We are all conglomerations of our influences, remembrances, and fascinations but few artists have assembled them on as vast a scale as Julie Mehretu. The daughter of an Ethiopian college professor and an American Montessori teacher, Mehretu’s family fled Ethiopia in 1977 and moved to East Lansing, Michigan where her father became a professor of economic geography at Michigan State University. Mehretu’s work rapidly emerged on the world stage shortly after graduate school and it seems like she’s been a fixture on the international art scene ever since. In 2005 she won a MacArthur fellowship propelling her into the upper echelons of global biennials, A-list galleries, and multi-million dollar prices. Mehretu’s celebrity makes sense when you see her work, as it is always a joy to see – masterfully created and epic in scale. Her detailed, information-laden canvases are always delightful, cleverly composed, and clearly the work of a person that is really pulling from a multitude of ideas.
As the elevator doors open to the 5th floor of the Whitney Museum of American Art, you are immediately awestruck by the immense work, “Transcending: The New International” that opens the exhibition. The 9 x 20-foot mixed media painting is based on maps of Ethiopia’s capital city, Addis Ababa, as well as a tangle of overlapping lines composed between thin layers of beeswax. You feel compelled to explore the intricate linework over such a massive canvas, physically moving the length of the work to explore its wealth of detail. This is where the magic happens, as Mehretu’s fine linework references a flurry of sources: architectural blueprints, weather maps, musical notations, tallies, charts, flow maps, street maps, surveyance marks, comic books, graffiti, and chronologies.
Details of Julie Mehretu “Transcending: The New International“, 2003. Ink and acrylic on canvas, 107″ × 237”, Collection Walker Art Center (photo by author)
Perspectives overlap and space becomes complex in Mehretu’s paintings but larger abstracted shapes and lines define a feeling of motion, direction, and composition. The viewer is drawn into the compositions with brightly colored lines that slash across the image and larger fragments of flat color. Quantities are delimited like war paintings juxtaposed over modernist interiors. Smoke clouds emanate and drift over huge cities.
There’s a lot going on in any single painting by Julie Mehretu and frequently they reference the ways that we communicate information. In some ways, we could think of the superimposition of maps and drawn lines as the confusion of information, but Mehretu positions them dimensionally – as if the viewer could almost rotate the space of the painting in three or more dimensions to understand the layers of overlapping meaning.
Julie Mehretu, Stadia II, 2004. Ink and acrylic on canvas, 107″ × 140″ Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburg (photo by author)
“Stadia II” from 2004 is potentially Mehretu’s masterwork – a four-dimensional view of arenas, conventions, games, and stadiums bursting with color and swirling with social unity. A massive round interior structure is referenced across architectural motifs and abstracted to their common elements. You can see box seats, the oval of a track, rows of pennants, the primary colors of abstracted world flags weaving in and out of swirling zips and showers of confetti-like gales and banks of fluorescent lighting. Mehretu pulls the viewer in with convergent lines at the bottom of the canvas, and yellow, orange, and red diamonds, rectangles, and circles convey the optimism of sport and ideals. Actual logos make an appearance, signaling our commercial intentions as well as the purity of their design.
Installation view of Julie Mehretu (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, March 24-August 8, 2021).
An optimism pervades “Stadia II” in a way that other works in the retrospective may not, and as a gallery sign designates, Mehretu’s style begins to change from 2010-2018. Not only does Mehretu move away from her epic hard-edged swirls of map and architectural iconography, but the weight of global political turbulence clearly enters the artist’s concern. While certainly an element of the earlier work, the newer works in the exhibit reveal her emotional reaction to the Arab Spring and Black Lives Matter movements. Themes of mass incarceration and social justice are alluded to in recent paintings full of color and texture. What were vast landscapes in Mehretu’s older works are ultimately flatted to layers of graffiti spray in her most recent works from the last few years. The overlapping lines of engineering and informational flow morphed into hand-drawn marks of people in the here and now. I don’t personally like these paintings nearly as much, but I can certainly respect the drive that Mehretu to continue their exploration.
Julie Mehretu, Hineni (E. 3:4), 2018. Ink and acrylic on canvas, 96 × 120 in. (243.84 × 304.8 cm). Centre Pompidou, Paris, Musée national d’art moderne/Centre de création industrielle; gift of George Economou, 2019. © Julie Mehretu. Photograph by Tom Powel Imaging
One gets the sense that Mehretu is still very much on a journey, and this mid-career retrospective shows only part of the developing story. Like in our own dataviz community, we can see the importance of and reflection by Mehretu’s deeply felt humanism at work, necessitating new forms as she continues to process a world steeped in the colonial underpinnings of urban planning and the realities of systemic racial inequality.
There are many artists that the dataviz community could look to for inspiration and Julie Mehretu’s multifaceted brilliance could easily fit the bill. Her works are rigorous, tactical, almost exhausting in their detail. Her canvases are awe-inspiring in scale, architectural in scope, precise in practice, yet her mark-making is human in gesture. In Julie Mehretu you see the work of a thinker who regularly flips over the drawn page and cuts it to pieces only to find a better signal.
Jason Forrest is a data visualization designer and writer living in New York City. He is the director of the Data Visualization Lab for McKinsey and Company. In addition to being on the board of directors of the Data Visualization Society, he is also the editor-in-chief of Nightingale: The Journal of the Data Visualization Society. He writes about the intersection of culture and information design and is currently working on a book about pictorial statistics.