Julie Mehretu: Territories of Abstraction

Spaces of Power

Julie Mehretu’s works require space: large walls and a great distance for the eye to take in the entire picture that rises and stretches, up to several meters above the viewer, who is both dwarfed and dazzled by its dimensions. The dimensions of Mehretu’s works are not simply defined by the picture’s actual size. In fact, they prove to be a multifaceted, shifting parameter. While the first look only shows a buzzing cloud of tangled black lines, scribbled marks, and flying colorful shapes, closer inspection reveals architectural elements ranging from schematic plans and checkerboard grids to columns and balustrades or neatly drawn windows and cornices. Yet the sharp glimpses of intricate buildings and urban layouts are always fragile, rendered with almost reluctant, dispassionate meticulousness. Whatever perspective view is hinted at is sure to be interrupted in the next instant, overridden by a new wave of divergent lines and planes.

This unfixed composition of concrete and abstract forms in an undefined and vacant (but enormously wide) pictorial space demands movement: the searching and reading movement of the eye, as well as the pacing movement of the viewer in the exhibition space, who has to keep stepping back and forth, to and fro, in order to scan the overwhelming panorama in an attempt to see. There is no fixed center, no vanishing point within the vague spatial illusion despite the many lines of flight, as they seem to run on different levels and in different directions. The multitude of scattered elements in Mehretu’s paintings construct a world where all is in flux and in progress, taking with them the viewer’s eye, which never comes to rest.

“The narratives come together to create this overall picture that you see from the distance,” the artist says. “As you come close to it […] the big picture completely shatters and there are these numerous small narratives happening.” Walking towards or alongside the painting, its surface is constantly shifting, opening views onto myriads of smaller details and hidden levels in both form and content. It is this transformative potentiality that characterizes the temporal and spatial multidimensionality in her paintings.

Mehretu, who was born in 1970 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, is based in New York and Berlin. In her early works from the mid-1990s, even before graduating from Rhode Island School of Design, in 1997, she had already developed a monochrome, sign-focused drawing style that integrates sociological or economical diagrams and scientific facts and figures in chaotic abstract compositions. The material ranges from infographics and models to urban plans and maps, as in serial works like Untitled (scale model) or Untitled (court) from 1998.

Untitled (Court), 1998, ink and oil on Mylar and vellum, 61 x 45.7 cm
Courtesy the artist and carlier | gebauer, Berlin


While Mehretu borrows techniques from commercial reproductions, some of her vivid, playful graphic elements are also reminiscent of comics, leading back to the Pop tradition and its love for commercial graphics. It becomes more visible in her works after 2000, when sleek, brightly colored shapes began to traverse and dominate the otherwise black-and-white picture plane.

Ever since the late 1990s, Mehretu’s oeuvre has evolved in mainly large-format monochrome pieces in ink and acrylic. Her numerous drawings and etchings (often as large-scale series like Myriads, Only By Dark, 2014) complement the paintings and form an extensive, autonomous body of work. With Mehretu it seems impossible to isolate the painterly drawings and etchings from the graphical paintings, regardless of their differences in size and technique. They are products of the same train of thought, the same methodic interplay between a variety of material derived from the “outside” world and an eloquent, original language of abstraction that the artist has created over time.

In Mehretu’s paintings, found photographic and archival images are transferred via photocopy and projection on paper, vellum, or Mylar (her preferred support media of the earlier period), or canvas for her large paintings. The sources for Mehretu’s image construction are versatile: maps and topographic plans, architectural drawings and prints, historical and ethnographic books, newspapers, and postcards. The artist has a special interest in architectural forms that represent a political order or socio-economic organizational system. As Mehretu said in 2006: “I think architecture reflects the machinations of politics, and that’s why I’m interested in it as a metaphor for those institutions. I don’t think of architectural language as just a metaphor about space. It’s about space, but about spaces of power, about the ideas of power.”

Just as a stadium, amphitheater, or fortress can mark the cultural and political power of a nation or sovereign, so can war and demolition erase a building, an area, or a whole city, and subject its shape to a merciless process of transformation. Historical monuments and classic architecture feed Mehretu’s paintings, as well as images of ruins and war zones from the recent past, like Baghdad, Aleppo, and Damascusthe ruin itself being a traditionally romantic motif for artists in their contemplation of the past as viewed from the present. Her movement between the historical and the contemporary is always accompanied by a constructive and destructive gesture.

