Julie Mehretu - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Tuesday, November 15, 2022 | Phillips

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  • Tsunemasa, (next to Kaija), 2014, is a superb example from one of Julie Mehretu's most acclaimed bodies of work, a critical moment in her corpus which marked a contemplative and personal evolution from her Mogamma series (2012). While her previous works were abstracted, metaphorical blueprints made during the Arab Spring uprising, Tsunemasa is a map of interiority, executed in the wake of the deadly civil wars and failed governmental promises that followed. 


    Cy Twombly, Untitled, 1970. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Image: © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY, Artwork: © Cy Twombly Foundation 

    A lyrical symphony of mark-making, Tsunemasa, is an expressive topography mining the depths of psychological interiority. Staccato and diffusive gestures erupt across a variegated grey expanse of palimpsest, inhabiting a liminal space in which forms advance and recede as the viewer moves around the canvas. Its characteristic interplay between speed, line, and form shows the height of Mehretu’s painterly adroitness at a pivotal juncture in her practice. Signaling a departure from her earlier colorful, hard-edge idiom, defined by its pointed architectural references to social and geopolitical tumult, Tsunemasa shows the artist’s embrace of a more gestural, contemplative approach that echoes the evocative primacy of both cave paintings and graffiti markings. The striking calligraphic clarity provided by the use of sumi ink, redolent of Cy Twombly’s “blackboard” explorations of the inner psyche, is emblematic of Mehretu’s celebrated practice—which has seen her probing the potentiality of abstraction for more than two decades.


    The vibrant, geometric designs that proliferated in her earlier practice metamorphosed into a softer language harmonizing individual and collective voices: palimpsest, smudges, and diffused markings punctuated by calligraphic strokes. Encompassing her famed Invisible Sun works, the profound vulnerability of this series has already been recognized by renowned public and private collections, with paintings housed in the Museum of Modern Art, New York; The Broad, Los Angeles; the Pinault Collection; and the Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art, Seoul.

  • "My aim is to have a picture that appears one way from a distance—almost like a cosmology, city or universe from afar—but then when you approach the work, the overall image shatters into numerous other pictures stories and events."
    —Julie Mehretu

    Executed during the artist’s tenure as the set designer for Peter Sellars’s staging of Kaija Saariaho’s Only the Sound Remains, the present work is one of two of the artist’s paintings that were reproduced and enlarged as backdrops for the opera. The painting and performance, which premiered across Europe and Canada beginning in 2016, was inspired by the popular Japanese Nôh drama Tsunemasa. Telling the story of a prodigious lute player killed in battle whose spirit haunts his own memorial service, the narrative epitomizes the melodic structure and supernatural tropes that typify Nôh theater. 


    Performance of Only the sound remains, 2016. Artwork: © Julie Mehretu 

    Mehretu approached the project by matching the opera’s dramatic, liminal atmosphere as opposed to explicitly representing the plot. “When Peter brought me the libretto with the two Nôhs, I read them, continued working, read them again, but I did not try to paint those Nôhs specifically.” the artist explained. The present work is instead “related to [the play Tsunemasa] abstractly, in that I educated myself on Nôhs, studied them, their cosmic ideas of the world and their ancient, very condensed and specific form.” Set on earth, the central narrative unravels in front of Mehretu’s image; “the painting itself is the liminal space, through which the spirits move between earth and the heavens, and then the heavens, the universe, the space of the ghosts, is behind the painting.” She has illuminated that, as the anchor of the performance, “Tsunemasa also relates to the tradition of having a tree in the background of the Japanese Nôh stage. This painting has the metaphorical aspect of being both a landscape and this other mystical space, a ceremonial space even, of the actual narrative.”i

    "Julie is the painter I turn to when I want to think about how to trouble the line between abstraction and figuration, between local and global concerns, between painterly restraint and joyous abandon."
    —Glenn Ligon

    One of the most prominent characteristics of this chapter in Mehretu’s career is the reduced palette of Tsunemasa, a development which art historian and writer Dagmawi Woubshet referred to as “the turn not away from color, but the turn into grey.”ii Inherent in this description is the recognition of grey not a single hue but a multivalent space, a liminal threshold from which flashes of black and white emerge. In its elimination of other pigments, Tsunemasa unlocks a barely perceptible dimension, opening the door to what Mehretu called “a different type of possibility” and “allowed for a different type of potential that with the color would be too determinate.”iii


    Leonardo da Vinci, A Deluge, 1517, Royal Collection Trust, London. Image: HIP / Art Resource

     Coalescing her signature densely-layered approach with a refined aesthetic idiom, Tsunemasa is an homage to art’s ability to build and bridge worlds. The work is an image not only of darkness, but of the expansive potential of unity and healing. Reminiscent of Leonardo da Vinci’s deluge drawings, the clusters of frenetic gestures—which the artist calls “characters”—are suggestive of the power of the collective. “Fundamentally,” Mehretu elucidated, Tsunemasa refers “to the most ancient forms of creating a painting, of mark-making, by using Sumi ink and acrylic—to invent and imagine something else from those marks.”iv

    i Julie Mehretu, quoted in Anna Schauder, "Only the Sound Remains: Les couleurs de nos rêves," Opéra national de Paris Magazine, February 2, 2018, online.
    ii Dagmawi Woubshet, “An Interview with Julie Mehretu,” Callaloo 37, no. 4, 2014, p. 782.
    iii Julie Mehretu, quoted in Woubshet.
    iv Julie Mehretu, quoted in Schauder.

    • Provenance

      Carlier | Gebauer, Berlin
      Private Collection (acquired from the above in 2014)
      Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2019

    • Exhibited

      Berlin, Carlier | Gebauer, Half a Shadow, September 20–November 1, 2014

    • Literature

      Anna Schauder, "Only the Sound Remains: Les couleurs de nos rêves," Opéra national de Paris Magazine, February 2, 2018, online
      Julie Mehretu, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2019, pp. 178-179 (illustrated)

Property of a Private Collector


Tsunemasa (next to Kaija)

ink and acrylic on canvas stretched over panel
84 x 96 in. (213.4 x 243.8 cm)
Executed in 2014.

Full Cataloguing

$4,000,000 - 6,000,000 

Sold for $4,386,000

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20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 15 November 2022