Walk With Me: Julie Mehretu
When you wander out of a museum only to discover you’ve been looking at art all along….
A friend of mine called after a long time and asked to go with me to a museum. What an NYC thing to do! Naturally I said yes; we jumped the many hoops to reserve an entrance time on the High Line, reserve a table at an outdoor brunch place in the Meatpacking District, and reserve an entry time at the Whitney Museum of American Art. We were going to do it all.
We hit all the marks. We even stumbled upon a magical public art installation called Equal Measure, 2021 which was a freakishly compelling giant metronome created by Naama Tsabar, an Israeli artist whose kinetic sculpture walks a line between architecture and music. In this case, it conducts the crowd while it beats time — stopping traffic and skipping beats in a way that raised the disturbing question: who is in charge here?
We got to the Whitney and were thrilled to find another impossibly wonderful and entirely unexpected installation, the ultra-beaded, sparkly, eye-gouging, glorious, over-the-top, feminist, harsh-as-hell, and yet perfectly delightful 5-year project of Liza Lou, Kitchen.
Nowhere will you feel more the satire of “women’s work” than in the meticulously beaded “sampler” excerpting Emily Dickinson’s biting poem explaining a housewife’s role: She Rose to His Requirement…unless it is in the beaded motto on the side of the fridge “how doth the little busy bee.”
The work is exquisite and I could have stared at the intricate details all day. However, we were there to see the featured exhibit, so we scampered down to the fifth floor and faced the massive murals created by Julie Mehretu.
Now you have to understand, I don’t like to be told how to look at things, so instead of going in chronological order, we just started where we liked and followed our whims. This meant that instead of starting with the carefully chronological first room and walking in order to her most recent work, we started at the end. Her current projects.
Which. Unfairly. We didn’t really….feel.
They were pleasant. It’s probably the last thing any artist would want said about their work. The only connection I felt was a vague reminder of the spray paint guys who make astonishing cities out of circles on the street. You know the guys? They use a piece of cardboard to make a shiny cityscape with only spray paint and a chisel?
When you see Mehretu’s recent works in person, you can still see her signature layers, but these layers look less studied, less thoughtful, less “placed” than in her earlier work. The murals are smaller, more reasonable. Spray paint lends an overall softness and lack of focus, rendering the canvases blurred and gentle. You saw nothing special by moving closer. It was fine. It was accessible. It was…pleasant to look at. We figured the artist was trying something more approachable, less intellectual.
So you can imagine how my friend and I were both taken aback by the artist’s statement: these recent pieces are supposed to be Mehretu’s response to global violence, to BLM, to events in her home and in places she has lived….I looked back at the pretty oil-pastel and black palette and saw no inkling of violence in the jumbled chaos…unless perhaps there was a feeling of being overwhelmed by a need to respond and having absolutely no response to hand. Or perhaps it was too on the nose? The one piece that wasn’t the soft color palette was orange like a warning cone, like a day-glo stiletto, like a fire. But not like a real fire: like a fire made to be seen on the internet where the colors are more vibrant. Kind of…manic.
The artist statement, however, was impressive: she apparently took violent images from the news and then blew them up beyond recognition and then painted over them. If that was the case, I’m not sure why she was torturing herself. Those images are not apparent in the finished art, and you can’t expect that an archaeologist, finding your art in the far future, is going to also dig up the artist statement that won you the large government grant justifying the work.
Before you think I am just being mean, I want to tell you that in the next room there is much to genuinely love and completely admire. Her middle years are full of breathtaking art: massive murals with layers of fine-line architectural plans, like ghosts of cities, layered over with arteries of black or color, noodles of thought and travel and ideas and large geometric shapes so vibrant that each layer makes its own patterns and its own messages that relate to the “past” and inform it, and are informed by it. These unfathomably detailed works — just looking at any small portion of any of these enormous murals makes you aware of the meticulous detail, the planning, the work, and the thought that had to go into the creation of each piece, from the largest overview to the crazy little invented symbolic language scattered over the middle-ground between the colors and the architecture. This is where all of the life was, I could have stood there all day, contemplating the how and why of her creations. No artist statement was necessary — the art spoke for itself.
We spent about an hour comparing the early and the middle work to the latest series. Her middle work is simply visionary — it was a pleasure and a privilege to walk through room after room of these murals. Mehretu herself was born in Ethiopia, moved to the US and lived in East Lansing and NYC, among other places (notably Berlin). Her middle art shows this longing for place while displaced, this desire for concrete memory overlaid with the wisdom of the present. Motion is ubiquitous in these murals. Vast movements obliterating whole civilizations, but beauty as well. Loss. Joy. From the feathery grand to the painstakingly minute.
My friend and I found ourselves talking at length about art and loss as we walked down the Hudson River together, ending up downtown. As we passed the Goldman Sachs lobby across from One WTC, she grabbed my arm.
“That’s her!” she said, excited. “That’s the artist!”
And in fact. There it was: a Julie Mehretu that dwarfed the ones at the Whitney, free for any passerby to see. I felt a rush of recognition. A surge of joy and a desire to tell people: hey! Look what we have here!
It was like seeing a celebrity at your favorite coffee shop. I realized at that precise moment, that I have been an admirer of Mehretu’s work since 2010 when this lobby was completed. She was an old friend from the neighborhood. I suggest that everyone give this lobby a second look — and then keep walking all the way up the river to the Whitney and take a peek at the art up there. Put our neighbor in context. Learn about her. Appreciate what we have.
If nothing else, you can lose yourself in the beaded dollhouse of domesticity — here’s a final peek at Liza Lou’s Kitchen from a distance:
Go see art, my friends.