Black City, 2005, ink and acrylic on canvas, 274.3 x 487.7 cm
Courtesy the artist and carlier | gebauer, Berlin


The way Mehretu composes the pictorial strata from different image sources speaks of a careful and deliberate use of the material on which her pictorial inventions are based. The formal strata in the paintings resonate with the historical and geographic strata supplied by the narrative material compressed within them. This is the case in the monumental painting Black City (2005): on a vast canvas measuring nearly five meters, it displays a dense jungle of lines, geometric planes, architectural fragments, corridors, and distorted abstract forms. They are accompanied by loosely inserted clouds and fine hatchings made with brush and ink, which infiltrate the sprawling maze like unchecked vegetal growth. A playful element can be found in the colored dots, circles, and lines strewn into the disorienting space, where they resemble signs or marks in a diagram, acting like a diversity of subjects bustling through the scenery. The spatial compression in the middle part hints at a non-existent horizon, while the expansion of forms towards the painting’s edges creates a perspectival dynamic that sucks the viewer in.

In this work, Mehretu has assembled fragmentary shapes of antique fortifications, medieval Crusader castles, American Civil War fortifications, European forts from the nineteenth century, and the plan of Washington D.C. Their intermingling traces blend into each other, creating a hybrid narration across borders and epochs on a single canvas. Even though there are fractures, there is also a continuity in those (literally) half-hidden lines of tradition. Lawrence Chua writes about Mehretu’s hybrid historic construction: “The languages that she employs […] are always conditioned by power relations. They gesture at, compete against, and mimic one another. […] The fortifications that once protected national, European, Christian, imperial, pure space are not only under constant siege, they are the products of that endless war.” The point is, however, that, apart from all the historical and cultural narratives, this war takes place within the painting itself as a transformative dynamic that resonates with Heraclitus’s cosmological idea: all things are in flux, and “war is father of all.”

Spectacle in Progress

Mehretu’s paintings are like fields of ongoing discussion, where different voices—materials and elements—are successively added without truly intermingling, instead covering and erasing each other in the process. They follow the principle of the palimpsest, after which Mehretu titled a work in 2006, Palimpsest (old gods).

Palimpsest (old gods), 2006, ink and acrylic on canvas, 152.4 x 213.4 cm
Courtesy the artist and carlier | gebauer, Berlin


Originally referring to manuscript scrolls or parchments from which the writing has been scraped or washed off for reuse, the term palimpsest was regarded as the epitome of the allegory (from the Greek word allegoría, “veiled language”) in postmodern theory. Craig Owens described it in his essay The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism both as attitude and technique, a creative erasure and reinterpretation that always entails some form of layering.

Layers, strata, fragments, and ruins play a central role in Mehretu’s work both in terms of form and content. Just as the formal elements engage in a creative struggle, her image material of cities, sites, and buildings from past and present accumulate on the canvas in a repeated palimpsest by constructive destruction. The implicit tension of evolving and vanishing, building and demolishing is palpable in all her works, but in the paintings made in 2006, around the time of Palimpsest, their processuality becomes clearer than ever. They confront the eye with ascetic,\ but extremely dense mazes of wireframe drawings, offering only sparse colors, which, in their smooth technicality, follow the coded principle of technical designs and informative markups. Along with the layering and overwriting, Mehretu—as Cay Sophie Rabinowitz has observed—picks up the working process of architectural or engineering design, where blueprints are revised and completed by different agents using different colors. The painter’s use of color is also discursive and differentiating, not than expressive or emotional. Moreover, her monochrome, clean-cut lines of flight and space-frames on a blank background are reminiscent of computer graphics and vectors. Their technical aesthetics connect the handmade, analogue work to digital imagery with its flexible, dynamic virtuality. As a consequence, Mehretu’s works show a great virtual openness, emphasizing the emergent potentiality of the pictorial space in painting.

The technical procedure applied in those works is remarkably methodic. After fixing the large, gessoed canvas to the wall or on stretchers, the artist projects found image material or sketches made with a computer program onto the canvas, using an overhead projector. Their outlines are then drawn with rapidograph pens and rulers. Some forms are masked with tape and painted with roll or airbrush and acrylic paint. Afterwards, the canvas is sprayed with a silica-acrylic-mixture and sanded. The polishing finish completes a layer, after which the process is repeated several times. Some tracings are redrawn every time; others are covered by the next layer and remain half-visible under the translucent paint. On each level, new elements are added with ink and acrylic, sometimes supporting the former setting, sometimes obliterating its order with contrary spacial lines and viewpoints or freely drawn, expressive marks. Repetition and reproduction are two central strategies in Mehretu’s practice, in which she generates ever-changing variations following the same principles. Rabinowitz sees in her working method “a determination to be productive, but not purposeful” (in reference to Kant’s aesthetics, where art holds a “purposiveness without a purpose”). Since Mehretu’s pictorial constructions always seem to be in progress, the finished work resembles a still image offering a fleeting glimpse into an unstable yet arresting spectacle.

