Julie Mehretu - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale - Afternoon Session New York Thursday, November 18, 2021 | Phillips

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  • Coming to auction on the heels of Julie Mehretu’s highly acclaimed mid-career survey co-organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, Untitled is a remarkable work that powerfully exemplifies the distinct visual idiom that has cemented Mehretu as one of the most unique voices of her generation. As in major paintings such as Rise of the New Suprematists, 2001, Transcending: The New International, 2003, held in the Collection of the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, and The Seven Acts of Mercy, 2004, this large-scale work on paper features a whirlwind of calligraphic lines and crisp, precise lines that pulsate with palpable immediacy–here further heightened by a yellow dash piercing through the space like lightening. 


    Detail of the present lot

    Executed in 2005, Untitled exemplifies the central role of drawing in Mehretu’s practice. Drawing, as Mehretu has indeed stated, is “the most fundamental and primary element of my work.”1  Mehretu’s residency at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston between 1997-1999 was notably an early turning point in her artistic practice as it was there where she first incorporated precise architectural drawings and blueprints into her art. More than just a preliminary tool for painting, drawings figure as the very basis of her practice–allowing her to compress time and space into multilayered compositions teeming with a rich panoply of references. 

    "I find myself more and more interested in the idea that drawing can be an activist gesture. That drawing…offers something radical." —Julie Mehretu 

    Mehretu has referred to drawing as “an informed, intuitive process, a process that is representative of individual agency and cultures, a very personal process.”2 Mehretu, who was born in Ethiopia and fled to the United States during a time of political turmoil at age seven in 1977, draws upon her own personal biography in her practice–exploring systems of power, geopolitics and notions of social and cultural identity. While hinting at representational origins, Mehretu’s work remains resolutely abstract–brilliantly fusing disparate influences ranging from architecture, cartography, Renaissance and Old Master paintings, to the sites and symbols of human civilization. 


    Untitled exemplifies the radical shifts in Mehretu’s practice in the early 2000s, resulting in a new visual language characterized by more fractured, heavily layered, and dynamic compositions. As Christine Y. Kim observed, “A radical spatiality emerged from the early 2000s in works informed by imaginary construction and an element of time. Signs of representation are dismantled; the viewer is directed instead towards a vertigo of spatiotemporal perception.”3


    Leonardo da Vinci, Deluge, circa 1517, Image: © World History Archive. Artwork: © Alamy Stock Photo

    Reimagining the illusional space of European painting, Mehretu creates spaces in which calligraphic lines and plumes of ink twist and torque with an energy that recalls Leonardo da Vinci’s cataclysmic deluge drawings. As Peter Eeley observed, in Mehretu’s “omniscient space…a fractious environment swirling around a static, intact subject…viewers [are] posed in the calm eye of the storm.”4  Depictions of meteorological events and natural catastrophes feature frequently in this period; as Richard Schiff has pointed out, this can be seen as a sort of metaphoric force paralleling social, political, and economic power structures.


    Untitled was created at a time in which Mehretu was particularly interested in the ideas advanced by Wassily Kandinsky in “The Great Utopia,” a seminal essay that explored the possibilities of abstraction to challenge aesthetic and nationalistic barriers. Mehretu has noted in particular Kandinsky’s discussion of “the inevitable implosion and/or explosion of our constructed spaces out of the sheer necessity of agency,” pointing out how, “...it is in these same spaces that you can feel the undercurrents of complete chaos, violence, and disorder. Like going to see fireworks–you feel the crowd at the same time as you feel the explosions.”5


    Collector’s Digest


    •    Julie Mehretu the highly acclaimed mid-career survey co-organized  by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, is currently on view at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis until March 6, 2022, having previously also travelled to the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. 

    •    Untitled, 2005, is closely related to Rise of the New Suprematists, 2001, which sold for $4,820,000 at auction in 2019, making it the second highest auction record for the artist.

    •    Mehretu was awarded a MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant” (2005) and a U.S. State Department Medal of Arts (2015).

    •    Works by the artist are included in notable private and public collections, including the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh; Guggenheim Abu Dhabi; High Museum of Art, Atlanta; Tate London; The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; and The Broad Art Foundation, Los Angeles, among others.


    1 Julie Mehretu, quoted in Catherine de Zegher et al, Drawing (as) Center: 25th Anniversary Benefit Selections Exhibition, New York, 2002, p. 13.
    2 Julie Mehretu, quoted in Douglas Fogle and Olukemi Ilesanmi, Julie Mehretu: Drawing into Painting, exh. cat., Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 2003, p. 11. 

    3 Christine Y. Kim, “Julie Mehretu (A Chronology in Four Parts)”, Julie Mehretu, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2020, p. 61
    4 Peter Eleey, “Julie Mehretu’s ‘Perfect’ Pictures”, Afterall: A Journal of Art, Context and Enquiry, Autumn-Winter 2006, p. 101
    5 Julie Mehretu, quoted in ‘Looking Back: Email Interview Between Julie Mehretu and Olukemi Ilesanmi, April 2003’, in Julie Mehretu: Drawing into Painting, exh. cat., Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 2003, pp. 13-14.

    • Provenance

      Courtesy of the Artist
      BOMB Magazine Benefit Auction, 2005
      Acquired at the above sale by the present owner



signed and dated "Julie Mehretu 2005" on the reverse
colored pencil, graphite and ink on paper
26 x 40 in. (66 x 101.6 cm)
Executed in 2005.

Full Cataloguing

$200,000 - 300,000 

Sold for $630,000

Contact Specialist

Rebekah Bowling
Head of Day Sale, Afternoon Session, New York
1 212 940 1250

20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale - Afternoon Session

New York Auction 18 November 2021