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Julie Mehretu: Portals

Internationally renowned contemporary artist curates an exhibition from the CMA’s collections
Emily Liebert, Curator of Contemporary Art
October 27, 2023

Julie Mehretu


On the occasion of FRONT 2022, Julie Mehretu: Portals offers a fresh perspective on the Cleveland Museum of Art’s encyclopedic collections through an artist’s eyes. This exhibition, the first of its kind at the CMA, integrates paintings by Julie Mehretu with works from the museum’s collections that Mehretu has selected and curated within the gallery. Spanning a range of cultures, histories, and mediums, the works she has chosen reflect images and ideas that inspire her own artistic practice and process. 

Mehretu is one of the leading artists of her generation. Born in Ethiopia in 1970, she grew up in Michigan and now lives in New York. Her art is abstract, but it is always firmly rooted in the recognizable world. Each work—whether a painting, a drawing, or a print—stems from her deep engagement with history, politics, and the social life unfolding outside her studio walls. Mehretu’s early paintings explore architectural structures and systems of mapping. In her recent work, regard for the body—its forms and passages through the world—resides at the center. Throughout, her work is distinguished by a density created through overlapping layers of ideas, source materials, and varied modes of mark making. These characteristics of Mehretu’s art are amplified throughout this exhibition.

statue of buddha
Seated Buddha AD 400–430. Northern India, Uttar Pradesh, Mathura, Gupta period (c. AD 320–550). Red mottled sandstone; h. 82 cm. Leonard C. Hanna Jr. Fund, 1973.214

Julie Mehretu: Portals was developed through research and discussions that took place over a yearlong period between Mehretu and curators at the Cleveland Museum of Art and FRONT International. It marks the start of a long-term engagement between Mehretu and Cleveland: the artist will debut an outdoor mural in downtown Cleveland in 2023. 

Visitors to Julie Mehretu: Portals will be greeted by Seated Buddha (AD 400–430) from the CMA’s collection of Indian art. This work signals the importance of the figure to Mehretu’s visual thinking, demonstrated throughout this exhibition in her selection of figurative works that span civilizations, geographies, and media. Mehretu observes how Seated Buddha and the other figurative sculptures she has selected—such as the Roman Torso of Apollo (AD 100–200) and the Congolese Male Figure (1880)—bear physical traces of having traveled from their original cultural contexts to the CMA where they live as museum objects. 

The Cave Door of Spring 1825. Totoya Hokkei (Japanese, 1780–1850). Pentaptych of woodblock prints; ink and color on paper; each: 18.8 x 21.4 cm. Bequest of James Parmelee, 1940.990

An interest in bodies moving through space is at the core of Mehretu’s own work as well. In her Untitled (brigade) (2005), one of the works featured in this show, layered architectural drawings of a military-industrial city structure the painting’s abstract composition. During the period when Mehretu made this work, she often used maps, wayfinding signage, and architectural imagery to explore the impact of these and related systems of physical organization on individuals and communities. 

The relationship in Untitled (brigade) between the body, architecture, and abstraction also comes to the fore in works from the CMA’s collection selected by Mehretu for this exhibition, such as Jack Whitten’s Rho I (1977) and Isamu Noguchi’s Model for Portal (1977). The latter work, to which the exhibition refers in its title, is a small-scale representation of Noguchi’s Portal, a 36-foot-tall outdoorsculpture in downtown Cleveland. Fabricated locally, Portal is made of a single continuous black steel pipe whose elegant abstract form offers a visual threshold between the city and its Justice Center, for which the sculpture was commissioned. Portal is located near the site of Mehretu’s forthcoming outdoor mural. 

circular lines
Untitled, or the Burning Pin 1990. Louise Bourgeois (American, 1911–2010). Drypoint; 49.3 x 56.2 cm. John L. Severance Fund, 1991.229. © The Easton Foundation / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY

Untitled (brigade) is built primarily from a dense accumulation of dashes, a repetitive and ordered system of mark making that differs from the looser gestures of Mehretu’s later works, such as eye of (Thoth) (2021), also on view in the exhibition. In this work, translucent layers of luminous color hover over a dense array of gestural marks, both handmade and digitally created. The frenetic quality of the marks is enhanced by their dispersal all over the painting’s composition, which never yields a place for the viewer’s eye to rest. Conjuring the ever-moving hand of its maker, the vibrant energy of this abstraction appears to be barely contained by its frame. The dynamism of abstract gestures in eye of (Thoth) is found elsewhere throughout the exhibition in works such as an untitled drawing by Norman Lewis from 1960 and Louise Bourgeois’s Untitled, or the Burning Pin (1990). 

The visual rhythms of Mehretu’s work are often informed by music and sound. This connection becomes more vivid through her inclusion in the exhibition of works such as Arthur Dove’s Spiral Sketchbook No. VI (c. 1938–44), in which he explored the ways certain combinations of form, color, and line can evoke the same emotional and physical responses as the harmonies of musical sound, and the Japanese woodblock print series The Cave Door of Spring (1825), which is filled with images of music making and dancing. 

Rho I 1977. Jack Whitten (American, 1939–2018). Acrylic on canvas; 182.8 x 213.2 cm. Gift of Scott C. Mueller and Margaret Fulton Mueller, 2010.1. © Jack Whitten

Through Julie Mehretu: Portals, the CMA looks forward to inviting its audiences to experience novel encounters with historical and contemporary art alike.