Monday, November 20, 2017

Beneath the Surface: Julie Mehretu in 2017

With 2017 wrapping up, I have been thinking about what might qualify as the most spectacular moment for American painting this year, for which I nominate Julie Mehretu's "Howl," her monumental commission for the lobby of SFMOMA, unveiled in June. It's a huge yet not bombastic exploration of the vast landscapes and violent history of the American West.

"Howl" installed in the lobby of the San Fransisco MoMA

As a diptych, the work, officially titled "Howl (eon), i. ii," is the single largest painting in the museum’s history. It clocks in at 1,728 square feet, spread across two 27 x 32-foot canvases, each of which weighs about 300 pounds! 

Mehretu's status as an internationally celebrated artist, the work's world-class museum setting, and its sheer outsized scale demand that anyone serious about contemporary painting give the work a look.

All I've read indicates it's hard to get the sense of them unless you experience them in person, but far be it from me to allow a little thing like that to deter me from pontification.

Vogue describes them this way: "The immense works are built up in transparent layers of visual information, ranging from the transcendent and expansive nineteenth-century Western landscapes by Frederic Edwin Church and Albert Bierstadt to current news photos of urban riots, shootings, and mass protests [these are giant, and unrecognizable, pixilated black-and-white closeups that she ink-transferred to the canvas]—overlaid with her own calligraphic brush marks. She started these paintings a few days after the 2016 presidential election and worked in an abandoned church in Harlem."

Great. So that's what the painting "is." But....

Detail from "Howl"

How are we to read this painting? According to the museum, the work probes "the competing impulses of annihilation and preservation at the heart of 19th century westward expansion, and explores how the Bay Area’s history of colonialism, capitalism, class conflict, social protest, and technological innovation have transformed the social and physical landscape." 

Mehretu's a painting rockstar and also a hero of mine. Her earlier work is a dazzling mashup of post-abstract expressionism and precision architectural draftsmanship with a contemporary political edge. Her new work is a departure as much as it is a doubling down, which seems as it should be. 

"In her highly worked paintings, Mehretu creates new narratives using abstracted images of cities, histories, wars and geographies with a frenetic mark making that for the artist becomes a way of signifying social agency as well suggesting an unravelling of a personal biography." - quoted from somewhere.

To read Howl, we have to put it in the context of the rest of contemporary art and see it in relation to "post-modern" painting (since 1945) as well as American art in general since 1850, because we're getting a critique of painting on top of what used to be called a Marxist-critical reading of America's past and present history. Yes, it's all in there, and it's what raises this work to greatness.

The work's nearest relatives, I think, are Mark Bradford and Cy Twombly. While their work is very different, all three artists have pursued a complex political and/or archetypal conceptual underlayer scored by basic, human marks: graffiti and stencils (Bradford), doodles and "scribbles" (Mehretu, Twombly). Not unlike collage-abstractionist Bradford, Mehretu is carrying forward the traditions of abstract expressionism by both extending it and grounding its language in a new cultural context.

Here's Mark Bradford (it's totally different but related in concept I think):

The Devil is Beating His Wife, billboard paper, photomechanical reproductions, permanent-wave end papers, stencils, and additional mixed media on plywood

Bradford, "Devil..." detail from above.

The following is from Saatchi online: "Mark Bradford's abstractions unite high art and popular culture as unorthodox tableaux of unequivocal beauty. Working both paint and collage, Bradford incorporates elements from his daily life into his canvases: remnants of found posters and billboards, graffitied stencils and logs, and hairdresser's permanent endpapers he collected from his other profession as a stylist. In The Devil is Beating His Wife, Bradford consolidates all these materials into a pixelised eruption of cultural cross-referencing. Built up on plywood, in sensuous layers ranging from silky and skin-like to oily and singed, Bradford offers abstraction with abc urban flair that's explosively contemporary."

For Bradford the personal-conceptual context is growing up a person of color in LA. Mehretu in her new work homes in on that same context (race) and broadens it to include historical dimensions. Mehretu implicitly critiques the history of painting and its relationship to American imperialism and identity in the work by embedding pixelated reproductions of iconic American landscape paintings literally overlaid with a deeply emotional scrim of contemporary political issues (especially race and white supremacy in the Trump era, over which "howls" her painterly protest. Mehretu says the election spurred the personal sadness and rage she's channeling here.

She asks: ‘What Does It Mean to Paint a Landscape in this Political Moment?’

I'm also haunted by this question, and it's a large part of what's driving my current work, though for somewhat different reasons than it's driving Mehretu's.

“The abolitionist movement, the Civil War, the move towards emancipation, all of these social dynamics that are a part of that narrative we don’t really talk about in regards to American landscape painting. And so what does it mean to paint a landscape and try and be an artist in this political moment?” — Julie Mehretu

As such, "Howl" stands out as a powerful visual statement, especially in a 21st century art world that often views painting as less relevant than conceptual, performance, multimedia,  and interactive installations.

Julie Mehretu at work on "Howl" in a disused church in Harlem, NYC.

"Howl" is different from Mehretu's earlier abstractions, in that here her marks are calligraphic, and not so much graffiti-like (Bradford, Twombly) as raw, expressive, and primal - willfully crude. Here is her earlier work:

Julie Mehretu, Black City, 2007 (click image to enlarge)

In 2017's grittier, more gestural "Howl," amid the tightly knitted scrawls and slashes, imagery emerges and recedes, suggesting the primacy of the spontaneous, and the emotional authenticity of the "artist's hand." 

