Watch Julie Mehretu Surround Herself With Unfinished Canvases Until She Finds a Work’s ‘New Point of Entry’

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

Panelist and Artist Julie Mehretu. hoto by Rachel Murray/Getty Images for Visionary Women.
Panelist and Artist Julie Mehretu. hoto by Rachel Murray/Getty Images for Visionary Women.

Looking at one of Julie Mehretu‘s mammoth canvases is like peering into an alternate reality—the intersecting lines that crisscross in all directions conjure architectural plans and blue prints, but also relief maps and musical compositions. Often there are larger shapes that hover amid the chaos, anchoring it for a moment and orienting the viewer, but always maintaining abstraction, and room for subjectivity.

After a critically acclaimed exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Ethiopia-born artist’s mid-career survey has arrived at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, where viewers can appreciate the work’s real-world touchstones in the museum’s skyline views.

In 2010, Mehretu was featured in an exclusive interview as part of Art21’s Extended Play series, where she is seen in her Berlin studio contemplating one of her calligraphic compositions. “Some days, you’ll have a great, great day and work for the entire day,” she tells Art21, “and make headway, and have realizations and leave in the best place because you had this intense engagement.”

But, like anything else, some days aren’t so productive. Because of the all-over-ness of the works, Mehretu often finds “a new point of entry” that allows her to reengage with the picture, she says. Ultimately, being surrounded by her work—she often has multiple paintings and drawings in various states of completion at any given time—affords Mehretu the time and space she needs.

“I think that’s part of the work,” she says, “just being in here… really realizing the painting.”

Watch the video, which originally appeared as part of Art21’s Art in the Twenty-First Century series, below. The brand new 10th season of the show is available now at Art21.org. “Julie Mehretu” is on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art through August 8, 2021.

This is an installment of “Art on Video,” a collaboration between Artnet News and Art21 that brings you clips of newsmaking artists. A new series of the nonprofit Art21’s flagship series Art in the Twenty-First Century is available now on PBS. Catch all episodes of other series like New York Close Up and Extended Play and learn about the organization’s educational programs at Art21.org.


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