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Julie Mehretu Photo

Julie Mehretu

Ethiopian-American Painter, Draughtsman, and Printmaker

Born: 1970 - Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Julie Mehretu Timeline
I think of my abstract mark-making as a type of sign lexicon, signifier, or language for characters that hold identity and have social agency.
Julie Mehretu Signature

Summary of Julie Mehretu

Contemporary artist Julie Mehretu's extraordinarily grand scale works examine our communal connections with place and identity through abstracted landscapes rife with complexity. Her work considers the sociopolitical history of specific locations via multi-layered and wildly chaotic mark-making alluding to architecture, geography, topography, autobiography, and iconography. These investigations culminate in radically innovative self-portraits of myriad spaces alongside our human intrusions into, and engagement with them.


  • Mehretu's impetus to explore our associations with place stems from her need to process real world events. By creating her own investigative space on the canvas where her feelings can play themselves out through art, she invites viewers to think about the past, present and future of various locations in ephemeral, cultural, emotional, and physical ways.
  • The artist's work is noted for its signature visual language of dots, lines, symbols, and shapes indicative of the type of visual experience one has when looking down at the world from an aerial perspective. She coins these amalgamations "communities" and they inform her signature visual language in much the same way as a cartographer relies on map-making marks.
  • Mehretu's abstracted "maps" bring geography, culture, history, and politics together in an entirely new way, allowing for distinct visual autobiographies of any given location. Regardless of any particular identifiers, her artistic terrains evoke a hybrid of past and present that is perpetually in flux, creatively conveying our contemporary world as one of constant dynamism, change, erasure, and renewal.
  • The intricate nature of Mehretu's work involves hours of researching source material relevant to place including architectural imagery, maps, charts, historical and contemporary logos and signage, and historical photographs. This process is further lengthened by the act of physically making the large scale work, built up of a significant number of layers.

Biography of Julie Mehretu

Julie Mehretu Life and Legacy

Artist Daniel Gerwin has described Mehretu’s work as “awe-inspiring, an informational sublime, a 21st-century twist on the artistic tradition.”

Important Art by Julie Mehretu

Empirical Construction, Istanbul (2003)

At the time of its making, Empirical Construction, Istanbul was one of Mehretu's largest works, at 10 x 15 feet, and the only one based on a single city. The painting reads as an explosion from a central point, which can be identified as a domed building, likely the Hagia Sophia - a former Eastern Orthodox church, later an Ottoman imperial mosque, and now a museum. The Hagia Sophia perhaps epitomizes the coming together of cultures: the capacity of Istanbul's architecture to reflect the historic influences of the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman empires, as well as its unique position bridging Europe and Asia.

Against this background of its ancient past, the modernity and energy of the city comes across in bright colors and graphic shapes, arranged in a whirlwind. The whole is typical of Mehretu's interest in the transforming city. Some critics, however, read the dynamism in which the city is depicted, almost as if engulfed by a tornado, as a warning. According to MoMA, "The mad profusion of chaotic information provides alarming signs of an out-of-control city in a state of emergency."

The painting is made up of layers, as is again typical of Mehretu's work. The first comprises detailed architectural drawings of the Old City of Istanbul. The second consists of abstract marks made with ink, and then a top layer of brightly colored shapes and lines reminiscent of flags and corporate logos. Identifiable motifs include the star and crescent and Arabic calligraphy. For artist and writer Julia Clift, the combination of these layers describes both the human and the urban condition, upon which various forces (such as our emotions, religion, and the influence of corporations) impact even as they work within, an organized and intricate structure.

Elements from Empirical Construction, Istanbul, such as the flag motifs, went on to inform Mehretu's Stadia series of the following year. The series explores ideas of nationalism and public spectacle, and is visually similar to Empirical Construction, Istanbul.

Grey Area (2007-9)

Grey Area is a series of seven, predominantly monochrome, large-scale paintings, commissioned by the Deutsche Guggenheim and exhibited in New York in 2010. The paintings explore Mehretu's interest in the generation and destruction of the urban landscape, in which can be found the evidence and traces of lived history. The paintings were inspired to a large extent by Berlin, the city in which Mehretu created the works while undertaking a six-month residency. However, the artist also references other cities in a state of transformation, such as those affected by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The paintings in Grey Area have an under-layer of detailed drawing that demands the viewer's close attention if it is to be recognized and appreciated. This is more dominant in Grey Area than in other works by the artist, which are more colorful and have more emphasis on abstract geometric shapes. Accordingly, there was a large amount of precise architectural drawing involved in the making of the paintings.

