The abstractionist Julie Mehretu will be the subject of a major traveling mid-career survey that will bring together her large-scale paintings with her more intimate drawings and prints. The survey, which opens next fall, will include work dating from 1996 to now, and will include two pieces made in 2018 and at least two produced in 2019.
The 65-work exhibition is co-curated by Christine Y. Kim of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where the show will open in November 2019, and Rujeko Hockley of the Whitney Museum in New York, where it will open in June 2020. The show will then make stops at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.
Kim said that a Mehretu survey had interested her because the artist’s work closely considers world events—“activities, narratives, and histories from different places. . . . She’s constantly integrating new histories, new people, new places, how they relate to the past to the simultaneity of past, present, future temporally as well as geographically and spatially as they come together.”
Hockley said that she has long been inspired by how Mehretu’s own biography—the artist grew up between Addis Ababa, Ethopia, and East Lansing, Michigan—and the “cultural connections to specific places and times and peoples and histories” in her work are part of “a formal conversation, a conceptual conversation, a conversation about abstraction. Through her practice there’s an ongoing argument for the reality that those things aren’t mutually exclusive.”
“That’s something that I’ve always been inspired by in Julie’s work—that you can have these multiple conversations,” Hockley added. “You can talk about history, capitalism, corporations in the current era but also going back to the foundations of the financial systems that we live under. You can talk about color, art history, hard-edge painting, Renaissance perspective drawings.”
Kim has known Mehretu since 2000, when the artist first applied for the residency program at the Studio Museum in Harlem in New York, where Kim worked until 2008. (At that point, she left to join LACMA to become an associate curator of contemporary art.) The two have kept in contact in the intervening years, and it was when Mehretu visited the L.A. museum a few years back that they first began discussing the possibility of a survey show as they walked through LACMA’s James Turrell retrospective. Mehretu had also just finished showing her “Mogamma” painting series, which went on view at a David Adjaye–designed exhibition at White Cube gallery in London.
“We spent a lot of time in that [Turrell] show together,” Kim told ARTnews, “talking about perception and the relationship with the viewer in perceiving within a space.” It was these connections and Mehretu’s interest in how the installation of her work relates to its architectural spaces that opened up the conversation for doing a solo show at LACMA.
“One of my interests with how we installed that show in London,” Mehretu said, “was really about reorienting how you spend time with those ‘Mogamma’ paintings and being very completely immersed in them.” As in her White Cube show, the survey will aim to provide a “physical experience in the space that really also slows you down to spend time with these paintings. They’re large in scale and there’s a lot of information in them but they’re very slow experiential works.”
Just before Hockley was hired at the Whitney in early 2017, Kim had reached out to the museum about traveling the show there. When Hockley came onboard, she realized that there would be an opportunity to collaborate with Kim—with whom she had previously worked at the Studio Museum—on organizing the show and producing its catalogue.
“We’re really committed to mid-career surveys of artists and building the family of artists who have been connected to the institution,” Hockley said, noting that Mehretu had been in the 2004 Whitney Biennial and has work in the museum’s collection. “We want to build and continue to forge those relationships.”
Mehretu, who is based in New York but has frequently traveled to Los Angeles to produce prints at Gemini G.E.L., said that having the exhibition is both cities has personal significance for her. “I have a relationship with these cities,” she said, “so I’m very excited about the show happening inside these cities and in these communities that I’ve been engaged with and a part of.”
The opportunity to be able to show new pieces is also a thrill, Mehretu said, adding that she’s been “making several bodies of new work as I’ve been looking back at the work that I’ve made.”
“There will be fresh work in the show that also really relates to this moment in time, socially and politically, and also just from me making,” Mehretu added. “The work has evolved and moved and changed and shifted so much so that new work will bookend, and offer a very different perspective from, the earlier work.”