LGBTQ+ Trailblazers: New York-based artist Julie Mehretu

Article 07 June 2022 Experience: Art

Our trailblazer spotlight takes in the colossal scale of the work of Ethiopian-born New York-based artist Julie Mehretu.

Best known for her dense abstract canvases sparking arcs of geometric colour and with mark making reminiscent of architectural plans, aerial maps and urban landscapes, Mehretu describes her work as ‘story maps of no location’.1

Coming from this African background, you’re the children of people who were there during decolonisation, when the world really fundamentally shifted … Now we’re all dislocated … and there’s this constant negotiating of place, space, ideals, ideas.

Following a peripatetic journey herself, her family fled political violence from the Ethiopian military junta known as the Derg, settling in Michigan when Mehretu was 7. She acknowledges: “Coming from this African background, you’re the children of people who were there during decolonisation, when the world really fundamentally shifted … Now we’re all dislocated … and there’s this constant negotiating of place, space, ideals, ideas.” 2

Mehretu developed these tensions in her arts schooling, with an undergraduate degree where she spent a year in Senegal, then attending the Rhode Island School of Design earning a Master of Fine Arts degree in 1997.

Following a move to New York after graduation, Mehretu rapidly established her reputation as a professional painter, exhibiting in a group show at the Museum of Modern Art only three years later.

Now a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Mehretu was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people in 2020; has received the MacArthur ‘genius’ grant; and was awarded the US Department of State Medal of Arts Award in 2015.

The largest of her works is entitled Mural, situated in the foyer of Goldman Sachs’ New York headquarters. Mehretu accepted the commission in part due to the mural’s location in the firm’s glass lobby, which afforded the work to be publicly viewable from the street, and which, at 80 feet long and 23 feet high, was at a scale otherwise unreachable.

It was during this time that Mehretu married Australian artist Jessica Rankin, with whom she shares two children. Though the couple are now separated, their artistic practices are still closely connected, each consulting the other on paintings, with Mehretu noting “It’s one of the advantages of being queer: You don’t have to follow any prescription of what marriage or divorce looks like.”3

Mehretu’s various accolades have contributed to auction sales of up to $6.5 million for a single painting in 2021, but in a rare legal twist private sales have also been revealed. The artist’s work was the subject of a case brought before the New York Supreme Court, Lehmann v. The Project Worldwide which was the first claim to be brought by a collector in respect of a right for first refusal.

It’s one of the advantages of being queer: You don’t have to follow any prescription of what marriage or divorce looks like.

In return for a loan to a gallery, a collector was to receive both a discount and a first refusal on works by artists represented by the gallery. Upon the sale of Mehretu’s works without notification to the collector, he filed suit. The judge ruled in the collector’s favour with damages of over $1.7 million, and the process of the proceedings revealed the purchase prices that the gallery offered collectors for Mehretu’s works of up to $51,000 for a painting – information normally concealed by the art world.4

Mehretu’s art first impacted me when slipping away from the industrial bustle of Pittsburgh into the cool quiet of Carnegie Museum of Art, where I worked briefly as a teaching assistant alongside graduate studies. Within the permanent collection, her work ‘Stadia II’ is a vortex of bright banners, confetti and echoes of amphitheatres recalling spaces of crowds and life – indeed, she refers to her shoals of marks as ‘communities’. 12 feet by 9 feet, it’s easy to get swept up in the layered rabble, and with noticing something new with each visit, Mehretu sets the viewer off on a lifetime of looking.

View some of Julie Mehretu’s work, and interviews with the artist at the White Cube.

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