‘I’m Not Trying to Spell Out a Story’: Watch How Artist Julie Mehretu Uses Massive Scale and Complex Layers to Create Paintings You Get Lost In

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

Production still from the
Production still from the "Art in the Twenty-First Century" Season 5 episode, "Systems," 2009. © Art21, Inc. 2009.

The Ethiopian-born artist Julie Mehretu has been known to create works so large and so ambitious that she must rent out gargantuan spaces just to contain them while she works.

When she was preparing her massive diptych unveiled in the lobby of the San Francisco Museum of Art in 2017, she set up a makeshift studio in a Gothic-style church in Harlem—the only space with ceilings tall enough to contain it. And back when she was developing a commission for Goldman Sachs in 2009, a 21-by-85-foot-long mural, she rented out a temporary Berlin-based studio to complete the job.

That’s when she conducted an exclusive interview with Art21, in which she explains that her abstract-seeming compositions in fact contain embedded references to architecture and map-making. With the help of her assistants, Mehretu creates diagrammatic compositions that are rooted in data ranging from weather systems to architecture to topography—and are plotted from various points of perspective so that the resulting image doesn’t conform to any structure in particular. 

“My earlier drawings and paintings had this map-like element to them,” she explains in the video, which was filmed as part of the Art in the Twenty-First Century series on PBS. As her practice evolved, though, she says she “refrained from trying to explain what’s going on… I’m not trying to spell out a story.” Instead, she wanted viewers to have a more visceral reaction to the works, which she constructed by applying layers upon layers of shapes and lines precisely to the surface. 

At a certain point, Mehretu began to experiment with sanding down some of the layers, resulting in what she calls “the erasure becoming the action.” That poetic gesture reminded her of Buddhas that were once positioned in caves all around Afghanistan, until the Taliban removed all of them. “The image of their absence…it felt to me to suggest a moment in terms of how sad or pessimistic you can feel in a political environment.” 

On November 3, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art will open the largest and most comprehensive show of Mehretu’s work to date, tracing the arc of her career. The show brings together some 40 works on paper with 35 paintings, spanning 1996 to the present. After its presentation in California, the exhibition will travel to the Whitney Museum in New York, the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. 

Watch the video, which originally appeared as part of Art21’s Art in the Twenty-First Century series, below. “Julie Mehretu” is on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art from November 3, 2019–March 22, 2020. 

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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