Julie Mehretu: Brushes with Greatness

One of eight women artists who are storming the boys’ club.

Julie Mehretu

Julie Mehretu speaks in rapid bursts and seemingly without punctuation, her thoughts densely layered—which makes sense when you see her energetic, enormous abstract paintings, with their colorful shapes riding atop, below, and right up against detailed architectural drawings. But when asked about the grayish, more purely gestural paintings she has been making in the past year, some of which will be featured in the MoMA show, the artist, 44, is momentarily stumped. “They are more personal,” she says finally. “That makes them harder to talk about.” Whereas her previous work has mapped areas with a distinct sociopolitical history, such as Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the cartography of her inner life provides fewer talking points. “There isn’t that scaffolding. These are the aftermath of the paintings I’ve been making the past few years. They require a different kind of trust.” But, she is quick to point out, they are still a reaction to the real world—“a world that I feel is in crisis,” she adds, ticking off a list of recent catastrophes. During much of that tumultuous time, Mehretu was traveling with her kids and partner, the artist Jessica Rankin, to Germany, Brazil, and Australia, before returning home to New York in September. “The studio is where I digest this stuff,” she says.