Object of the Week: Untitled

“One of the most modernist gestures of the last century was the effort of liberation. Creative work is not just about representation, or creating a cultural mirror. . . . Creation, whether in writing, music and visual making, has also been about inventing a form or space to exist, especially if the world didn’t let one be free.”[1]

– Julie Mehretu

For over two decades, Julie Mehretu (born 1970, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia) has produced a body of work defined by a commitment to the politics of abstraction.[2] Through mark making, layering, and other techniques, Mehretu’s drawings and paintings are built up of complex symbols and historical referents—architectural fragments and art/historical citations—that are celebrated for their articulation of the contemporary moment in which we live.

Mehretu’s drawing in SAM’s collection, Untitled, is an earlier work by the artist, created in 2001. A palimpsest of frenzied marks—seeming to emerge from nowhere—is interspersed with arching lines of yellow and blue and muted forms of mauve and mint green. Both abstract and representational, the contoured forms at once advance and recede, creating a visually dynamic composition that teems with energy. As the eye moves, one can make out architectural elements from various perspectives: a hall of arcades, industrial posts and beams, wide stairways, and cantilevered balconies; however, just as these elements come into focus, they morph and blend into the geometric forms and marks around them (rubble? fire? explosions?)—all mutable and contingent.

The topographical nature of this drawing connects it to Mehretu’s larger practice, which engages, among many things, in a form of mapping “of no location.”[3] Collapsing time, space, and place, Mehretu creates new cityscapes and narratives that encapsulate the tensions between evolution and destruction, growth and dissolution, stability and entropy. Her personal biography and experiences, too, inform her investment in these themes, exploring the complexities and possibilities inherent in forces such as globalization, migration, diaspora, capitalism, political conflict, and climate change.[4]

Perhaps best articulated by art historian Julia Bryan-Wilson:  “[Mehretu’s] canvases, richly layered and replete with visual incident, evoke a number of urgent themes: the simultaneous decentering and consolidation of power, the frenzied temporalities that cannot be captured by simplistic narratives of progress or regression, the continuing ascendance of ethnonationalism, and the possibility that many small, accumulated gestures might gather momentum and propel change.”[5]

– Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collections and Provenance Associate


Image: Untitled, 2001, Julie Mehretu, Ink and pencil on Mylar, 21 1/2 x 27 3/8in., Gift of the ContemporaryArtProject, Seattle, 2002.30

[1] Mark Benjamin, “An Interview with Julie Mehretu: The Mark of an Artist,” in Rain Magazine, September 3, 2000, rain-mag.com/julie-mehretu-the-mark-of-an-artist.
[2] Julia Bryan-Wilson, “Julie Mehretu,” in Artforum, February 2020, http://www.artforum.com/print/reviews/202002/julie-mehretu-81917.
In her review of the current mid-career retrospective organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Whitney Museum of American Art, Bryan-Wilson contends that Mehretu’s abstraction is an “abstraction that is insistently Black, insistently feminist, and . . . insistently queer.”
[3] “Julie Mehretu,” Whitecube, whitecube.com/artists/artist/julie_mehretu.
[4] “Julie Mehretu,” Whitney Museum of American Art, whitney.org/exhibitions/julie-mehretu.
[5] Wilson, Artforum, http://www.artforum.com/print/reviews/202002/julie-mehretu-81917.

Object of the Week: Trio A

Yvonne Rainer’s Trio A is a masterpiece in movement. The work, choreographed over a period of six months in 1966, is part of a larger work titled The Mind is a Muscle. Currently on view in the contemporary galleries is a solo performance of the same piece, filmed in 1978 on 16-millimeter film in Merce Cunningham’s studio.

Today Rainer is celebrated for her many contributions to modern dance and film. Continually exploring the relationship between dancer and audience, she pushes against the conventions of classical and modern dance. The video of Trio A captures, in a way photographs cannot, the subtlety of her actions. Bending, tapping, gliding, twisting, pacing, turning (all without looking at the camera!) the precision of Rainer’s seemingly simple gestures is mesmerizing.

The simplicity, or ordinariness, of her movements is one of the many reasons Trio A is considered canonical. Indeed, her sequence of small gestures read as ordinary; however, when art historian Julia Bryan-Wilson—who has studied, screened, and analyzed the performance countless times—found herself learning the choreography directly from Rainer in 2008, she found a new appreciation for the exacting nature of the work:

I could not always reconcile what I knew to be the required gesture…with the limitations of my body as I wobbled, tripped, and fell. My knees didn’t bend the way they were supposed to; my sense of my center of gravity and balance was totally off; and as Rainer once said to me, her brow furrowed with concern, “Do you even know how to run?” For it turns out that most of our received ideas about this dance are slightly misleading; it is not full of “everyday” actions (for instance, it includes a free handstand in the middle of the room, and balance en demi pointe while wearing tennis shoes).

Rather, it is exhausting, it is strenuous, it is very physically challenging, and Rainer has incredibly precise ideas about the ways the body needs to configure itself, where exactly the gaze should land, how even the fingers should be positioned. One does not sloppily move through a series of somewhat improvised or random motions; every tiny movement is prefigured, and it takes a great deal of concentration and work. Far from a free-form, unstructured terrain of unconstrained movement, Rainer’s instructions were a reminder that dance, though it can be deeply pleasurable, is equally a discipline, concerned with techniques of training and regimes to shape the body.[1]

After rereading Bryan-Wilson’s “Practicing Trio A,” I had the privilege of going down to Big Picture: Art after 1945 on the third floor and watching the work again. My experience was dramatically different this time around; with extra attention paid to the smallest of Rainer’s gestures (which the film’s “Details” section facilitates), it became clear how much intentionality is imbedded in every action. There is magic in the way Rainer effortlessly configures herself in space, but it is far from effortless—each moment is measured and calculated. Rainer just makes it look easy.

– Elisabeth Smith, Collections Coordinator

Image: Trio A, 1978, Yvonne Rainer, digital video transferred from 16mm, 10:30 min., Modern Art Acquisition Fund, 2017.13 © Artist or Artist’s Estate
[1] Julia Bryan-Wilson, “Practicing Trio A,” October 140 (Spring 2012): 59. If interested in reading the essay, you can access the PDF here: http://arthistory.berkeley.edu/pdfs/faculty%20publications/Bryan-Wilson/jbwpracticingtrioa.pdf.