Julie Mehretu murals enliven SFMOMA atrium

New York-based artist Julie Mehretu has a massive new art work gracing The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

“HOWL, eon (I,II),” her commission for the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Atrium — in the space formerly occupied by pieces by Sol LeWitt and Kerry James Marshall — comprises two 27- by 32-foot abstract paintings symbolizing and evoking trends in history, particularly 19th-century westward expansion that irreparably altered communities in America, as well as the chaos characterizing global politics today.

In San Francisco last week to introduce the 20-layered murals, Mehretu said their hazy quality is a reflection of how “We don’t have the proper language to negotiate this moment; language can’t really address the noise of this time.”

SFMOMA curator Gary Garrels pointed to how Mehretu’s work “reflects the complexities of our histories” and is pertinent for San Francisco, “which has become an epicenter for contemporary life, transforming culture across the globe.”

Mehretu said when she first visited the museum and saw the cavernous spaces that would house the paintings, “they felt like two windows.” And when she saw diagonal position of the center staircase and decided to take on the commission, her initial goal was to create two works: “One you would climb into, and one you look across at.”

The 14-month project began with two huge canvases onto which heavily digitized images — of contemporary race riots, protests and 19th century depictions of the American West by Albert Bierstadt and Carleton Watkins — were printed (using the world’s largest digital printer in Germany).

Working in a decommissioned church in Harlem a block from where she lives that could accommodate the massive pieces, Mehretu spent months working solely, including a good deal of time staring at the canvas. She later added the brush work “as intuitively” as she could.

SFMOMA director Neal Benezra noted that the completion of the commission fulfills the museum’s commitment to showcasing works of art in free public spaces.


HOWL, eon (I,II)
Where: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 151 Third St., S.F.
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily (except closed Wednesdays); to 9 p.m. Thursdays
Admission: Free
Contact: www.sfmoma.org

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