Spectacle is explicitly addressed in the large triptych Stadia I-III (2004). In the first work, Stadia I, elements from different venues are blended into each other, ranging from the Panathinaiko Olympic Stadium (1896) to the Wukesong Culture and Sports Center in Beijing (2008). Their distance in time and space are annihilated and molded into one enormous scenery, a spatial panorama with rows of colorful banners and lights above and dynamic black lines below. Some lines open up a perspectival space, while others describe the typical round of a stadium with its aisles, ground and ceiling. Straying, fluttering forms literally fly through the picture, seemingly revolving around an invisible energetic center from which they are simultaneously dispelled. All three works of the triptych show an almost euphoric vivacity and kinetic tension in their centripetal and centrifugal double-movement. 

Stadia I, 2004, ink and acrylic on canvas, 271.78 x 355.6 cm
Courtesy the artist and carlier | gebauer, Berlin

The relation between periphery and center is a political one. The buzzing spectators and banners in the aisles assert themselves as agents in their own rights, while competing with the strangely vacuous center of the arena. Mehretu has expressed her interest in the historical, structural, and social aspects of places where masses congregate at events. Here, people conglomerate and move according to certain cultural and architectural parameters. Their collective presence and activity sets free a potential energy: as singular micro-elements they can reverberate with the outer framework, or they can break through and overrule it. Her works seem to underline the fact that power relations shape architecture and public space, yet architecture and cityscapes can never fully be controlled by their order or preconception. The neat, complex structures are always permeated by random dynamics, movements and autonomous particles, which, developing a life of their own, appear even more complex than the architectural set-ups. On an artistic level, this conflict finds expression in Mehretu’s erratic graphic marks and lines in answer to the static, regulative framework. As she described in an interview in 2003, she imagines them as her “characters’ responses to the mega-structure of the previous layers. They inherently resist order due to their gesture.”

A New History Painting?

From her early interest in socioeconomic and historic phenomena that left their imprint in urban structures to her system of abstract marks, which were developed in relation to that architectural archaeology, Mehretu has always linked her work to the outside world. The dynamics of political, economic, and social expansion, rapid growth, and unchecked development find their material counterparts in the human living environments of our present, from sprawling mega-structures and futuristic urban spaces to war-torn cities and monumental ruins. The exterior framing settings of the modern city form a macroscopic background for our individual lives, growing more and more connected and similar in a globalized world. As a reflection of this, the various marks Mehretu is using like recurring characters serve as a visualization of the relation between the larger whole and the individual, or, as Lawrence Chua put it, between “the systematic and the particular.” In Mehretu’s words: “A group of marks can shift the painting, one mark on its own doesn’t.” This implies a parallel between semiotic accumulations and shifting masses on the canvas on the one hand, and processes of sociopolitical or economic change on the other, which Mehretu has explicitly pointed out: “The underlying conceptual framework of my paintings lies in the relationship between the individual and the community, the whole. Each mark represents individual agency, an active social character.”.

Critics like to emphasize Mehretu’s sociopolitical engagement and the complex narratives she feeds into her works through their source material. Her synthesis of analytical, concrete imagery and gestural, organic abstraction has been described as a metaphor and commentary on historical and contemporary developments by many authors. Indeed, her rich pictorial worlds offer themselves as a projection plane for various readings, be it historical, political, social, postcolonial, or techno-utopian.

In regard to their art status, however, the New York Times notably wrote that Mehretu’s canvases “make history painting important again,” which is actually a remarkable evaluation for a medium that has long been deemed impotent in the face of our world’s harsh reality. Ever since photography has become the common means for documenting contemporary events, and since concept-based art practices have become the common means for their reflection and criticism, painting has lost the domain of authoritative narratives, which it once held via the field of history painting—the highest-ranking genre in traditional art. Today, painting is hardly credited with critical potential at all. With nineteenth-century modernism, history painting has gradually lost both its language and its status. Apart from Picasso’s singular piece Guernica (1937), there are not many paintings that have the impact and gravitas to be understood as a relatable view of our common reality.