The source material for these drawings includes the facades of nineteenth-century German buildings that were destroyed during World War II, a photograph of the bombed United Nations headquarters in Baghdad, an aerial image of the World Trade Center site after the 9/11 attacks, and dilapidated buildings near Mehretu's childhood home. On top of the drawings, Mehretu has added marks in ink and acrylic, but in places, these have been erased.

According to the Guggenheim, the Grey Area paintings "meditate on the idea of the modern ruin." The art historian Sue Scott has said of the series, "In these somber, simplified tonal paintings ... one gets the sense of buildings in the process of disappearing, much like the history of the city she was depicting." As such, there is a connection between Mehretu's artistic process of adding and taking away, and the impact of conflict on the urban environment, whereby cultural heritage might be successively built up and destroyed.

In Mehretu's paintings, as in landscapes of conflict, absences - areas of destruction and erasure - are as significant as areas where there is a lot of visual interest. The titles of the individual paintings, for example Vanescere [Disappearance] (2007) and Fragment (2008-09), are perhaps indicative of this thought process, while the name of the series "Grey Area" fittingly refers to a state that is shifting or difficult to define.

Mural (2010)

Mural is an 80x23 foot painting located at the entrance lobby of the Goldman Sachs tower in lower Manhattan, commissioned by the firm in 2007. Mehretu took six months to decide that she would take on the project, as she had many exhibition commitments at that time. However her mind was made up during a six-month residency at the American Academy in Berlin, during which she was working on the Grey Area series of paintings (2007-9), and developed a new technique of selectively erasing her work in order to reveal the layers of drawing and painting beneath.

In Mural, Mehretu pledged to deliver "the layered confluences and contradictions of the world economy in a mural." As is common with Mehretu's work, the painting comprises multiple layers. The bottom layer is made up of architectural drawings that relate to finance, including an early Massachusetts bank, the New Orleans cotton exchange, the façade of the New York Stock Exchange, and a market gate from the ancient Greek city of Miletus. On top are geometric shapes of various sizes and vibrant colors, positioned along the canvas in a sweeping motion. The final layer - completed during two weeks spent re-contemplating the painting - is made up of small calligraphic black marks, arranged in formations that resemble moving crowds. The whole appears to evoke the flux of economic activity on a city with the directional arrangement of marks becoming coherent with the entrance into the building in which it was located, suggestive, perhaps, of ambition and progress.

As curator and writer Lori Zimmer points out, some viewers and critics take exception to Mural on account of its association with Goldman Sachs and, related to this, the high value of the commission ($5 million - of which around 80% was reportedly spent on fabrication). In the artist's view, however, we are all participants of the same capitalist system as Goldman Sachs. She does not see the bank as an "evil institution," nor did its involvement play a part in her decision to make the work. Rather, Mehretu was attracted by the particular space and the opportunity to make work at this scale.

The artist has described Mural as "bringing all my past work together and taking it to a new place." Furthermore, she said that "Working on that scale taught me a lot ... and it shifted something in my understanding of abstraction." She was also interested in the potential for the painting to become public art. Mural is positioned along the entrance route for employees and is also visible from the approaching streets, due to the building's glass facade. She worked closely with the architect of the Goldman Sachs building, Henry Cobb, who was enthusiastic about the role that art might play within it: "We both wanted the painting to completely fill the wall - to become the wall."

Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Julie Mehretu
Influenced by Artist
Friends & Personal Connections
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    Michael Young
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    Lawrence Chua
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    Beth Stryker
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    Tacita Dean
Movements & Ideas
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    Jessica Rankin
Friends & Personal Connections
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    Jessica Rankin
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    Tacita Dean
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    Jochen Neurath
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    Jason Moran
Movements & Ideas
Open Influences
Close Influences

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Content compiled and written by Dawn Kanter

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kimberly Nichols

"Julie Mehretu Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Dawn Kanter
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kimberly Nichols
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First published on 25 Feb 2020. Updated and modified regularly
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