Julie Mehretu in the world’s Top 100


At 52, the Ethiopian-born artist became one of the world’s top 100 in 2023

A gifted drawer as a child, Julie MEHRETU began to dream of being an artist at Kalamazoo College, a small art school in the American Midwest. Michigan is now home to this budding artist, born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. When she was in her twenties, a series of paintings – figurative portraits – earned her a degree from Ann Arbor. Then she began finding herself, travelled a bit and finally settled in New York. The abstract canvases she painted at the time were still immature and disorganised. She wasn’t happy with them. She decided to go back to school and obtained a scholarship to the Rhode Island School of Design, where, by compulsively drawing thousands of signs to establish her process, her works began to resemble maps or aerial views of cities. The young woman was finding her own path, that of abstract painting with a narrative content, reflecting her interest in geography, architecture, history and urban life. After graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design, she was selected for the CORE programme at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, a residency that provided her with a studio, an allowance and an exhibition at the museum. Her works become much larger and her technique evolved towards a process of superimposing images. In 1999 she completed her residency in Houston, and her first New York successes were just around the corner.

Portrait of Julie Mehretu. Painter: Divergent Lines, Emergent Spaces 8 April 2014. Columbia GSAPP

Career highlights

In 2000, Julie Mehretu celebrated her 30th birthday and took part in several group exhibitions in New York, including “Greater New York” at P.S.1. Among the visitors to the exhibition was Jay Jopling, a titan of the art world and founder of London’s powerful White Cube gallery. Jopling noticed this work, which he would later promote on the London scene (he dedicated a solo exhibition to her at White Cube last autumn: 15 September- 5 November 2023). But to really showcase Mehretu’s already singular body of work, she needed a solo exhibition. This came in 2001 at a prospective Harlem gallery run by Christian Haye. A drastic selection of the paintings exhibited – only four selected – created rarity and desire: not a single one was left unsold at the official opening of the exhibition. The paintings were reportedly bought by insiders in the New York art world for between fifteen and sixty thousand dollars each. This commercial success was so rapid that neither Christian Haye nor Mehretu had time to anticipate or doubt it.

Then one event followed another: works were presented at the Ethiopian Passages exhibition at the National Museum of African Art in Washington in 2003, others at the Africa Remix exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Paris in 2005, a blessed year in which she won the prestigious MacArthur Prize, which provided her with a grant of 500,000 dollars over five years to develop her activities.

In 2006, Julie Mehretu was swamped with major projects: preparation for a major exhibition at the Detroit Institute of Arts, a commission from the Berlin branch of the Guggenheim Foundation to create new paintings for a solo exhibition in 2008 and a six-month residency at the American Academy in Berlin after winning the Berlin Prize. It was at this point that she embarked on a major project that would lead to her most ambitious work: a 24-metre mural commissioned by investment bank Goldman Sachs for the entrance hall of its new building (2007-2009). This monumental work, which offers a visual history of capitalism in abstract terms, has a price tag of five million dollars for Goldman Sachs, of which around eighty per cent was spent on fabrication costs during the two years she and some thirty assistants spent working on the project.

Mehretu: change in auction price (in millions). Record in 2023 (copyright Artprice.com)

Her rise then accelerated with a solo exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum (2010), exhibitions in London, Paris and New York at the famous White Cube and Goodman galleries, and dozens of other events. However, the artist had not given up on major projects. In 2017, she completed a titanic 14-month project, resulting in two huge paintings for the lobby of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA). The complete diptych, eight metres high and almost twenty metres wide, is bigger than Michelangelo’s The Last Judgement. More recently, between 2019 and 2021, other institutional events have established the artist as a key figure of our time including her participation in the 58th Venice Biennale and a travelling retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the High Museum in Atlanta, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and the Walker Museum of Art, Minneapolis.

Abstraction in touch with current issues

Fragments of images, sometimes recognisable and sometimes abstract, are superimposed in a dynamic visual vortex and spread across monumental canvases. By setting architecture in motion, Julie Mehretu invents a new form of abstraction a world away from the rigid arrangements of a Mondrian who was, in his time, passionate about architecture and urban movement. Some critics see a connivance with the Futurists of the early 20th century in the energy and constant movement of Mehretu’s work. Others see a reference to the figures invented by the father of abstraction: Kandinsky. While many agree that Mehretu’s work is a descendant of the great avant-garde painters, she has thoroughly renovated them, taking abstract art in a new direction by opening it up to the social, political and economic content of the 21st century.

Mehretu’s paintings have multiple strands of DNA. Beneath the lines, which the artist describes as “behaving, fighting, migrating and civilising”, the layers of meaning are as numerous as the sources that underlie them. Mehretu constructs her works by projecting photographs, maps and images produced using computer mapping or graphic design tools. She accumulates and aggregates sources of information and knowledge, sources that interest her conceptually, politically or simply visually. These are images of race riots, demonstrations, topographical surveys, forest fires, data flows and so on. Images linked to the movement of people and capital, the spread of viral infections and political upheavals. Aggregated, replayed, exploded, erased, dissipated, this information is ultimately only legible in the movements, disorders and tensions that trouble the final work.

One of the most highly-rated women of our time

In March 2010, Calvin Tomkins wrote an article about Julie Mehretu for The New Yorker entitled “Big Art, Big Money”, just as the artist had completed her monumental work for Goldman Sachs. At the time, four of her works had already caused a sensation at auction fetching six-figure sums, but Calvin Tomkins seems to have sensed the future trend in the artist’s prices; eight months after the publication of his article, two of her works soared above the million-dollar mark, the highest exceeding $2.3m on 9 November 2010 at Sotheby’s (The Seven Acts of Mercy (2004), 284 x 630 cm). A decade or so after this article, Mehretu has taken things to an even higher level, entering the greatest museum collections as well as the most important private collections, including those of Frenchman François Pinault and Americans Eli and Edythe Broad, and her reputation has grown steadily as her fame has spread. In October 2023, one of her works fetched $9.32 million at a Sotheby’s sale in Hong Kong, setting a new record for an artist of African origin. This large untitled diptych (Untitled (2011), 183 x 487 cm) was previously auctioned in 2015 at Christie’s New York, where it sold for $2.85 million. In the space of eight years, her price has increased by 227%, giving an idea of the extent to which her most important canvases have risen in value. The following month, Julie Mehretu went even higher, this time exceeding the $10 million threshold for a drawing measuring almost four metres sold by Sotheby’s (Walkers With the Dawn and Morning, $10.7m, 15 November 2023).

Geographical distribution of Mehretu’s auction price in 2023 (copyright Artprice.com)

With over 21 million dollars worth of works sold at auction in the year 2023, Julie Mehretu has achieved an exceptional performance, ranking her among the 100 best-performing artists in the global art market. Behind this momentum is perhaps the sign that many collectors have a keen appetite for an exclusive and demanding form of painting.

Article published in our partner magazine Gestion de Fortunes