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Julie Mehretu, “Chimera”, 2013

The Universe of Julie Mehretu: “Ensemble” at Palazzo Grassi

The exhibition features transformative works by her close artistic allies—Nairy Baghramian, Huma Bhabha, Tacita Dean, David Hammons, Robin Coste Lewis, Paul Pfeiffer, and Jessica Rankin—uniting diverse voices in a harmonious dialogue of visual innovation and emotional resonance.

Julie Mehretu, widely regarded as the most influential artist of our time, has captivated the art world with her powerful abstract works that intersect history, geography, and social struggle. Her latest exhibition, “Ensemble”, unveiled at Palazzo Grassi in Venice, stands as a testament to her visionary artistry. Curated alongside Caroline Bourgeois, Chief Curator of the Pinault Collection, “Ensemble” spans twenty-five years of Mehretu’s creative exploration. The exhibition features transformative works by her close artistic allies—Nairy Baghramian, Huma Bhabha, Tacita Dean, David Hammons, Robin Coste Lewis, Paul Pfeiffer, and Jessica Rankin—uniting diverse voices in a harmonious dialogue of visual innovation and emotional resonance.

“Ensemble” is a non-chronological journey through Mehretu’s oeuvre, inviting visitors to experience her art as a series of visual echoes. This design mirrors the layered nature of her paintings, where meanings and histories coalesce into a dynamic whole. Each room offers a unique perspective, encouraging personal and multifaceted engagement with the art. The exhibition includes significant works from various periods of Mehretu’s career. Early pieces like Rise of the New Suprematists showcase her use of architectural line drawings, while later works such as Vanescere and Fragment reflect her time in Berlin, marked by fragmentary motifs and visible erasures. These works highlight Mehretu’s response to urban and historical contexts.

Mehretu’s Artistry Emerges as Social Commentary

In her recent phase, spanning 2016 to 2021, Mehretu introduces blurred, colored shapes derived from digitally manipulated press photographs. These images, emblematic of significant contemporary events, transform into abstract backgrounds, inviting projection and reinvention. Works such as Ghosthymn (after the Raft) and Conversion (S.M. del Popolo/after C.) illustrate how Mehretu reinterprets historical art to comment on present-day issues. Her vibrant palette and complex interplay of opacity and transparency reflect a world in constant flux.

“Ensemble” culminates with Mehretu’s latest works, created between 2021 and 2024, which delve into the dystopian aftermath of recent global events. Canvases such as Desire was our breastplate and Panoptes feature motifs like the omnipresent, surveillant eye, symbolizing control and resistance. These works, often drawing on traumatic events like the Capitol assault and the invasion of Ukraine, demonstrate Mehretu’s continued engagement with the socio-political landscape through abstraction and poetic ambiguity. The exhibition also includes the innovative “TRANSpaintings” series, a collaboration with Nairy Baghramian, merging painting and sculpture on translucent polyester mesh, encouraging a mobile and immersive viewing experience.

Whitewall had the privilege of sitting down with Julie Mehretu, offering a rare glimpse into the mind of one of contemporary art’s most compelling voices, to discuss the conceptual foundations of “Ensemble”, her artistic evolution, and the profound themes that permeate her work.

Portrait of Julie Mehretu Portrait of Julie Mehretu; photo by Josefina Santos for the NY Times. Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York.

WHITEWALL: First of all, many congratulations on such a powerful and profound show! How did you and Caroline Bourgeois approach curating this major retrospective, and what narrative did you aim to convey through the arrangement of your artworks?

JULIE MEHRETU: Thank you! It’s a great question, and our approach to curating this exhibition was indeed multilayered. Caroline Bourgeois first approached me about this exhibition when my survey at LACMA had just opened. She had seen the works before the quarantine and was very enthusiastic, inviting me to undertake this project at Palazzo Grassi.

