FOR MORE THAN TWO DECADES, curators at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) have been commissioning artists to create works for a pair of walls in its voluminous atrium. In 1997, Sol LeWitt was the first artist selected. Kerry James Marshall painted murals for the space in 2008. In anticipation of the expanded SFMOMA reopening in 2016, curators turned to Julie Mehretu. She made two massive paintings representing America’s westward expansion. Titled “HOWL, eon (I and II),” the vast paintings were installed at SFMOMA earlier this month and will remain on view in the museum’s atrium for three years.

Mehretu describes the gestural abstract paintings she created as political landscapes. “There is no such thing as just landscape. The actual landscape is politicized through the events that take place on it. And I don’t think it’s possible for me in general to think about the American landscape without thinking about the colonial history and the colonial violence of that narrative,” Mehretu said in an Art21 Extended Play video about the project.

“The abolitionist movement, the Civil War, the move towards emancipation, all of these social dynamics that are a part of that narrative we don’t really talk about in regards to American landscape painting. And so what does it mean to paint a landscape and try and be an artist in this political moment?”

“The abolitionist movement, the Civil War, the move towards emancipation, all of these social dynamics that are a part of that narrative we don’t really talk about in regards to American landscape painting. And so what does it mean to paint a landscape and try and be an artist in this political moment?” — Julie Mehretu


Julie Mehretu discusses her monumental paintings for SFMOMA, providing details about her inspirations and techniques. | Video by Art21

 

BORN IN ETHIOPIA, Mehretu grew up in Michigan and is based in New York. Her abstract canvases are complex explorations of time, space, history, and geography. She’s tackled war and social upheaval, but Mehretu’s latest paintings are perhaps her most political. She was influenced by the Hillary/Trump dynamic, the “visceral, deeply wrenching” language that defined the presidential campaign and suffuses his presidency, and historically, the oft-overlooked dark side of the move west in which the Native Americans were “completely annihilated.” In the paintings, she referenced America’s conflicted past and present and also took cues from Hudson River School painters Frederic Edwin Church, Thomas Cole, and Albert Bierstadt.

Measuring 27 by 32 feet, the works are her largest to date. The canvases were too big for her regular studio, so Mehretu worked on the project in a decommissioned Harlem Church not far from her home. She merged 19th century landscapes with photographs of 2016 protests in the wake of police violence in Baltimore and Ferguson, Mo. These blurred images infuse the works with color, history, and context, and serve as the foundation. After building up the surfaces with countless layers of acrylic, she began to paint—a meticulous yet imprecise process of mark making, erasure, and loosely rendered brush strokes.

Jazz composer Jason Moran, Mehretu’s friend, visited the church periodically to vibe off of her in-progress paintings. He created a score, a collaborative work the pair is presenting at Performa 17 in November.

“It’s kind of an amazing thing to paint in a church. Everything kind of reverberates back into here, energy wise consciousness wise,” Mehretu says. “Everything that has taken place this year in my personal life, with my children, what has happened politically, all of that is immersed in these paintings.” CT

 

BOOKSHELF
“Julie Mehretu: Grey Paintings” was published to coincide with the artist’s recent exhibition at Marian Goodman Gallery and features an essay by Glenn Ligon. “Julie Mehretu: Liminal Squared” complements the artist’s first major solo exhibition in London at White Cube gallery. The show presented new and recent paintings in a specially constructed environment designed by architect David Adjaye in collaboration with Mehretu. A forthcoming volume, “Julie Mehretu: A Universal History of Everything and Nothing,” is expected in February 2018.

 


Inspired by Julie Mehretu’s paintings, Jason Moran composes a score to be performed at Performa 17 in November. | via “Julie Mehretu: Politicized Landscapes,” Video by Art21