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Julie Mehretu

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Julie Mehretu on Her Influences, Auction Pressure and New Paintings
By ROBIN POGREBIN 

At first glance, the paintings on the walls may not look all that different from what Julie Mehretu has done before. There are the marks, the layering, the allusions to current events.

But walking through her show, which opened last week at Marian Goodman Gallery on West 57th Street, Ms. Mehretu said that the paintings represent something of a radical departure.

Gone are the traces of architectural drawings and the slashes of color. These 13 large paintings — all but one of which were made in the last year — are largely gray, less landscape-oriented, more urgent.

“In the beginning, the work was pictorial — there was a line of hope,” Ms. Goodman said. “Things have turned so dark now. The world is a much more harrowing place, and it’s reflected in the work.”

“It took a lot of courage to do this, to completely change gears,” she added, “this feeling of wanting to deepen her human commitment and awareness.”

In connection with the exhibition — “Hoodnyx, Voodoo and Stelae,” which runs through Oct. 29 — the gallery will publish a monograph in November of Ms. Mehretu’s recent work, featuring a new essay by the artist Glenn Ligon.

The gallery is also showing in its third-floor project space a new group of Ms. Mehretu’s drawings alongside her six-part photogravure and etching, “Epigraph, Damascus, 2016.”

On a recent afternoon, Ms. Mehretu talked about what informed her current series of paintings, how she went about making them and what it feels like to send this body of work out into the world all at once. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.

An evolution:

The orientation has shifted. They reference geometric abstraction — or the history of abstract painting — where the landscape is taken out of the conversation. But they also have moments that feel like writing and the emergence of body parts that somehow come together but then disappear.

Playing with materials:

You have parts of them that could suggest a computer-type language, so there’s some hard-edged abstraction, but that’s very rare. Mostly it’s with the mark — with the brush, with the towel, with fingers, with spray paint, with screens.

Mapping out the marks:

I have to get into a place to make them. There is nothing planned. A lot of times I can go too far and have to pull everything back out and have to work back into it.

Knowing when a work is finished:

There is this kind of crazy moment when they haunt and stall you. There might be parts that keep calling you to change them, but there’s a sense of arrival. It’s like when you finally focus a picture on your phone. And some of them never become that crisp, and sometimes it really is that crisp. That’s the experience you go after. It’s a searching, a mining.

‘Conjured Parts’ series:

Each one has a subtitle — “heart,” “eye,” “tongues.” I named them after body parts. There’s nothing didactic; there’s no explanation or answer. But I hope there’s a time-based experience that shifts an individual looking at them.

Drawing on the real world:

Several of them are photos from Aleppo, [Syria]; there’s one that’s of Ferguson, [Mo.]; there are others that did not make it into the show — Gaza, for example. I was interested in, when you blur these photographs — if you removed all legible information — it still had this almost haunting dynamic taking place, this apparition within the blurred aspect of darks and lights.

Quoting artistic influences:

You can see handprints, which go back from prehistoric times through to David Hammons or Yves Klein. You can go from graffiti gestures that you see on the trains in New York in the ’80s to Christopher Wool paintings to Huma Bhabha sculpture. You can find certain types of shaky marks that remind you of Picasso, but you can also think about Philip Guston. Many of us are constantly quoting and using these forms of mark making and language in painting. Albert Oehlen is another person who really plays with quotations of many forms.

Her hands only:

In previous paintings, I have had assistants really involved in the architectural tracing and drawing, but these are all myself.

Cutting-room floor:

I have more in the studio that we didn’t show, more that I didn’t finish, and one painting that really didn’t work, that I overworked. This show, in its final manifestation, is not exactly the show that I had planned or envisioned, and that’s because of the way the paintings evolved.

A $4.6 million sale:

Auction prices put a lot of pressure on the artist. Every time something like that happens, I feel a little bit like: “Why did you sell that? What’s going on here?”

On letting go:

This was the most emotionally difficult show to me. There was this intense vitality in the studio; you’d walk in and turn on the lights, and all these paintings were chatting with each other. And when all the paintings leave, the walls are bare.