Julie Mehretu in conversation with Julia Bryan-Wilson


Julie Mehretu in conversation with Julia Bryan-Wilson

Lindsey Pannor on Julie Mehretu on October 22, 2019


Julie Mehretu has already entered the canon as a contemporary painter and artist, despite having just begun curating her mid-career exhibition. She took a brief hiatus from this work in Los Angeles to fly to Berkeley and engage in conversation with our director, Julia Bryan-Wilson. The two traversed a variety of topics concerning Mehretu’s lifetime of work, including her inspirations, her processes, her negotiations of history, and living in the present time.

Throughout the conversation a set of about 250 images, which appeared to be a portion of the history which Mehretu says she “mines” in her practice, were projected in rapid-fire. They ranged from contemporary photos of tragedy including wildfires, riots, and camps of houseless people; to paintings by Francis Bacon and others; to her own works. When asked about the set as a collective, Mehretu explained that she often takes parts of marks and shapes found in such artifacts and recreates them in her own manner.

Addressing a bit of criticism concerning Mehretu’s work, the two women discussed briefly the nature of the body in Mehretu’s paintings. Though outwardly abstract, Mehretu explained that her work is not only rooted in history, but in architecture as well. Architecture, in this context, cannot be separated from the body, as it is composed simply of forms through which the body moves. Mehretu also mentioned the role of black radicalization inherent in abstraction as a form, for which her references of the body echo.

When Bryan-Wilson inquired early in their talk as to Mehretu’s relation to the timeliness of and perhaps hope inspired by her work, she pivoted to a discussion of her paintings not as assertions, but as rhetorical propositions. “As an artist, I’m trying to negotiate how I exist in this world,” Mehretu said. This negotiation, she posited, is composed of the suturing and laceration of many histories (personal and otherwise, as seen in the aforementioned images) of which she claims that none of us are extricable.

She revealed that process weighs heaviest on working from a place of visceral experience. As the art world attempts to acclimate to globalization and the way in which information is disseminated, Mehretu has been documenting this undertaking. She described her own work as a space wherein she aims to preempt the thought process, and make visible a collection of gestures which reinvent historical works in order to posit them for a new future. “The intuitive sense knows so much,” she said, retrospecting on her past work. “In essence, that’s liberation.”


Lindsey Pannor is a writer and a student of English at the University of California, Berkeley. She is interested in the mutual relationship between contemporary art and popular culture, and is in the midst of research on the topic.


Julie Mehretu is a world renowned painter, born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in 1970 who lives and works in New York City and Berlin. She received a Master’s of Fine Art with honors from The Rhode Island School of Design in 1997. Mehretu is a recipient of many awards, including the The MacArthur Award (2005) and the US Department of State Medal of Arts Award (2015). She has shown her work extensively in international and national solo and group exhibitions and is represented in public and private collections around the world. Recent projects include completing two large-scale paintings for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Atrium in September 2017, entitled HOWL eon (I, II). Currently participating in the Venice Biennale, upcoming exhibitions include Marian Goodman Gallery in New York, and a mid-career retrospective beginning at Los Angeles County Museum of Art in November 2019, and traveling to The Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, High Museum in Atlanta, and The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. She is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and is represented by Marian Goodman Gallery, New York.

More information on the past event here.