The works of one of the world’s most influential individuals are on display at the High Museum of Art.
“Julie Mehretu,” the eponymous major traveling abstract art exhibition featuring nearly 40 drawings and prints and 35 paintings mostly monumental in size and scale, opened Oct. 24 and closes Jan. 31 at the Midtown venue. It, for the first time, unites all of her works, going from 1996 to the present.
In September, Mehretu was named to the Time 100 List, Time magazine’s annual group of the 100 most influential individuals in the world.
“Julie is one of the most important painters of her generation and, in my opinion, many generations past,” Michael Rooks, the High’s curator of modern and contemporary art,” said in an interview.
Mehretu, 50, was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. She and her family emigrated to the United States in 1977 to escape from that country’s civil war. After briefly living in Alabama, they moved to Michigan. Today Mehretu lives in New York and Berlin.
Mehretu was not available for an interview with the Neighbor, but in a message posted to the High’s website, she talked about her style of art.
“As I continue drawing, I find myself more and more interested in the idea that drawing can be an activist gesture,” Mehretu said. “That drawing—as an informed, intuitive process, a process that is representative of individual agency and culture, a very personal process—offers something radical.”
When asked what makes her stand out as an artist, Rooks said, “I think it’s her ability to synthesize all of the geopolitical vicissitudes imposed upon our psychical realm (and) our physical realm … as well as all of those ideas from the past that we’ve inherited from recent history.
“She thinks of the arc of history in this incredibly broad way and organizes it archivally which is an important part of the research behind her work. … I can’t think of another painter in the 20th century or this century (of her magnitude) taking on history painting at this scale.”
The exhibition is a partnership between the High and three other museums: the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in Los Angeles (it was there Nov. 3 through Sept. 7), the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York (March 19 through Aug. 8) and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis (Oct. 16 through March 6, 2022).
It includes both small and large works, but Mehretu is known for her enormous pieces that can combine several media.
“She’s been able to paint in a way that is relatively new,” Rooks said. “It’s new in the sense that she’s thinking of layering information in her work. Her paintings are constructed of layers of information embedded in layers of acrylic painting, and they’re produced over months or even years.”
In 2013, the High acquired Part 2 of Mehretu’s grand painting “Mogamma (A Painting in Four Parts),” and at the exhibition all four portions have been reunited for the first time in the United States since they were last displayed together a year earlier at “Documenta,” a major contemporary art exhibition that takes place once every five years in Kassell, Germany.
Rooks said he first spoke with Christine Y. Kim, curator of the LA County Museum and co-curator of the exhibition, five years ago about hosting the exhibition at the High, adding there was heavy competition from museums around the world to host part of it.
“It’s incredibly exciting. We’ve been anticipating this show for a long time,” he said.
Rooks added Mehretu’s more recent work includes smaller-scaled paintings that address the myriad of issues that the nation has faced this year.
“It’s really exciting,” he said, “to see her departure from these large architectonic works to new paintings about the body and issues and events that are relevant to today’s most urgent concerns, from the immigration issue (to) Black Lives Matter, to climate change and the impact it is having around the world — all of these things have been part of our collective consciousness these past eight months or more during the (COVID-19) lockdown. And it’s fascinating to see how they are translated by Julie in this new formal language.”
Tickets to the exhibition are included with admission to the High, which is $14.50 for adults and children over 6 and free for members and children under 6. For more information, visit www.high.org.