner Center through August 11, 2019. 

This is an installment of “Art on Video,” a collaboration between artnet News and Art21 that brings you clips of newsmaking artists. A new season of the nonprofit Art21’s flagship Art in the Twenty-First Century television is available now on PBS. Watch full episodes and learn about the organization’s education programs at Art21.org.

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