Initially, I had concerns about the demands of organizing another major show, having just spent the past six years on my mid-career survey at LACMA and Whitney with Christine Y. Kim and especially given the complexities involved in managing loans and the bureaucracy for a show of that scale. Caroline reassured me, pointing out that there was plenty of my work not included in the survey show and suggesting that we could approach this exhibition differently.

For the LACMA survey, we followed a chronological timeline. However, Caroline proposed that we didn’t need to adhere to that structure for this exhibition. Instead, we could focus on relationships and thought patterns, which became a compelling way to conceptualize the show. Caroline also suggested including other artists who are significant to me or influential, which sparked my interest in the idea of community. The influence and importance of the artists I am in intimate dialogue with became a central theme.

This approach allowed the exhibition to be organic and evolving from my experiences. Instead of adhering to a strict timeline, we let the works and ideas evolve naturally, creating a “mind map” show. The exhibition showcases how different artists and their work interact with different periods of my work, forming specific types of relationships. These relationships influence my paintings, sculptures, and other forms. For example, Jessica Rankin has been a constant collaborator, Tacita Dean has made films of me. I’ve had gallery or museum shows with both artists as collaborative projects and have shared studio spaces in Berlin and New York, reflecting our intertwined histories. 

Caroline was an excellent curator, open to letting go of rigid ideas and fostering real dialogue. Our conversations shaped the exhibition, making it a dynamic and collaborative process. This flexibility and openness allowed us to create an exhibition that feels alive, interconnected, and reflective of the broader artistic community I engage with.

“The influence and importance of the artists I am in intimate dialogue with became a central theme,”

— Julie Mehretu
Installation view, “Julie Mehretu. Ensemble”, 2024 Installation view, “Julie Mehretu. Ensemble”, 2024. Palazzo Grassi, Venezia. Paintings by Julie Mehretu and sculptures by Nairy Baghramian. Photo: Marco Cappelletti. © Palazzo Grassi, Pinault Collection.

WW: “Ensemble” exhibition includes works by some of your closest artist friends. How have these collaborations and relations influenced your own artistic development?

JM: The “Ensemble” exhibition is deeply rooted in the profound and enduring relationships I’ve cultivated with my dear friends over the years. These relationships have not only enriched my artistic practice but have also provided a framework for ongoing dialogue and mutual influence.

Jessica Rankin and I met when we were both 29, right at the dawn of the new century in 2000. We were both deeply immersed in our studio practices, and I was on the verge of my first solo show. Over the nearly 25 years since then, we’ve essentially grown up together artistically. This shared journey has created an inextricable bond between us, marked by continuous support and artistic dialogue that has been instrumental in shaping my work.

Similarly, I met Paul Pfeiffer at the same time, and we exhibited together in New York. I had seen his show at the Whitney Museum prior to our meeting, and our professional paths soon intersected as we worked with the same gallery. Our friendship quickly blossomed into a rich dialogue that also included his former partner, Lawrence Chua. Despite working in different media, we co-created Denniston Hill in the Catskills and the conversations and exchanges we’ve had have been fundamental to my development. These interactions have fostered a deeper understanding of our interconnected interests, which is evident in the interview featured in the exhibition catalogue.

Nairy Baghramian, whose words are also included in the catalogue, shares a unique connection with me. Although we come from different countries and cultural backgrounds, we are both diasporic artists living in countries that provided refuge after having fled countries that experienced co-opted revolution by violent authoritarians. This shared experience of displacement has significantly informed our practices. As two women committed to our respective fields—Nairy in sculpture and myself in painting—we have engaged in numerous conversations about our work. These dialogues highlight not only the differences but also the commonalities in our approaches, enriching our understanding and practice.

The influence of these relationships is not solely about direct artistic impact but about how we collectively navigate and negotiate the world through our art. Each of us addresses similar issues and themes, albeit from different perspectives and realities. This diversity within our unity is what makes our conversations so enriching. Our practices, while distinct, are deeply intertwined through our shared experiences and ongoing dialogues, which continuously inspire and inform my own artistic journey.