Invisible Sun (algorithm 6, third letter form), 2014, ink and acrylic on canvas, 304 x 424.2 cm 
Courtesy the artist and carlier | gebauer, Berlin


A further effort to react to current events in the world through painting—less a firsthand experience of events than an imagined atmospheric visualization of their significance, experienced via media—is found in Mehretu’s series Invisible Sun (2014-15). In this cycle of monochrome canvases, measuring over three by four meters each, the artist amasses layer upon layer of sprayed signs, brushed hatchings, and vague shadings. Loose circles, hooks, crosses, and random gestural marks of various size and clarity cover the all-grey canvases in different shades of black. Standing in front of them, the viewer is reminded of walls covered with age-old graffiti, some boldly sprayed or painted, others finely drawn. Consequently, one starts to search for decipherable symbols, letters, or figures. But their tangle seems too dense, their form too random to be readable. In Invisible Sun (algorithm 6, third letter form), for instance, occasional identifiable symbols and letters appear, even the traces of human faces, but their meanings remain obscure, and there is no way to grasp the dazzling cloud of abstract scripture. Looking at those paintings, their space seems to gradually expand and move, taking the mass of fragmentary signs with them. More than ever, these monumental gestural pieces activate the gaze and need to be experienced in stride, as when pacing a graffiti wall or tracing cave paintings.

There is a bright, underlying geometric net of lines beneath the abstract signs, but, unlike in previous works, architectural elements are no longer prominently featured in the painting; instead, the wall-canvas itself becomes a physical piece of architecture. All that remains in the later works is a faded reminder of those neat and orderly drawings, now overwritten by unbound painterly abstraction. Their titles include the word “algorithm,” which implies an open technical process in the paintings, where the abundance of signs can be recreated in endless variations. The semiotic potential that her seemingly random marks unfold demonstrates Mehretu’s idea of mark-making with overwhelming intensity: they are “little agents” without meaning, a “fundamental primitive language” within an attempt to form her own language with marks. The artist produces these works herself by hand, unlike with her earlier paintings, where assistants helped with the architectural drawings; some paintings and prints even bear imprints of her hand, reminding us of the archaic gesture of painting as a basic symbolic expression of man.

The fact that this series—along with her other graffiti-style works from the last few years—was inspired by the events following the Arab Spring, the war in Syria, the crisis in the Middle East, and other places of socio-political upheaval (like the United States town of Ferguson) might be enlightening or distracting. The artist again takes photographs as her starting point, noting that “when you blur these photographs—if you removed all legible information—it still had this almost haunting dynamic taking place, this apparition within the blurred aspect of darks and lights.” But, while painters like Gerhard Richter blurred their photo paintings in order to get to the abstract “picture itself” by suppressing its iconic representation, Mehretu tries to weave an abstract analogy for the real background stories with pictorial means. The “Invisible Sun” series confronts the viewer with a non-space where all light is swallowed by the grey background. Yet the title declares the presence of a sun, giving the disorienting painting a sense of place and time, amplifying the energetic and slightly oppressive atmosphere of the crowded canvas. Suddenly, the painterly marks are not simply meaningless scribbles, but a moving tide of singular traces, like driven individuals congregating and dispersing. The canvases appear like sites of a mass movement buzzing with activity. On the other hand, they are an emergent space for semiotic creation, personalized through the painter’s perception and body movement. And, just like the events of the outside world, the painting process is an open one: “There is nothing planned,” Mehretu professes. Here, the artist’s private search and observation of the self within the territory of painting meets the public territory of historical events; interior contemplation meets exterior action.

The extraordinary quality of Mehretu’s paintings lies in the fact that, even though they are build around political topics, they speak for themselves, achieving a forceful impact through their eloquence. On a symbolic meta-level, they convey a multitude of ideas, but it is, first and foremost, the fascinating serendipity of Mehretu’s abstraction that does the convincing, even if one is not aware of the subject or source material: painting must hold its ground in the face of thematic complexity.

The need to reflect the times we are living in is a fundamental motivation for almost every artist. Mehretu, however, does not translate those issues into flat political messages; instead, she manages to channel the subjective nature of witnessing through the media, accompanied by thoughts and feelings about these topics, into a prolific pictorial form. To lend form is essential for any politically engaged art, if it does not want to simply repeat preformulated concepts. For Mehretu, the radical abstraction in her monumental canvases might be a more fitting way to address the complex dynamics of the global present than any elaborate representation. However archaic her painting-scripture may seem, it is far from unfounded and naïve, considering her art historical references. (They range from the gestural freedom and all-over structure of abstract expressionism, utopian architecture of the Situationists (especially Constant Nieuwenhuys), and the technological dynamism of the Futurists to the drawing technique of Albrecht Dürer and the versatile deluge drawings of Leonardo; parallels can also be found to Chinese calligraphy and, of course, graffiti.)

Even though one may doubt the emergence of a new history painting, Mehretu’s work stands for a kind of painting that is attentive and open to the world—going beyond the “painting of modern life”—while remaining fiercely autonomous. Political emphasis in painting does not necessarily demand humorless pathos (a classic example being Anselm Kiefer). Instead, Mehretu’s work exhibits an experimental, playful lightness despite the grim background stories she draws on. As a contemporary position, her painting strengthens the medium’s status as a critical, reflective art form.