Julie Mehretu

Julie Mehretu

Julie Mehretu (born 1970 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia) is an artist, best known for her densely-layered abstract paintings and prints. She lives and works in New York City. Mehretu shares her New York studio with her partner, the artist, Jessica Rankin.

Life and work

Mehretu was born in Ethiopia, in 1970, the first child of an Ethiopian college professor and an American teacher. They fled the country in 1977 and moved to East Lansing, Michigan, for her father’s teaching position at Michigan State University. A graduate of East Lansing High School, Mehretu received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Kalamazoo College in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and did a junior year abroad at Cheikh Anta Diop University (UCAD) in Dakar, Senegal, then attended the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, Rhode Island, where she earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in 1997. She moved to New York in 1999.

Mehretu is known for her large-scale paintings and drawings and her technique of layering different elements and media. Her paintings are built up through layers of acrylic paint on canvas overlaid with mark-making using pencil, pen, ink and thick streams of paint. Her canvases overlay different architectural features such as columns, façades and porticoes with different geographical schema such as charts, building plans and city maps and architectural renderings for stadiums, international airports, and other public gathering hubs, seen from different perspectives, at once aerial, cross-section and isometric. Her drawings are preparatory to her large paintings, and sometimes interim between paintings.
“ I think of my abstract mark-making as a type of sign lexicon, signifier, or language for characters that hold identity and have social agency. The characters in my maps plotted, journeyed, evolved, and built civilizations. I charted, analyzed, and mapped their experience and development: their cities, their suburbs, their conflicts, and their wars. The paintings occurred in an intangible no-place: a blank terrain, an abstracted map space. As I continued to work I needed a context for the marks, the characters. By combining many types of architectural plans and drawings I tried to create a metaphoric, tectonic view of structural history. I wanted to bring my drawing into time and place. ”

Best known for large-scale abstract paintings, Mehretu has experimented with prints since graduate school at the Rhode Island School of Design, where she was enrolled in the painting and printmaking program in the mid-1990s. Her exploration of printmaking began with etching. She has completed collaborative projects at professional printmaking studios across America, among them Highpoint Editions in Minneapolis, Crown Point Press in San Francisco, and Derriere L’Etoile Studios and Burnet Editions in New York City.

Mehretu was a resident of the CORE Program, Glassell School of Art, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (1997–98) and the Artist-in-Residence Program at the Studio Museum in Harlem (2001). In 2003, the artist worked with thirty high school girls from East Africa in 2003 during a residency at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. In 2007, she led a monthlong residency program with 40 art students from Detroit public high schools. In the spring of 2007 she was the Guna S. Mundheim Visual Arts Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin.


In 2001, Mehretu participated in the exhibition Painting at the Edge of the World at the Walker Art Center. She later was one of 38 artists whose work was exhibited in the 2004-5 Carnegie International: A Final Look. She has participated in numerous group exhibitions, including one at the Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson (2000). More recently, her work has appeared in Free Style at the Studio Museum in Harlem (2001); The Americans at the Barbican Gallery in London (2001); White Cube gallery in London (2002), the Busan Biennale in Korea (2002); the 8th Baltic Triennial in Vilnius, Lithuania (2002); and Drawing Now: Eight Propositions (2002) at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Mehretu's work was also included in the "In Praise of Doubt" exhibition at the Palazzo Grassi in Venice in the summer of 2011.


Mehretu's works are held in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art. Although located in a private office building lobby, her 23' x 80' mural commissioned for the new Goldman Sachs tower in New York City (2010) is viewable from the sidewalk windows.


In 2000, Mehretu was awarded a grant from the Foundation for Contemporary Arts Grants to Artists Award. She was the recipient of the 2001 Penny McCall Award. On September 20, 2005, she was named as one of the 2005 recipients of the MacArthur Fellowship, often referred to as the "genius grant."

In 2007, while completing a residency at the American Academy in Berlin, Julie Mehretu received the 15th commission of the Deutsche Bank and Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. The body of work she created, Grey Area, was composed of six large-scale paintings, completed between 2007 and 2009 in a studio in Berlin.

Art market

Mehretu's painting Untitled 1 sold for $US1,022,500 at Sotheby's in September 2010. It's estimated value had been $600–$800,000.

Mehretu is represented by Marian Goodman Gallery in New York and by White Cube in London as well as by carlier gebauer in Berlin.

In 2010, Mehretu's work was the object of the Lehmann v. The Project Worldwide case before the New York Supreme Court. The case involved legal issues over her work and the right of first refusal contracts between her then-gallery and a collector. In return for a $75,000 loan by the collector Jean-Pierre Lehmann to the Project Gallery, made in February 2001, the gallery was to give Lehmann a right of first refusal on any work by any artist the gallery represented, and at a 30 per cent discount until the loan was repaid. According to Lehmann, the loan was primarily designed to buy access to works by Mehretu. However, the agreement between Lehmann and The Project expressly provided that four other individuals also have the right of first choice to any work by any artist represented by the gallery. The gallery sold 40 works by Mehretu during the period of the contract, and only one was offered first to Lehmann. Lehmann suspected that his agreement was not being honoured after seeing several large paintings by Mehretu belonging to other collectors in an exhibition at the Walker Art Center and sued for breach of contract. The case, eventually won by the collector, reveiled to a wider public precisely what prices and discounts galleries offer various collectors and galleries on paintings by Mehretu - information normally concealed by the art world. It also was the first case to try to enforce the right to buy contemporary art.

Selected solo exhibitions

        Julie Mehretu: Grey Area, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, NY

        Julie Mehretu: Grey Area, Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin, DE

        Julie Mehretu: City Sitings, North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, NC
        Julie Mehretu: City Sitings, Williams College Museum of Art, Williamstown, MA

        Julie Mehretu: Black City, Kunstverein Hannover, Hanover
        Julie Mehretu: Black City, Louisiana Museum, Humlebaek
        Julie Mehretu: City Sitings (traveling through 2008), The Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit

        Black City, MUSAC - Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Castilla y Léon, Léon
        Julie Mehretu – Heavy Weather, Crown Point Press, San Francisco, CA
        The Unhomely: Phantom Scenes in Global Society, 2nd International Biennial of Contemporary Art in Seville, Spain

        Drawings, The Project, New York, NY
        Currents, St Louis Art Museum, St Louis, MO

        Matrix, University of California Berkeley Art Museum, CA
        Julie Mehretu: Drawing into Painting, REDCAT, Los Angeles, CA
        Julie Mehretu: Drawing into Painting, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY
        Déjà-vu, carlier │gebauer, Berlin, Germany
        Landscape Allegories, Thomas Dane, London, UK

        Julie Mehretu: Drawing into Painting, Palm Beach Institute of Contemporary Art
        Julie Mehretu: Drawing into Painting, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis (travelling)

        Julie Mehretu: Renegade Delirium, White Cube, London, UK

        The Project, New York, NY
        Art Pace, San Antonio, TX

        Module, Project Row Houses, Houston, TX

        Barbara Davis Gallery, Houston, TX

        Paintings, Sol Kofler Gallery, Providence, RI

        Ancestral Reflections, Archive Gallery. New York, NY
        Ancestral Reflections, Hampshire College Gallery, Amherst, MA

Tagged as:

Ethiopian, artist, ethiopian artist, Julie Mehretu, abstract paintings, abstract prints, Artists, Women, Unsung Heroes, Artists


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