“The influence of these relationships is not solely about direct artistic impact but about how we collectively navigate and negotiate the world through our art,”

— Julie Mehretu

WW: The incorporation of digitally manipulated press photographs in your recent works adds a new dimension to your artistic expression. Could you discuss the inspiration behind this shift, and how it reflects your engagement with contemporary socio-political issues?

JM: As I’ve expressed before, when I was transitioning away from working with architectural language, there was a period where my paintings became grey grounds. These pieces were composed of diagrammatic lines—horizontal and diagonal—that hinted at a rhizomic grid understructure. Prior to this phase, I also created an early blurred underpainting, which is included in the show. “Chimera”, displayed alongside David Hammons’s body prints, and one that I have lived with since before that painting, is one of the first blurred paintings we worked on. 

In “Chimera”, there was an architectural focus on Saddam Hussein’s Believers’ Palace and bunker, where he held his press events. These spaces were central to his political narratives and were heavily mediated in their presentation. I was working with the ruins of the decimated bunker, after being bombed by US, tracing their remnants and detritus into the paintings.

One day in the studio, an assistant was setting up a projector that was not fully focused, creating a blurred image. As I observed this projected image, it struck me as haunting, even more so than the actual photograph of the ruins. This sparked an idea to experiment with translating these blurred images onto the canvas. It felt as if the specters from the photo became present. 

We started working with Photoshop to blur these images further, becoming fascinated with the ghosts that emerged from them and how these spectral qualities added to the haunting nature of the work. The blurriness is influenced by the photograph’s color, time of day, and the event it captures. This approach allows for a sense of the original subject without explicitly describing it through architectural language.

I became deeply interested in this metaphorical space—a social ground where specters reside and new possibilities emerge. This exploration is about the aura that exists in the original photo, something indescribable by the photo alone, which I try to pull out in my work.

Julie Mehretu, “Chimera”, 2013 Julie Mehretu, “Chimera”, 2013. Pinault Collection. Photo: Tom Powel Imaging. Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York.

The Artist’s Intuitive Approach

WW: Your paintings often feature vibrant colors and dynamic compositions. How do you approach color theory and composition to evoke emotion and convey meaning in your artwork?

JM: A lot of the color in my paintings comes from the source photo that is blurred in the painting itself—it further emerges from the way I am painting. My approach is very intuitive; I respond to what’s happening on the canvas as well as what’s going on around me. This process is about discovery and exploration in the studio and in the media used. I try to get my head out of the way because if I get too involved in planning or determining what should happen, it starts to undermine the painting.

When I trust the knowledge I’ve gained from my experience of painting, rather than trying to push a specific outcome, that’s when I can truly invent, find, and explore within the painting and abstraction. This is the most interesting part of making the work; it becomes generative for something else. It’s a form of exploration and discovery. Working in this intuitive space, creates the possibility of emergence—something sacred that comes through the process. This emergence, this intuitive creation, is where the vibrancy and dynamic compositions find their origin.

Julie Mehretu, “TRANSpaintings”, 2023-2024 Julie Mehretu, “TRANSpaintings”, 2023-2024. Courtesy of the artist and White Cube. Installation view, “Julie Mehretu. Ensemble”, 2024, Palazzo Grassi, Venezia. Photo: Marco Cappelletti. © Palazzo Grassi, Pinault Collection.

WW: Several pieces in your exhibition pay homage to prominent figures in Black American culture. Could you discuss the significance of incorporating their narratives into your work and the message you aim to convey through these references?

JM: One of the common threads in my work is the human capacity to survive and thrive despite the myriad efforts to annihilate, extinguish, or dehumanize. There is an intrinsic experience of living and being that reinforces one’s own humanity, capability, and possibility. This resilience, this ability to continue and evolve, is something I find profoundly inspiring.

