Julie Mehretu at The Guggenheim Museum

Atlantic Wall, 2008-09

Review by Jill Conner

In November 2007 Julie Mehretu appeared on a panel held at Carnegie Hall titled, “Canvas Berlin: Europe’s New Capital of the Visual Arts,” where she expressed a newfound amazement with a city that has been legendary for its history of prolific artists, intellectuals but most of all anti-Semitism. As part of the “Berlin in Lights,”-festival, this panel attempted to clear the air and bring renewed visibility to this historically volatile city, a characteristic that surfaced in the diaries of Harry Graf Kessler, first published in 1971 with the same title. Unlike American abstract paintings which are visually weighted down by the density of the medium, Julie Mehretu has constructed different notions of space, similar to New Objectivity paintings that initially appeared at the Guggenheim when it first opened in 1959. Set within one of the museum’s small side galleries, Mehretu’s paintings immediately wall the viewer into a small space while setting them free, visually. Each painting is 10-feet by 14-feet and pulls one into the scope of illusionistic space, one that is so random such that light and movement work together and entirely skirt metaphor.

“Fragment,” (2008-09) for instance, features a swirl of black and gray clouds that burst out from the intricate line- and lattice-work seen below. Slight outlines of architectural structures appear in the margins but their skeletal forms are entirely secondary, an afterthought. On the other hand, “Berliner Plätze,” (2008-09) captures a layered, terraced and woven image of various motley stone buildings that populate each one of this city’s famous gathering points. Unlike most urban centers, the metropolis of Berlin consists of many, speaking not only to its vast population but its character of complexity.

“Atlantic Wall,” (2008-09) reveals an even more dense selection of markings that tag, cross-out, highlight and deconstruct the subject all at once. “Believer’s Palace,” (2008-09) and “Notations,” (2009) are less colorful and carry a dense gray-scale. However both reflect an intensity that surpasses the others, confirming that the subject of these Berlin-inspired paintings is that of construction and destruction, a dichotomous relationship that is never reconciled. “Middle Gray,” (2007-09) rounds out this small suite and, as the oldest, reflects more of the arabesques and color palette that is characteristic of Mehretu’s style.

In the Spring of 2007, Mehretu was awarded the Guna S. Mundheim Visual Arts Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin which led the artist into a two-year investigation of the city as well as its space, history and people that ultimately culminated in “Grey Area,” a series of six paintings that premiered at the Deutsche Guggenheim in October 2009 before traveling to New York City in the Spring on 2010. Berlin is a complicated city for too many reasons to name. The 1927 silent film titled, “Berlin: Symphony of a Great City,” attempted to capture this Post World War I metropolis as one that was still very much connected to the world, an international hub where many desired to travel to and from. But that was six years before Germany’s decade-long fascist era, one that nearly eliminated the city’s prolific history. Now that the German government has relocated its headquarters to Berlin, along with a handful of curious artists, intellectuals and voyeurs, Mehretu suggests that this can be done again, successfully.


Anonymous said…
Nice blog Jill! I've been looking for something more about what is going on in the world of art, and so far, this is my favorite. I'm looking forward to more!