At once hypnotically tumultuous and exactingly constructed, Julie Mehretu’s monumental masterpiece Rise of the New Suprematists from 2001 is a provocative synthesis of abstract hieroglyphic symbolism and architectural visual vocabulary. Through a distinctively informed pictorial language, Mehretu superimposes incendiary emotive marks and calligraphic ciphers upon an intricately rendered blueprint of an imagined public space, with gesture and geometry clamoring for attention. Her explosive graphic explorations of space attempt to articulate the power structures and methods of mapping that define the contemporary urban landscape, as well as her own place within them. Honored as a recipient of the U.S. Department of State Medal of Arts in 2015, and currently the subject of a major retrospective co-organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and The Whitney Museum of American Art through 2020, Mehretu has garnered widespread acclaim as one of the most influential artists of her generation. Testifying to the caliber of the present work, Rise of the New Suprematists was one of two paintings by the artist included in the 2004 Whitney Biennial; the other, Empirical Construction, Istanbul (2003), is now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York. The gravitas of her conceptual ideology coupled with the skill and dexterity of her mark-making, as magnificently exemplified by the present work, have established Mehretu as a modern master and uniquely articulate voice of a socially, culturally, and politically wary generation.
Rise of the New Suprematists, as a model of Mehretu’s unbridled visual and symbolic layering, requires excavation. Beneath the immediate explosion of free-form scrawls and kinetic vectors lies a subtly rendered architectonic assemblage, anchoring the composition in formal geometric terms, yet resisting any ready legibility. As esteemed critic and curator Franklin Sirmans noted of Mehretu’s work in a review for the New York Times: “Her action-packed scenes of virtual cities incorporate classical examples of architecture with a psychogeography that collapses time – from the prehistoric to the present – to create a dreamy yet eerily grounded picture of contemporary life. In the painting Rise of the New Suprematists, groups of small marks identify a determined procession of people in an environment suggestive of urban development on a sprawling global scale.” (Franklin Sirmans, “Mapping a New, and Urgent, History of the World,” The New York Times, December 9, 2001, p. 41) In this sense, Mehretu’s markings capture the fragmented experiences and stimuli of a collective cityscape; at once universal and highly personal, her work not only maps an imagined world but also attempts to reconcile the artist’s own identity within it. Reflecting her view that constructed spaces serve as metaphors for complex power structures and political realities, each of her script-like strokes is informed by its interaction with the linear foundation underneath and the other symbols around it.
Similarly, Mehretu conceives her works in globalized terms, drawing from diverse historical movements as well as her own disparate heritage. Born in Ethiopia, raised in Michigan, educated in Senegal and Rhode Island, and now based between New York and Berlin, her paintings are built from the juxtaposition of different styles of marking, each with their own character, identity and history. In Rise of the New Suprematists, Mehretu underlines her canonical lineage to Kazimir Malevich and Lyubov Popova, referring to their manifesto declaring the supremacy of pure artistic feeling over the literal depiction of objects. The linear vectors that propel the eye outwards also reference the dynamic explorations of motion that characterize the Italian Futurists’ urban celebrations of modernity, while the overlapping streaks and smudges recall the schismatic personal expression of Cy Twombly, and, when viewed from a distance, the composition as a whole echoes the graphic power of Roy Lichtenstein’s comic Pop explosions. Evincing Mehretu’s artistic genius, these deeply discordant sources are filtered through her own cultural consciousness and meticulous approach, harmonizing into a uniquely resonant style of history painting, updated for the modern age.
Demonstrating a singular conceptual clarity and technical virtuosity, Rise of the New Suprematists forcefully and stunningly describes the complex and multivalent experience of the contemporary urban landscape. As critic Christopher Knight noted in identifying the present work as a highlight of the 2004 Whitney Biennial: “Incoherent chaos and excruciating control are balanced on a metaphorical knife-edge by the explosive linearity” of this cartographic canvas. (Christopher Knight, “Binary Days at the Biennial,” Los Angeles Times, April 11, 2004, p. 43) Indeed, Rise of the New Suprematists fuses the cartographic logic of architectural mapping with the expressiveness and apparent irrationality of the impulsively-made mark, their electrifying union displayed on a monumental scale. Engaging with art historical iconography while activating an intimate personal vocabulary, Mehretu’s painting offers a new language of abstraction as a way of articulating the inherent paradox of order and disorder that defines the complex nature of our shared experience.
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