How Julie Mehretu Creates Her Deeply Layered Abstractions Referencing Today’s Most Pressing Issues

Julie Mehretu in her Chelsea studio at work on Ghosthymn (after the Raft), 2019–21, which was created for her Whitney Museum survey.PHOTO: SARAH RENTZ

In Julie Mehretu’s spacious studio in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood, her sprawling, intricate abstract paintings hold center stage, along with the tools one would expect in the making of them: brushes, paints in a daunting array of colors, and a cherry picker that keeps her elevated at a painting’s height as she works to the music of Nina Simone, John Coltrane, Sun Ra, and Julius Eastman. A less visible tool that sits largely in the background, however, has made all the difference in her recent work: the computer.

Mehretu’s recent paintings have reached epic proportions, some stretching 25 feet wide, and the interaction between the shapes within is incredibly complex. When a painting “feels like it gets to this really heightened sense of this other form of experience,” Mehretu said in a recent video call, she takes a step back and begins photographing it, analyzing it first on her phone and then on her computer screen, where she plays around with pushing it forward, then sketches out those alterations by hand, and finally airbrushes, spray-paints, and sometimes screen-prints them directly on the canvas.

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