Belatedly, my piece on Julie Mehretu’s Guggenheim show, from the Guardian last year.
Julie Mehretu is a connoisseur of ruin. Showing me around her vast ex-industrial studio in Berlin earlier this year, she revealed but a fraction of the archive of dereliction that has informed her latest suite of paintings, currently on show at the Deutsche Guggenheim. Among the artist’s carefully curated source materials for the exhibition, entitled Grey Area, were academic volumes on the ruin aesthetics of the Romantic period, images of the aftermath of the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, photographs of rubble along the Liffey quays in Dublin in 1916 and aerial shots of the site of the World Trade Centre. Photocopied fragments of the Nazis’ coastal defences in France rhymed with chunks of spalled concrete in contemporary Detroit, bombed-out streets in Baghdad with the lunar-grey desert of postwar Berlin. Mehretu seemed to have amassed a dismal museum of destruction – arrayed in neat piles and slipped into plastic folders – that spanned a century and more of war, economic collapse and natural disaster.
In contrast with this enervated atlas of historical woe, the energy by which such images become part of Mehretu’s work is prodigious. At the time of my visit, numerous assistants were perched on hydraulic platforms, painstakingly rendering on canvas schematic versions of photographs from the painter’s collection. Translating the source images into huge architectural drawings is just one stage in the production of a Mehretu painting. The works evolve over many months of drawing, painting and polishing; they are palimpsests of a sort, the first layers of paint, and then the drawings, slowly receding as she attacks the initial architectonic structure with violent, sinuous and expansive gestures. And then there’s the matter of scale: Mehretu’s works are both minutely detailed and enormous, requiring complex resources in the studio and, eventually, considerable movement on the part of the viewer. A painting completed around the same time as the Guggenheim suite, and destined for the new Goldman Sachs building in New York, was recently removed from the studio via the roof, in five pieces. The seven works inGrey Area are more modest in scale, but still imposing, at just over 3m by 4m each.
Sheer expanse of canvas, however, is hardly the point. Rather, Mehretu’s art is precisely concerned with scale itself; it’s about the tracts of time and space colonised by modernity, be it in the form of economics, infrastructure, urban design or military operations. Mehretu traces such interests to her early life. She was born in 1970 in Addis Ababa, to an Ethiopian father and American mother; the family left when she was seven. She has since felt, living mostly in the US, that they had fled a country violently deprived (by war, corruption and tyranny) of its potential for modernisation, even for a type of utopianism, that was embodied in the house that her father had recently built there. Her mature paintings evince an ambivalent attitude to the substance of the modern city and the conduits that link it to globalised capital. On the one hand, hers is a vision of the metropolis as a place of explosive becoming – the paintings seem enthralled by street patterns, towers, arcades and stadiums. On the other, the profusion of architectural forms starts to look already like a form of hazy ruin, punctuated here and there by motifs and symbols that recall the logos of global corporations.
Mehretu has spent the best part of two years living in Berlin while preparing the Guggenheim show, and the paintings in Grey Arearespond avowedly – if at times obliquely – to the fabric and history of the city. Berlin could not be more palimpsestic if it tried. (Actually, it is trying. The long-running furore over the demolition of the GDR-era Palace of the Republic and its mooted replacement by a replica of the baroque schloss that it supplanted is just one example of the city’s continued architectural reinvention.) The destruction wrought during the second world war, the still extant evidence of the Berlin wall, the colourful blare of commerce and recent efforts at historical reconstruction: all of it makes for a city that feels especially erased and overwritten, a place whose disparate histories Mehretu somehow manages to outline in one painterly sweep.
She does it, in a painting titled Berliner Plätze, by turning to a version of Berlin that never really existed: a uniform urban fabric that would complete Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s remodelling of the city in the early 19th century. The painting shows a hugely complex and indeterminate architectural mass, seemingly bisected and mirrored along a vague horizon: a wavering, pallid and fantastical cityscape. The drawings (overlain to the point of illegibility) that make up the structure are based on early-20th-century photographs of the city’s wide and placid avenues and squares. But these have been invaded in the original photographs by trams, automobiles and telegraph cables; Mehretu gives us a city that might have been – built only of pristine façades. But even that, pursued to its conclusion, becomes chaotic and unreadable.
Something similar occurs in Atlantic Wall. Here the architectural forms can hardly be made out at all, such is their meticulous involution. To add to the viewer’s confusion, in this painting the drawn layer has been almost obscured by subsequent swarms of abstract painted marks, and the whole composition is bruised here and there with faint washes of red, yellow and blue. The source imagery for the painting comes fromBunker Archaeology, Paul Virilio’s celebrated study of the ruins of the German coastal defences, first published in 1975. In Mehretu’s painting it’s the angular interiors (made abstract in her assistants’ drawings) of the bunkers that bristle across the canvas like snipers’ sight-lines. The only solid thing in the picture is a five-sided mass of pure grey in the upper left corner.
The paintings in the Guggenheim exhibition were conceived in the last months of the Bush era and completed at a time when optimism about the Obama administration was being sorely tested. When I met her in April, Mehretu was still thrilled by the election result, and keen to allow some of the hope she felt to influence her unfinished paintings. Still, the most charged historical reference in the show is to the early days of the Iraq war. Believer’s Palace adverts to an ostensible palace of Saddam Hussein’s: actually a comprehensive bunker complex that mostly survived the wreckage of its decorative upper storeys. Like much of Mehretu’s work, the painting points to the history of architectural hubris – the way that outsize buildings, as WG Sebald wrote in Austerlitz, “cast the shadow of their own destruction before them” – but also to the tenacity of material remains and memories.
It’s easy to conclude that Mehretu makes history paintings of a sort, intricate tableaux of the recent geopolitical past. But that would be to ignore her commitment to painting as such, and to miss the extraordinary graphic transformations that her source images undergo. At the Deutsche Guggenheim, it’s a painting titled Middle Grey that best elaborates her purely visual ambition. Buried somewhere at the pale heart of the picture are the source drawings, but the canvas has erupted on several other planes at the same time. An immense variety of lines, dots, lozenges, half-figurative hints and starkly abstract shapes radiate from the mysterious centre; here and there they come together to form clumps and crowds, like sporadic settlements in some alien cartography. A painting such as Middle Grey is in part an homage to modernism; there are reminders, especially, of Kandinsky and Malevich in the marks that hover and surge on the canvas.
The artist thinks of these traces, and the more solid glyphs and icons that dot her earlier paintings, as “characters”. Among the innovations in the Middle Grey pictures is Mehretu’s new tendency to erase portions of the painting, whether architectural forms or more subjective actors in her work’s drama. Such disappearances seem melancholy at first, as if some aspect of historical witness were being vanished. But what they leave behind, typically, is a pale patch of grey: a void waiting to be refilled – and grey, as these paintings also prove, is the colour of potential, the colour of hope.