Art21 Extended Play

Julie Mehretu: Painting Conservator Luca Bonetti


Episode #101: Luca Bonetti leads the installation of artist Julie Mehretu’s massive painting Mural (2009) at Goldman Sachs, coordinating a team of installers and studio assistants.

Be sure to check out our recent video of Mural in Mehretu’s Berlin studio, narrated by the artist’s studio assistants (Episode #097) and stay tuned for a third video on this project, featuring Mehretu herself, to premiere on May 14th.

Last week’s New Yorker article — “Big Art, Big Money” — by Calvin Tomkins takes an incisive, behind-the-scenes look at Mehretu’s career and her journey over the past year as she wrestled with completing the largest work of her career at Goldman Sachs during the most sweeping worldwide financial crisis since the Great Depression.

Tomkins talks to many of the players that brought the work into existence, from then dealer and now MoCA Los Angeles Director Jeffrey Deitch (who led the artist search committee) to Goldman Sach’s own Timur Galen (the executive responsible for the corporate building and art commissions) about the project:

[Galen] was surprisingly candid in discussing the complexities of commissioning art that spanned the boundaries between public and private spheres. (Goldman has a substantial private collection of art works, acquired over many years and installed throughout its many different offices, but it had never before commissioned something new.) Although the building was not public, he said, Goldman had wanted to endow it with art works that would benefit the public. At one time, he indicated, the company had plans to “position” the two commissioned works more prominently within New York’s cultural community—presumably, by inviting people to see them. Why hadn’t that happened? “We would really like the work of people like Julie…to be judged on it’s own merits,” he replied carefully—with the unsaid implication that in today’s anti-Goldman climate they might not be. Fair enough, I guess. If art were judged by the company it keeps, much of the High Renaissance would go down the drain.

In turn, Tomkins questions Julie Mehretu about the context of the commission:

“It took me a long time—six months or so—to decide I wanted to do this,” Mehretu said, pulling off her cap and running a hand through her short dark curls. Mehretu is thirty-nine, friendly, and open. “What would be the reason to make a painting for a financial institution, you know? Why would that be interesting? One reason was this wall, which is so clearly visible from the outside of the building. It’s not so often that a painting has a chance to be public art. I was thinking about that and about how I could never make a painting on this scale anywhere else.”

[ … ] Knowing what we now know about Goldman Sachs, I asked Mehretu, would she have taken on the commission? “Without hesitation,” she replied. “I don’t see it as an evil institution, but as part of the larger system we all participate in. We’re all part of it. And, anyway, for me it was about making something—it was about the art.” As she had said earlier, “I was more concerned about participating in the legacy of painting. You just hope it will feel O.K. over time.”

Visible from the street, Mehretu’s Mural is located in the lobby of Goldman Sachs’s new world headquarters at 200 West Street, between Vesey and Murray streets, in Battery Park City in Lower Manhattan.

Upcoming: An exhibition of recent works will be on view as part of the exhibition Julie Mehretu: Grey Area at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York (May 14 – October 6, 2010). The 15th in a series of commissions by Deutsche Bank and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, the works were inspired by Mehretu’s time spent in Berlin. As critic Brian Dillon writes in the accompanying catalog essay: “If there is an archaeology of the recent past in Mehretu’s work, it is the archaeology of an atmosphere charged with the dust of demolition and rebuilding. There is a new grayness and indeterminacy in these paintings that it would be trite to conclude is merely melancholy or phantomic: Mehretu’s grey is rather the color of possibility, of the inchoate and unrealized. In this sense, the ruin points no longer towards the recent past but towards a potential future; the ruin passes away and comes into being at the same time.”

About the Artist: Julie Mehretu’s paintings and drawings refer to elements of mapping and architecture, achieving a calligraphic complexity that resembles turbulent atmospheres and dense social networks. Architectural renderings and aerial views of urban grids enter the work as fragments, losing their real-world specificity and challenging narrow geographic and cultural readings. The paintings’ wax-like surfaces—built up over weeks and months in thin translucent layers—have a luminous warmth and spatial depth, with formal qualities of light and space made all the more complex by Mehretu’s delicate depictions of fire, explosions, and perspectives in both two and three dimensions. Her works engage the history of nonobjective art—from Constructivism to Futurism—posing contemporary questions about the relationship between utopian impulses and abstraction.

Julie Mehretu is featured in the Season 5 (2005) episode Systems of the Art:21—Art in the Twenty-First Century television series on PBS. Watch the full episode online via iTunes (opens application).

VIDEO | Wesley Miller & Nick Ravich. Interview: Nick Ravich. Camera & Sound: Nick Ravich. Editor: Mary Ann Toman. Thanks: Luca Bonetti; Travis Fitzgerald; Goldman, Sachs, & Co.; and Harmony Murphy.