When I reference figures from Black American culture, such as John and Alice Coltrane, Don Cherry, Sun Ra, and Julius Eastman or literary and intellectual figures like Fred Moten, Jesmyn Ward, Toni Morrison and bell hooks, I am acknowledging this legacy of black radical tradition of invention, abstraction, resilience and creativity. After I moved away from using architectural language in my work, the deeper commitment to abstraction felt aligned and in continuity from the project of many of these artists of the black avant-garde. The idea that through abstraction, there is a possibility for liberation. Many of these figures believed in universalism—not necessarily as we might understand it today, but more as Fred Moten has asserted in The Universal Machine, “—consent not to be a single being”; as a form of insistence on humanity, creativity, and possibility. They created a ‘mega laboratory’ space of imagination, which I find incredibly compelling.

These issues of dehumanization are still devastatingly present in the world today. Yet, there is always survival, emergence, and invention. Despite the efforts to extinguish it, there is a relentless force of creativity and evolution. That’s what my work aims to capture and celebrate: this indomitable spirit that keeps evolving and creating, nonetheless.

“One of the common threads in my work is the human capacity to survive and thrive despite the myriad efforts to annihilate, extinguish, or dehumanize,”

— Julie Mehretu
Julie Mehretu. “Black City”, 2007. Julie Mehretu. “Black City”, 2007. Pinault Collection. Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York.

WW: Printmaking has played a decisive role in your practice. How do these techniques influence your canvases, and what do you find most compelling about working with print?

JM: Prints have been crucial to my practice since graduate school, where I first learned about and got involved in printmaking. It all began with a needle on a very small copper plate, and from there, a unique language evolved. This foundation in printmaking has continued to influence my work significantly.

Throughout my career, I’ve been fortunate to collaborate with amazing master printers. Each printer brings something unique to the process—whether it’s etching a plate, utilizing various technologies, or inking with different colors. This collaborative nature of printmaking is akin to a musician layering lyrics over a producer’s beats. It’s a dynamic exchange that takes me outside my usual studio environment and into a printshop, allowing me to explore new dimensions of my practice.

Printmaking offers a different kind of practice and sensibility. For instance, my initial explorations with color began in the print studio. Working with printers, I learned how to change the color of marks and grounds, a skill that I then brought back to my work. The ability to layer, erase, or modify elements in printmaking—something not always possible in painting—opens up new ways of thinking and working. You can remove or adjust layers, or even take out an entire plate. This flexibility is unique to printmaking and allows for trial and error, leading to moments of discovery that are both exciting and educational.

Moreover, printmaking pushes me to step outside of myself and embrace unexpected outcomes. These experiences in the printshop often lead to new approaches and ideas that I can integrate into my canvases. In essence, printmaking not only complements but also enhances my painting practice, enriching it with techniques and insights that I might not have discovered otherwise.

Julie Mehretu, “Among the Multitude XIII”, 2021-2022 Julie Mehretu, “Among the Multitude XIII”, 2021-2022. Private Collection. Photo: Tom Powel Imaging. Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York.

A Spirit of Unity Unfolds in “Ensemble”

WW: As viewers navigate through “Ensemble”, what do you hope they take away from the experience, and what conversations or reflections do you hope your artwork sparks in the broader cultural discourse?

JM: “Ensemble” has been an immensely rewarding experience, particularly because it brought together my close artist friends. Nearly all of them attended the opening and participated in the installation process, furthering our evolving, enriching conversations. For instance, Tacita Dean and I are planning another project together, Nairy Baghramian and I are exploring several ideas, and Jessica Rankin and I are discussing future collaborations. What truly stands out about “Ensemble” is the time we spent together—traveling, being present, and continuing these dialogues. The spirit of unity in this world, at this time, is central to the exhibition.

I hope viewers take away a profound sense of shared experience and collective resilience. We are all navigating the complexities of our current reality, witnessing events and phenomena that shape our world in unprecedented ways. 

The conversations I hope to spark emphasize the importance of community, collaboration, and the interconnectedness of our lives and practices. By engaging with the works in “Ensemble”, I hope viewers will find the resonances in the relations of the works. Ultimately, “Ensemble” is about study, learning, love, liberation, and inspiration through our collective lives, and vital conversations of aesthetics, politics, love and laughter. 

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