As “story maps of no location,” Julie Mehretu’s paintings endeavour to process the world around us through gestural mark-making. [1] Traces of the artist’s lived experience persist in these distant cousins to maps of the globe, trade routes, and weather patterns, despite the artist’s patterns of abstraction and obfuscation. She faced forced migration from Ethiopia to the United States during her childhood, and the flow and movement of diaspora strongly influence her identity and how she strives to communicate visually her unique topographies.

Mehretu’s deep-seated interests in global history, architectural landscapes, and personal narrative converge to form her own distinctive style of history painting. Blurring the line between abstraction and representation, she roots her monumental and intense works in her direct engagement with time, place, and a personal language of signs and symbols, all in an “attempt to put the world into the world.” [2]

From the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in 2004 to the Art Gallery of Ontario in 2020–21, key museums in our greater Buffalo/Toronto region have showcased how Mehretu’s work thoughtfully communicates with art history. Her myriad overlapping interests, as revealed in her paintings and prints, trigger direct
and insightful dialogues with past artists represent-ed in these museums’ collections, encouraging us viewers to reinterpret historical narratives on art in the present. 

...she roots her monumental and intense works in her direct engagement with time, place, and a personal language of signs and symbols...

 In 2004 Mehretu became the first artist in the history of the Albright-Knox to curate an exhibition of works from its collection, Artist’s Eye on the Collection: Julie Mehretu. She organized the installation in conjunction with her solo exhibition, Drawing into Painting, which travelled to the Albright-Knox from the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. Showcasing twelve of Mehretu’s paintings completed in 2002 and 2003, the Albright-Knox’s presentation em-bodied a sense of a three-dimensional atlas. As I go back and forth between writing this article and looking through the installation images provided by the Albright-Knox’s Digital Assets team, I can appreciate, even in documentation, how Mehretu masterfully plays with scale. While eight of her paintings are relatively small (tellingly, most of their titles start with the word “excerpt”), four large-scale works easily rival the monumental dimensions of canvases in the Albright-Knox’s storied collection of Abstract Expressionism. 

Transcending: The New International (2003), the largest painting in Drawing into Painting, most effectively signifies where the historical narrative and fictional landscape enmesh into each other. Here Mehretu applies abstract layers of mostly black ink on top of grids referencing the architecture of post-independence capitals in the African continent, portraying an internal conversation with her own subjectivity. Given Mehretu’s role as a cartographer and voyager, it’s impossible to perceive this abstraction as apolitical and detached from the human condition. 

In an essay on the artist, Elizabeth Harney muses that in her early works in particular “one can almost imagine the transformation process playing out where the compositional centre begins to implode or explode. Architectural drawings, which appear at first to provide structure, seem to fragment before one’s eyes. Structures from vastly different historical, cultural, or geographic pasts are juxtaposed, layered, fractured.” [3]

Artist’s Eye on the Collection: Julie Mehretu, 2004, installation view, Albright-Knox Art Gallery. Photo: Biff Henrich, Keystone, for the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York.
Artist’s Eye on the Collection: Julie Mehretu, 2004, installation view, Albright-Knox Art Gallery. Photo: Biff Henrich, Keystone, for the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York.

During an interview with writer Chris Clark, the artist noted how “I layer the drawings like old geographical maps. I wanted the marks to have a sense of history, a sense of time." [4] Similarly, Mehretu’s approach to mapping out the Albright-Knox’s collection not only evokes her own sense of history and time but also has become intertwined with institutional and collective memories of the Albright-Knox and Buffalo. 

A partnership relatively unique for the time between a visiting artist and museum staff, Artist’s Eye on the Collection afforded museum visitors a chance to learn more about Mehretu’s interests and, in turn, how past artistic output inspired her own paintings. Claire Schneider, who worked with the artist on the project, reflects, "Bringing Mehretu’s work to the Albright-Knox was a really natural fit, given her commitment to abstraction. What was exciting about her curatorial thought was the way it provided real depth in understanding her concern with developing her own signature language, one that relied equally on the grandeur of landscape traditions and on intimate marking." [5]

Mehretu’s curatorial contribution not only challenges notions of abstraction but also expands the conversation on the roles of museums as stewards of art history.

