The Obstruction of Julie Mehretu’s HOWL

SFMOMA’s biggest installation to date deserves a long second look

How much of a work of art don’t you see? The question trips to mind as you climb the stairs of SFMOMA’s main entrance and pass HOWL eon (I, II), a pair of enormous paintings by Julie Mehretu.

The twinned canvases, installed on Labor Day 2017, each stretch 27 by 32 feet on inward canting walls in the Haas Atrium, a cylindrical hollow at the heart of the original 1995 structure designed by architect Mario Botta. Slender columns prop up an oculus, partially occluding the walls where HOWL now stands. You can’t miss them.

Julie Mehretu, HOWL, eon (I, II) (2017)

As senior curator of Painting + Sculpture Gary Garrels has reflected, these walls have been open invitations for large scale works like this. Before Mehretu’s offering, site-specific, temporary installations by Sol LeWitt and Kerry James Marshall appeared.

But the invitation comes at a price. The columns block a total view of the works, albeit in a contained vertical band. No single sight line is unobstructed; you have to move around, assembling clipped and oblique glimpses into a mental whole. Reviews and conversations about HOWL over the few months since its installation make something very clear: this blockage is an issue for many visitors. This blockage has emerged as a consistent criticism of the installation from a cross-section of public viewers, curators, and artists. It is the crux of the SF Chronicle’s review of the work. The votes are in: HOWL’s home denies the paintings’ panoramic ambitions, and that is frustrating.

Installation shot of Mehretu’s HOWL in SFMOMA’s Haas Atrium

This blockage is indeed frustrating. It is also obvious in the extreme. So obvious that to make this blockage the primary criticism of Mehretu’s paintings is almost offensively facile. Why should such a refrain — I can’t see all of it! arg! — become a summary judgment? Here, deeper meaning has been sacrificed on the altar of institutional critique: the commission was architecturally-flawed to begin with, so this thought-process goes, leading to a lackluster and hugely expensive work of “lobby art.” (This last barb, in part, because Mehretu previously produced large-scale work for the investment bank Goldman Sachs.) That HOWL, and by extension Mehretu, should be so disqualified because the paintings are partially obscured is a profoundly cynical take, and it deserves rehabilitation.

Art’s history can help us see beyond these blockages. What if we began by comparing Mehretu to Michelangelo? That’s the equation Neal Benezra, SFMOMA’s director, made when describing the work. Though nothing obscures our view of Michelangelo’s work in Sistine Chapel, Mehretu had at least an inkling of the architectural challenges she was getting into. She painted HOWL with this atrium in mind, columns and all, and is no stranger to the futility of seeing an entire mural in a single glance.

Michelangelo, Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (1508–1512)

Would we judge Michelangelo by the same rubric? That would require making a credible argument that the Sistine Ceiling frescos are inherently flawed because their varied frames and orientations prevent you from seeing all scenes and figures at once. We assess the scale and ambition of these works in a glance, yes, but it takes time and movement to weave individual passages together into a tapestry of meaning.

Have we really become so flat-footed that we expect works of art, like every other commodity today, to deliver themselves to us with frictionless grace?

By working at this size, Mehretu hoped to create the conditions for this kind of revelation: “Something else that happens at this scale is that totally it’s uncontrollable. So then it’s about the process, and through the process, you go somewhere, you find your way in the painting.” Painting and architecture have worked hand in glove for millennia this way, compelling us to move through them on journeys of discovery. Have we really become so flat-footed that we expect works of art, like every other commodity today, to deliver themselves to us with frictionless grace?

The comparison between Renaissance man and postmodern woman holds other insights. Where Michelangelo designed architecture, Mehretu stands out among contemporary painters as keenly sensitive to both architecture and its history in her works. Wire-like meshes in palimpsest (old gods)(2006) are a case in point. Projecting line drawings of various structures over one another, the canvas becomes a cage of deep and conflicting dimensions. Determining where one building ends and another begins is an intractable exercise. Taking the place of this formal accounting are bigger questions about the shapes of architecture, the formal dependencies between structures, and how time itself might be measured through the sequential experience of buildings one after the next.

Julie Mehretu, Palimpsest (old gods) (2006)

One might argue that the goals of Michelangelo’s work for the Vatican and Mehretu’s for SFMOMA are worlds apart. Yes and no. Mehretu’s paintings aren’t exactly religious, but like her predecessor she did wish to draw those who enter their space to a kind of reverential awe. The chapel and the museum are not so different as many assume. It’s not a new or particularly novel claim that museums have become secular churches.

