“Julie Mehretu makes art that is big enough to get lost in.” Wall St. Journal [1]

Whitney Museum of American Art, NYC

The artwork of Julie Mehretu fills the entire fifth floor of the Whitney Museum in New York City with 30 paintings and 40 works on paper produced as a mid- career examination of her contribution to the field of contemporary art by the two curators, Christine Kim and Rujeko Hockley of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Whitney. Born in Addis Abba, Ethiopia to a black professor of economic geography and his white wife whom he met in graduate school where she was teaching near Johns Hopkins University, Julie has risen from her biracial roots to explore vast canvases with drawing, shellac, acrylic and sandpaper constructions. After her parents fled Ethiopia during a local revolution in 1977 to Michigan, Julie grew up loving art and the maps of her father’s classroom in East Lansing, Michigan. After her undergraduate work at Kalamazoo College, she completed a Master of Fine Arts degree at the Rhode Island School of Design on a full scholarship.  Growing up with the large scale murals of Diego Rivera at the Detroit Art Institute, Julie has surpassed that effort in a 23 x 80 foot commission for the new headquarters of Goldman Sachs at 200 West Street in Battery Park, NYC which took two years and 30 helpers to complete for a total of the $5 million dollar commission award upon installation.

Julie Mehretu

Mural at the Goldman Sachs Office, NYC, 2009

Julie’s artistic career has been accelerated by a number of major recognitions, as she was chosen in 2000 to participate in the Harlem Art Project, the Venice Biennale in 2004 and the MacArthur awards in 2005. Additionally, she has been awarded the U.S. State Dept. Medal of the Arts award in 2015 while joining the nominations for the 100 most important people of the year, 2020, by Time Magazine.[1]

 Julie Mehretu receiving the U.S. State Dept. Award from John Kerry, 2015

Hineni, Ink and Acrylic. 2018, 96 in. x 120 in., Centre Pompidou, France

This work, entitled “Hineni”,from the Hebrew word that means “Here I am Lord”, quoted from the voice of Abraham in the Old Testament, is just one example of the works in the Whitney show which exhibit her determination to work on a scale of such magnitude that she is often perched on an elevated staircase to construct the details of something as large as 8 by 10 feet.  The mere size of the brilliant orange in this work with black overpainting in Japanese ink shows how she used color, shape, line and audacious abstraction to make a comment on the forest fires around the USA in 2018.  She is quoted in a Whitney interview as saying, “I try to make indirect social commentary on the world around me by creating cinematic works that are full of spatial shifts and seemingly chaotic motion.”[2]

Julie in action on a rising scaffold stair.

                                          Stadia II, 2004, Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, Penn.  Ink and acrylic on canvas. 108 x 140 in.

This is one work by Julie in which we can see her layered technique clearly at work. The under-drawing represents a stadium, and the overlay of acrylic color is almost like flags waving at a sporting event. Her aggressive motion is called  “willful chaos” by one critic. [3]  I found the energy of her strokes very engaging during my visit to the Whitney as evidence of her sincere dedication to her career and contribution as a contemporary artist.

                                     Retopistics: A Renegade Excavation, 2001, 101 x 208 in. Crystal Bridges Museum, Bentonville, Arkansas

This work was purchased by Alice Walton at a Christie’s auction in 2015 for $4.6 million dollars to add Julie’s work to her survey of American art at the Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville, Arkansas.  Retopistics is a word Julie created to embrace her effort in excavating line, color, motion, form and shape in this large scale of 12 by 17 feet as she digs deep into her world of imagination to bring forth a work of art with drawing, painting and figures of all kinds.

At the Whitney Museum, her work stands tall in a quiet space along the Hudson River whose quiet flow sets a perfect tempo for a visit to see these works by a recognized female artist at a time when women are in the front and center of our busy art world today. Julie is pictured below resting in front of a work she created for this exhibition on site in the Whitney gallery. It is a very busy composition with  neon colors emerging through the black over- painting. It is installed alone with a magnificent view of the river below.

Julie Mehretu, “Of Other Planes of There”, 2018-2019, 108 x 120 inches. Commissioned by the Whitney Museum of American Art for its permanent collection.

The Whitney Museum of American Art, 99 Gansevoort St. NYC

Timed tickets are required for all visitors to the Whitney Museum which is now open five days a week, closed Tuesday and Wednesday. Children under 18 are free for each visit.

March 25- August 8, 2021


Header Image: From Vogue, by Tom Powel Imaging, Inc., Courtesy of Julie Mehretu, Marian Goodman Gallery





[1] Wikipedia, Julie Mehretu. 2021

[2] You Tube, December 6, 2019, Whitney Museum interview.

[3] Roxane Gay, Interview with Julie Mehretu, You Tube, August 18, 2020

[1]  Tobias Grey, Wall St. Journal, March 5, 2021.