In collaboration with Schneider, Mehretu chose works from across the breadth of the Albright-Knox’s collection, from Albert Bierstadt’s The Marina Piccola, Capri (1859) to Kara Walker’s African/American (1998), under three different themes: History / Space / Abstraction, Artists’ Personal Languages, Intimate Works (Landscapes, Sea-scapes, Moonscapes). 

In one room, Jackson Pollock’s Convergence (1952) — a famed gem in the Albright-Knox’s collection — joined a raffish array of works such as Richard Long’s large conceptual sculpture, Santa Cruz Circle (1997), and Walker’s figural linoleum cut, African/American. Mehretu explained in the audio tour,
“In selecting the works for this room, I really wanted it to have some large pieces but a very historical sense to it — with works that were based around ideas of time and place.” 

Straddling geography and geometry, symbolism and social justice, the cross-disciplinary aspects of her curation contribute toward new insights into commonalities between art movements, like Romanticism and Abstract Expressionism, traditionally thought of as distinct. “While all the pieces were notable, the Pollock, along with Kara Walker's African/American truly stood out for their flare, originality and magnitude in modern and contemporary art,” Clark commented. “Mehretu's work maintained an original and deeply odd edge.” [6] Mehretu’s curatorial contribution not only challenges notions of abstraction but also expands the conversation on the roles of museums as stewards of art history. 

Roberto Matta’s Poly-joueurs des cartes (Card Players) (ca. 1957) and Alfred Jensen’s The Great Mystery II (1960), meanwhile, suggest Mehretu’s long-standing respect for artists who employ their own personal languages of signs and symbols in their artistic production. While Matta plays with abstraction and figuration, Jensen methodically paints a grid of visual emblems with no index for the viewer to consult. 

Mehretu noted in the accompanying audio guide, “In Matta’s Card Players this speed and this structure that’s coming about . . . there’s this kind of mystery to the painting, but it feels like it’s trying to make sense of the world, to make sense of a condition. And the same thing with the Jensen — it’s almost like an alphabet of signs and geometry as part of a larger body of work. So to me, that’s something that I’m obsessed with and immersed in, and it’s something that I wanted to try and focus a room on in the selections.”

On view only briefly before the Art Gallery of Ontario experienced its latest shutdown order in late 2020, Migrations of Lines: Julie Mehretu and Antoinette Bouzonnet-Stella perfectly contextualized the museum’s latest acquisitions of Mehretu’s work within its collection. Algorithms, Apparitions and Translations (2013) immediately captivated my attention. Displayed in a row, Mehretu’s suite of five semiabstract etchings demonstrates potent yet lyrical mark-making alongside an emphasis on collective process; the artist made the works in collaboration with master printer Greg Burnet. The abstract qualities of these works continue to muddle the histories Mehretu alludes to through her mark-making. While the intricate lines draw the viewer in for closer looking, there still remains a sense that each print refers to the artist’s embodied experience of site(s). 

Los Angeles-based curator Leslie Jones writes, “In Algorithms, Apparitions and Translations, the soft-ground marks run parallel, bending and arching in clusters like traces of erratic scratching. At once arbitrary and repetitive, the marks suggest the throes of nascent language reminiscent of prehistoric cave and stone engravings.” [7]

As part of Migrations of Lines, Mehretu’s suite was brought into conversation with another recent addition to the collection, Antoinette Bouzonnet-Stella’s The Entry of the Emperor Sigismund into Mantua (1675). Bouzonnet-Stella’s set of engravings reproduces a sixteenth-century Italian stucco frieze, tracing a novel historical continuum between the original relief sculpture and the artist’s own rendition of these classical motifs. 

The juxtaposition of these two works evinces the artists’ distinct printmaking techniques and individual experiences of relocation (Bouzonnet-Stella moved from Lyon to Paris as a teen to pursue better professional opportunities), and the pairing opens up a larger critical discussion of migration, mobility across places, and how these experiences inform Mehretu’s and Bouzonnet-Stella’s printmaking. Both artists, notably, have showcased a vignette of a journey in progress, reiterating on the level of subject how shared experiences of migration suffuse the marks we leave behind. 

