900 Geniuses: Julie Mehretu

Christian Sager

Photo: Goldman Sachs Mural 2 (with man), courtesy of 16 Miles of Strong on Flickr. CC BY-SA 2.0

(Every year the MacArthur Foundation names 20-30 fellows. Each is granted $500,000 for what has been unofficially called the "genius" award. To date, more than 900 individuals have been named fellows for a combination of their intellect, persistence and creativity. Stuff of Genius will focus on one of these MacArthur fellows every week, in a series called "900 Geniuses.".)

Thousands of people pass Julie Mehretu's massive 80-foot (24.384-meters) wide "Mural" every day. It hangs in the lobby of Goldman Sachs' headquarters in lower Manhattan, commissioned by the company for $5 million. As Mehretu explains it, the mural is a geometric abstraction that maps capitalist economic development. Cartographic Journal took it a step further, describing her work as "high-velocity urban charts." Instead of trying to come up with more vivid descriptions to signify her art, I recommend looking at the images included here to absorb her work yourself.

Beloved, (Cairo) - courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery, 2013
Renegade Delirium (2002) by Julie Mehretu - from private collection, courtesy of Walker Art Center

You can see now why Meheretu was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2005. Her large scale paintings are often maplike, depicting public spaces as blueprints or architectural plans combined with layers of shapes positioned purposefully to indicate themes of race, class, history and community. Meheretu uses resin, ink, acrylic and canvas as her primary tools, with intention behind every single mark. She also explores negative space by erasing large chunks of her work, leaving disintegrated empty places behind that "suggest a moment."

Photo of Julie Mehretu, courtesy of the MacArthur Foundation.

Mehretu was born in Ethiopia and moved to Michigan as a kid. She went to Kalamazoo College in Michigan and subsequently studied at the University Cheikh Anta Diop in Dakar, before earning her graduate degree from the Rhode Island School of Design. Her art has brought her to Detroit, Houston, New York and Berlin. Subsequently, Mehretu has also led educational programs while in residency, working with students from Michigan and East Africa. In a 2007 article in The New York Times, Mehretu said "she felt strongly about encouraging students to develop their own voices and providing them with a model of a successful working artist."

Julie Mehretu is an inventive artist, breaking new ground in the world of painting. Her dedication to her craft and its future shows why she has the stuff of genius.

Lots More Information

  • The Republican - masslive.com. "Goldman Sachs Group reports $3.3. billion in earnings despite looming fraud case." April 20, 2010 (Accessed online June 24, 2013) http://www.masslive.com/news/index.ssf/2010/04/goldman_sachs_group_reports_33.html
  • MacArthur Foundation. "Julie Mehretu." (Accessed online June 24, 2013). http://www.macfound.org/fellows/767/
  • Art 21 | PBS. "Julie Mehretu." (Accessed online June 24, 2013) http://www.pbs.org/art21/artists/julie-mehretu
  • Ljungberg, Christina. "Julie Mehretu's Dynamic Charting of Fluid Spaces." Cartographic Journal. Vol. 46, no. 4. Pages 308-315. November 2009
  • Sheets, Hilarie M. "Industrial Strength in the Motor City." The New York Times. November 11, 2007 (Accessed online June 24, 2013) http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/11/arts/design/11shee.html
  • Tomkins, Calvin. "Big Art, Big Money." New Yorker. Volume 86. Number 6. Pages 62-69. March 29, 2010