As evidenced by this year’s exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art (which started at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art), Julie Mehretu has established herself as one of the most accomplished artists in the world and she is just getting started. . Having previously been named one of Time Magazine’s most influential people, in addition to receiving a MacArthur Genius Fellowship, Mehretu is on an inspiring artistic trajectory. Most recently, with internationally renowned artist Kehinde Wiley, she collaborated with American Express on their redesigned platinum card design. This year also marks the beginning of American Express’s multi-year engagement and partnership with the Studio Museum in Harlem, an institution recognized worldwide for advancing the work of visual artists from African and Afro-Latinx communities through its program of artist in residence. , from which Mehretu graduated. We caught up with Mehretu during Miami Art Week 2021 to discuss radical imagination and how art can change the world.
Can you tell us a bit about developing your style and artistic voice, and how does that play into the way you produce your work?
It took a long time. It’s really a slow process of developing a language, like a visual language that can really be something that works in the language of the history of abstraction, but also becomes something else and can be. not necessarily brand new, but can deal with new content and language built to support something.
In abstraction, there are a lot of things that I can communicate that are visceral and felt, but for which we have no language for
I think there are a lot of clear events in the world that have informed who I am and who we all are, which really inform how I do my job and how I think about my job. I work in abstraction because I think in abstraction there are a lot of things that I can communicate that are visceral and felt, but for which we have no language, for which we have no words. This is my approach to doing the paintings.
What do you think has been your defining moment so far? When did you know you were an artist? When did you start to call yourself an artist?
I’ve always taken art classes, always done art, all my life, ever since I was very, very young. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do but I didn’t know you could have a life doing art until I was older. I grew up in the Midwest. We did not have contemporary art museums. We didn’t have what you have in the big cities. Now you do. They are all finished. We have an amazing museum in my hometown, but we didn’t have one when I was young, so we didn’t have contemporary artists. We only had historical artists to refer to. And so, I’ve always done art, I’ve always wanted to do it, but I didn’t really consider myself to be a practicing artistâ¦ I guess that’s not true. I guess I always thought of myself as an artist, but it wasn’t until later that I thought I could actually make a living.
I came to the end of the 90s. It was after you had that intense, queer and BIPOC push towards a different form of identity politics. My generation was before the beneficiaries of the work that the generation before us had really pushed.
Many guardians of the art world have been and continue to be older white males. Can you tell us about some of the hurdles you faced in getting to where you are at, how you overcame them, and what the art world can do to improve these things for the next generation or the next group of people? emerging artists?
I think things are really different from when I started and when I was working, but I think even when I was starting and working things were very different from previous generations. The previous generations, they finally received their due. When artists were making and starting in the ’60s and’ 50s, when you had the explosion of American modernism, a lot of black artists weren’t necessarily included in the canon or in this historical narrative, although they were making art. I think you are finally seeing their impact. Lots of different artists who have worked, well now you see it changing and how they are viewed in canon.
I think for me I got to the end of the 90s and that was after Act Up. It was after you had this intense, queer and BIPOC push towards a different form of identity politics. My generation came out after that. We were the beneficiaries of the work that the generation before had really pushed us.
Who are the artists who helped you find direction or pushed you forward?
This list is long and complicated, and it dates back 500 years. I think the artists that are really important to me now have always been very important to me – artists like David Hammonds, Adrian Piper were really important to me when I was younger. And then, I was also interested in painters like Cy Twombly. It was a very big mix. Joe Mitchell was someone who interested me. Oddly, Elizabeth Murray was another artist. These are just different examples, and while I found some of this work to be complicated, I was interested in the possibility of what they were pushing as artists.
You were the recipient of a MacArthur Fellow. How was it ?
Shocking. It was so shocking. I will never forget where I was when I got the phone call. I was in Minneapolis there with my young son and my ex-wife and she was getting ready for an exhibit. While she was getting ready for an exhibition, we were staying with a person who was custodian of where she was showing. I was in their office and I got this call from MacArthur, and they wanted to take a picture over there in Minneapolis.
Did they just send someone to find you?
Take a photo that day. Yes.
Can you tell us a bit about what happened next?
I think what he has done is what has been going on continuously throughout my career, which is to get a little bit of support and that support propels the work and propels the ability to being able to really think creatively and push more stuff. I can tell you that I wouldn’t be able to do what I do without having had tremendous support in the past and that’s what MacArthur offered me. Put some breeze in the sails and it allowed me to really push and do, and not have to worry about resources. I had a small family and it happened at a good time.
What is one of the main messages that you try to get across in your work and what do you hope people take away from your art?
Just the possibilities of radical imaginative thinking, and that we can imagine other collective worlds. That we can think differently about the world we live in. And I hope you have a visceral physical reaction or response to the painting that is somewhat transformative. You cannot have a transformation without a radical imagination.
Tell us about your collaboration with AMEX and how it came to fruition. What did you think behind the reinvented platinum card?
I thought about agents who want to do things for artists who are trying to change cultures – I think all artists do, to be honest, but their support for black artists and BIPOC artists, queer artists and to artists who have traditionally been seen as marginalized at the heart of your historic art world. I think you see a big change in what makes up that dynamic and AMEX has really been a champion of it. I am honored that they have come to me. It has become an interesting type of proposal and I must say I am really struck by their support for the Studio Museum and other programs. Their discussion with me also came from there. They provided good support to my non-profit organization, which I co-founded with two other collaborators. It was also very surprising to be able to have some significant support for that. So it became a really interesting collaborative conversation.
From MacArthur to one of Time’s most influential people, what’s next?
I work on a bunch of different projects, different ideas, explore different materials, work with different materials. But more than anything, it’s really trying to stay inside the work, evolve the work, do paintings that I can’t imagine at the moment, and marvel at something else. It sounds like a long period of time and a great career, but it’s only been 20 years or so, so there’s a lifetime of work to be done. There are a lot of artists who have lived a lot longer and done a lot more work, so I have a lot of catching up to do.
Image of the hero by Bryan Bedder / Getty Images for American Express