The abstract qualities of these works continue to muddle the histories Mehretu alludes to through her mark-making.
Artist’s Eye on the Collection: Julie Mehretu, 2004, installation view, Albright-Knox Art Gallery. Photo: Biff Henrich, Keystone, for the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York.
Julie Mehretu (American, born 1970), Algorithms, Apparitions and Translations, 2013. Etching with aquatint, spitbite, soft ground, hardground, drypoint and engraving in black and coloured ink on paper. Plate Mark: 57.6 × 75 cm (22 11/16 × 29 1/2 in.) Art Gallery of Ontario, Purchase, with funds from the T

Alexa Greist, curator of Migrations of Line, mentions how the works “reflect the artist’s interest in migration and the marks left on the surface of the earth by human activity. . . . migration is a topic that represents the firsthand experience of so many and is part of the story of all non-Indigenous people living in Canada at some point in their personal histories.” [8]

As Greist suggests, the pairing of these two artists effectively allows me to appreciate Bouzonnet-Stella’s work in a present-day context. The exhibition attests to how contemporary art always maintains the potential to illuminate, complement, and even critique historical work. Mehretu — through the essence of her methodical thought process — can conjure newer ways of looking at the past artists and subjects.

Both as an artist and a curator, Mehretu “seems to regard History with a capital H.”[9] Her strength in affirming artists’ perspectives — effectively demonstrated in Artist’s Eye on the Collection — has introduced newer means of viewing and experiencing historical art in the present. Whether Mehretu or the museums’ staff has served in the curatorial/authorial role, the artist’s lived global experience ultimately implicates artistic precedent. Thanks to Mehretu, I can now see many artworks in museum collections in a better light. 

Antoinette Bouzonnet-Stella (French, 1641–1676), Plate 2, from The Entry of the Emperor Sigismund into Mantua, 18th Century. Engraving on paper, Sheet: 22 × 50.5 cm (8 11/16 × 19 7/8 in.). Art Gallery of Ontario, Purchase, with funds from James Lahey and Pym Buitenhuis, Christopher Birt and Yeti Agnew, and The Marjorie and Gerald Bronfman Works on Paper Endowment Fund, 2019, Photo © Art Gallery of Ontario 2019/2321.2

[1] Julie Mehretu quoted on her White Cube artist’s page, https://whitecube.com/artists/artist/julie_mehretu/.

[2] Douglas Fogle, ed., Julie Mehretu: Drawing into Painting (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 2003), 5. 

[3] Elizabeth Harney, “Reimagining Global Modernity in the Age of Neo-Liberal Patronage,” in What Was History Painting and What Is It Now?, eds. Mark Salber Phillips and Jordan Bear (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019), 242–43.

[4] Chris Clark, “Visions from an Abstract Voyager,” The Spectrum, February 4, 2004,  https://www.ubspectrum.com/article/2004/02/visions-from-an-abstract-voyager.

[5] Claire Schneider, email message to the author, March 12, 2021.  

[6] Clark, “Visions from an Abstract Voyager.”

[7] Leslie Jones, “Marks, Slowed Down: Julie Mehretu’s Intaglio Prints,” in Julie Mehretu, eds. Christine Kim and Rujeko Hockley (Munich: DelMonico Books-Prestel, 2019), 261. 

[8] Alexa Greist, “A shifting landscape,” AGO Insider, November 11, 2020, https://ago.ca/agoinsider/shifting-landscape.

[9] Harney, “Reimagining Global Modernity in the Age of Neo-Liberal Patronage,” 242. 

Writer’s Note: I wish to take a moment to thank both Claire Schneider and Kelly Carpenter — past and present staff of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery — for providing me with invaluable materials on Mehretu’s exhibitions. I could not have completed this article without Claire and Kelly’s research support. I also appreciate Alexa Greist and Wendy So of the Art Gallery of Ontario for kindly assisting me during the latest Stay-at-Home closure. 

Having lived in Buffalo in over a decade ago, William Brereton is an independent museum professional and writer based in Toronto.