If the religious content of Michelangelo’s work seems a stretch for comparison, consider the religiosity of the more contemporary artist Mark Rothko, whose paintings rank among the most essential to any modern museum worth its weight in salt. №14, 1960, the grandest of SFMOMA’s color-field paintings by the artist, means to unfurl a suite of biblical emotion. “The people who weep before my pictures,” Rothko once said, “are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them.” He intended his works to be like ambient icons, their atmospheres of color enveloping the viewer to the point of transfiguration. Does Mehretu contribute to this process of conversion? While Rothko created a chapel, Mehretu used a decommissioned Harlem church as studio for the creation of HOWL, making the transformation of art to religion almost absurdly literal.

Mark Rothko, №14, 1960 (1960)

Though Mehretu deserves a place in this lineage of large-scale, architectural painting, HOWL shows how her work deviates from those forebears in significant ways. In fact, this deviation might even be the key to seeing the obstructions of the atrium as a feature, not a bug. One of the reasons these paintings may be getting short shrift is not just that they can’t be entirely seen; it’s that they intend to undermine the myth of pure aesthetic immersion that museums themselves seek to enshrine.

HOWL calls out the shibboleth that we can see the whole work of art to begin with.

With white walls and high ceilings, museums of modern art create viewing conditions that reinforce the enveloping purity to which many of the greatest twentieth-century paintings aspired. It would be sacrilege to obscure the beautiful washes of Rothko, or even the all-over ebullient spatters of Jackson Pollock. But Mehretu layers the messy, polyphonic perspectives of twenty-first-century life onto canvas to teach a different lesson. There is also an obstacle to get around or a distraction to overcome today. Whether it be museum #selfie the person next to you in the gallery is instagramming, the text you reply to reflexively, or the wandering of your mind to the next deadline, life today conspires against our desire for pure aesthetic encounters. In this sense, obscuring columns are but another galling reminder that to look at art without distraction is itself a challenge.

HOWL calls out the shibboleth that we can see the whole work of art to begin with. This is as true on the level of siting as it is in formal structure. “Eighty percent of the marks I put down,” Mehretu divulged in a recent interview, “I wipe or sand away.” Albert Bierstadt’s landscape painting “Lake Tahoe,” and similar landscape works by Frederic Edwin Church were printed onto canvas but now lie hidden, like geological strata, underneath blurred images of race riots and her barrage of dancing marks.

Albert Bierstadt, Lake Tahoe, California (1867)

In burying old paintings about the American West with new ones, Mehretu rewrites the very fantasy of comprehensive vision — the “manifest destiny” — that those nineteenth-century works project. HOWL creates atmospheric effects not with modernist washes of color but with pixelated squares and crosses, as if dispersed like data through informational networks. Thus there are signs of a grid-like system that might bring some level of logic or control to Mehretu’s marks on the canvas. Yet like the lower edge of a quadratic orange halo at the center of II, the painting on the right as you ascend the stairs, a portion of that order dissolves before your eyes. The system breaks down, or at least breaks open, and the viewer must accept that the gestural abstraction before them does not submit so easily to analysis. In other words, seeing this whole canvas head on could never offer the kind of clarity those who complain about the columns presume.

Julie Mehretu, HOWL eon (II), detail (2017)

If these remarks have until now excavated the pictorial politics of HOWL that have been largely hidden, it’s worth noting the politics worn on the sleeve, too. Mehretu began working on them after the 2016 presidential election. Whether you call the results a tragedy or an apotheosis, it’s safe to say the election of Donald Trump reflects a watershed in American political life. Without projecting specific statements about this change onto these canvases, one can still recognize and relate to the artist’s sense of being lost in the wilderness of a new age.

By way of conclusion, some clarifications: I’m not arguing that the Haas atrium is an “ideal” home for HOWL. Nor am I advocating for columns, screens, or other obstructions to be thrown before other works of art. I’m not even telling you to love the work, even if loving an artwork is a fairly weak indicator of its ability to catalyze thought or debate and thus of its cultural importance. What I am saying is that these obstructions make the works more challenging and thereby potentially more meaningful than they would be otherwise. But the only way that will be so is with more thoughtful conversation about such blockages when then do appear instead of the hot takes that demand to see everything, now.

Are we so myopic that the slim obstructions prevents us from appreciating the prismatic rain of brushstrokes pouring across the visible canvas? Are we so shiftless as to ignore to the unavoidable, exuberant allusion in the title of work? Allen Ginsberg’s own Howl, a protest poem written here in San Francisco in 1957, is there, screaming on the wings:

“…imaginary walls collapse O skinny legions run outside O starry-spangled shock of mercy the eternal war is here…”

These phrases, from the concluding lines of the poem, speak to how deftly art can tear down the barriers in front of us and how raw the reality beyond it can be. Hopeful and terrifying, this is the imperfect sight art endows to us, if we give it time.

Given our current political obsession with walls, we would do well to reach beyond simple obstacles like these. Go back to the modern, and hear HOWL out.