This kind of scriptural, handwriting-like mark-making was Cy Twombly's signature style (heh). Consider Twombly's "Leda and the Swan (Rome, 1962)" for example. Twombly, who died in 2011, was an ex-pat second-generation AbEx painter (like Rauschenberg and Milton Resnick, say). While at first glance it appears to be art by a naughty child of Jackson Pollock, it is nothing of the kind.

"Leda," again like "Howl," is at first glance a palely backgrounded cloud of apparently meaningless scribbles. But closer looking sees recognizable images beginning to appear - hearts, a window....

Cy Twombly, Leda and the Swan, Rome, 1962

Given a chance, the title of course contributes to the work's meaning, and as we look again with that in mind, the whole's revealed as far from meaningless indeed. "Leda and the Swan" is a well-worn neoclassical theme: the Roman myth of Jupiter's rape of Leda (the beautiful mother of Helen, over which the Trojan war would be fought) in the animal form of a swan. The great 20th century poet William Butler Yeats, for whom art and politics were always inextricably linked, treated the theme Leda and the Swan as an archetypal cycle of violence and cultural conflict:

Leda and the Swan

A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.

How can those terrified vague fingers push
The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
And how can body, laid in that white rush,
But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?

A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.
                    Being so caught up,
So mastered by the brute blood of the air,
Did she put on his knowledge with his power 
Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?

  - W. B. Yeats1865 - 1939

Like Yeats's poem, the painting is an unflinching contemporary take on the old-world European theme - what's more, it's got arguably more energy, violence, and "truth" to the theme than any of its forebears. Western artists for hundreds of years just used the myth as an excuse for a blatant hetero-eroticism in which the female is always a passive, willing participant - of which Rubens's, below, is probably the most famous example (if only because Rubens stole the anatomy from Michelangelo's work, but that's a story for another day).

To me, Twombly's painting seen this way has almost a grim inevitability about it - How else could you so effectively portray this effed-up foundational myth of Western culture for the 20th century?

In Twombly's "Leda," everything contributes as a strong coherent meaning emerges:  the painting's whiteness becomes resonant with other whitenesses, the swan's white feathers and the marble-white Greco-Roman gleam of human flesh, scratched and clawed-at with gouging yet somehow elegant traces of gestural energy ... the whole a violent tussle of animal and human body parts (I see feathers, a talon, breasts and/or buttocks), scored by understated blood-red slashes and drips. As the MoMA catalogue entry has it: "Twombly's version of this old art-historical theme supplies no contrast of feathers and flesh but a fusion of violent energies in furiously thrashing overlays of crayon, pencil, and ruddy paint. A few recognizable signs—hearts, a phallus—fly out from this explosion, in stark contrast to the sober windowlike rectangle near the top of the painting." Could the hearts be a nod to Yeats? 

Twombly's version, as a rebuke to art history's "refined" aristocratic European renderings of the myth, is like a drawing or a narrative crashing to pieces because of its inability to contain the content's irrepressible, almost super-human power. What we took at first to be childlike insignificant "sound and fury" we can now read as a layering of time and history: brilliant, erudite, sophisticated, and emotional painting that extends and re-invigorate the western tradition.

"My line is childlike but not childish. It is very difficult to fake... to get that quality you need to project yourself into the child's line. It has to be felt." -Cy Twombly

It's that difficult line that Mehretu takes up in 2017's "Howl." I meant to discuss Mehrtetu more but ended up tackling Twombly because it took me a while to come around and see the value of his work, and it was knowing Twombly that, in my case, provided an immediate path to understanding "Howl." It would be great to go deeper into "Howl" in a future post if I can get good enough photos of it online, but I doubt it'll happen. If you're still reading this, wow, you must truly believe in painting. Keep the faith.


  1. The awesome scope of the work is highlighted in the 2nd picture down from the top of this article. Standing in front of this huge canvas is the artist holding a brush not unlike one that is used on a modest sized canvas. Quite a juxtaposition.

  2. Henri Matisse dreamt of "an art of...serenity devoid of...depressing subject matter...rather like a good armchair..." and this is why his art endures. Mehretu's work is unhappy, political and tendentious, and this is why it will not.

    1. James - thanks for your comment! Big fan of Matisse here, and I do appreciate the lightheartedness in his work! However, the way you've set this up, it's like only "comfortable" and happy art is worthwhile (will endure). Have to disagree there (Thomas Kincade anyone?) You raise an interesting point about political art. Composer John Luther Adams rightly said, "More often than not, political art fails as politics, and all too often it fails as art." I get that. I have to believe that great art (enduring art) has to transcend politics to illuminate something "enduring" about the human heart. Does Matisse? You bet. Does Picasso's ultra-political, unhappy, and tendentious "Guernica?" Absolutely yes. Same for Goya. Mehretu? Good question. I don't know the answer. How can one tell?

    2. Your response was a real pleasure. The quotation from Adams is pithy, and funny. And you make a good point in the example of "Guernica" as being both enduring and political. Perhaps we can have a short list of exceptions that prove the rule. It's just that what I sense in art which begins with a motif to the effect that America is the cause and origin of evil, is the self-hating Liberalism that infects the art world. It's tiresome. We are not all living our lives angry about the last election. Anyway, great blog you have!