Encounters II: The Activist Gesture
Julie Mehretu/J. Meejin Yoon
Curated by Peter Benson Miller
Exhibition originally scheduled for May 28–July 4, 2020
Pairing an artist and an architect, Julie Mehretu and J. Meejin Yoon—both invited Residents at the American Academy in Rome this year—Encounters II: The Activist Gesture explores the role of abstract forms and gestural mark making as indices and agents of social and political change in contemporary American society. The title echoes Mehretu’s description of the drawing method central to her work as an “activist gesture, offering something radical.” In paintings responding to crises and conflicts in 2017, including the Grenfell Tower fire in London, the devastating California wildfires, and the violence erupting between protestors and counter-protestors in Charlottesville, Virginia, Mehretu employs the “activist gesture” as part of “an intensified animated language of abstraction that insists on multiple corporealities and spaces.” Bodies and space are equally entwined in Höweler + Yoon’s Memorial to Enslaved Laborers on the campus of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, which employs an abstract form and mark making in a memorial and public forum on a contested site. Both Mehretu and Yoon use a layered, historically informed abstraction to instill new ways of understanding our society, our environment, and ourselves.
In November 2019, a public conversation at the American Academy in Rome moderated by Adam Weinberg (2020 Resident), the director of the Whitney Museum of American Art, provided the opportunity for Mehretu and Yoon to discuss these works and the affinities and differences between them. Emerging out of that conversation, this exhibition focuses on their respective responses to the climate of racial tension in the United States manifested in protests on the UVA campus. The rally was precipitated by the proposed removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee from a Charlottesville park. Turning violent, the protest claimed the life of a counter-protestor and attracted nationwide attention. These events brought into the open simmering questions about disputed collective memory and different forms of public commemoration.
As with Encounters I, which featured three decisive postwar collaborations in Rome fostering innovative abstract languages in literature, music, visual arts, and architecture, Encounters II underscores the role of interdisciplinary dialogue, but in more recent contemporary practice. While conceived separately, the works in Encounters II, one of which is the fruit of extensive collaboration and community involvement, capture the spirit of exchange at the Academy.
In that regard, two precedents with no direct connection to the works in the present exhibition help draw out the affinities between Mehretu and Yoon’s respective projects and their common aims. The first brought together sculptor Paul Manship (1921 Fellow), painter Barry Faulkner (1910 Fellow), and architect Eric Gugler (1914 Fellow), longstanding champions of the integration of the arts, to design a World War II memorial on Italian soil. The Sicily-Rome American Cemetery in Nettuno, near the site of the Allied landings in 1944, was commissioned by the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC) in 1950 and dedicated in 1957. Built of Roman travertine quarried near Tivoli, the complex hosts the graves of 7,862 American military dead, as well as a chapel, a peristyle, and a museum. In the latter, a series of maps track the progress of the Allied forces as they moved up the peninsula from landings in Sicily, Salerno, Anzio, and Apulia. Gugler designed the signs of the zodiac, executed in high relief by Manship and aided by Bruno Bearzi of Florence, on the interior of the domed ceiling of the chapel. The planets Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn appear in the same celestial configuration as they did at 0200 hours on January 22, 1944, at the precise moment the Allied landing at Anzio began. This conceit echoes a similar feature in Faulkner’s fresco, The Voyage of Life, in the Thrasher-Ward Memorial at the Academy, another collaborative ensemble designed by Gugler and flanked by sculptures of doughboys by Manship.
In 1986, artist Vito Acconci (1987 Fellow) and architect Robert Mangurian (1977 Fellow) received a “Collaborative Grant” from the National Endowment for the Arts to work together in Rome. Their time at the Academy, according to Mangurian, “allowed [them] to begin a serious conversation towards a collaborative project.” In their initial proposal, Acconci and Mangurian defined what they meant by collaboration, which, “while bringing roles together, is forced to separate roles and define them, in order to prevent slippage from one role to the other.” “The architect,” they wrote, “defends ‘the notion of space’ (and hence, the notions of expansiveness, expansion, abstraction); on the other hand, the sculptor among us defends the notion of the ‘statue’ (and hence, the notions of condensation, home, figuration).” The result: “‘Beings’ (sculpture) come into collision with ‘being there’ (architecture).” Their exchanges in Rome culminated in an unrealized plan for a public forum on the campus of Washington State University, Seattle. The “object of study” in Rome animating their design regarded “the space as a place for gathering, as an occasion for a potential socialist revolution.” They were also concerned with “the wall and enclosure as something that prevents, as something that connects.”
Julie Mehretu, Battle Drawing (after C.), 2014, ink and acrylic on canvas, 24 x 30 in. (artwork © Julie Mehretu; photograph by Alex Yudon)
Similar to the above-cited artists and architects, both Mehretu and Yoon embrace interdisciplinarity, even as they avoid “slippage.” Each in their own way explores and draws upon other creative realms, but in ways that reinforce the integrity and efficacy of their primary discipline. Responding to Weinberg’s question about collaboration, Yoon underlined how artists asking her “sharp, basic, essential questions” have forced her to become a better architect. She found architecture through her study of art, and her projects conceived with her partner Eric Höweler draw on a variety of interconnected fields. Mehretu, a celebrated visual artist, creates multilayered and multireferential paintings and drawings, which dissect densely populated urban environments, maps, architectural forms, graffiti, as well as Old Master paintings. Accompanying her father and his students on summer programs to Rome, Mehretu studied Caravaggio’s Martyrdom of Saint Matthew (1599–1600), a painting cycle that has served as a touchstone for her own monumental works. In Battle Drawing (after C), the artist riffs on the Baroque tradition to create a dynamic, swirling composition conveying her profound interest in social and political upheaval, war, borders, and oppression. Equally attracted to Rome’s architectural layers, Yoon called the city “an accumulation of marks.”
In their respective ways, the works in Encounters II constitute memorials, in which both Mehretu and Yoon employ abstraction, “activist gestures,” and layered references to history, identifying victims of violence and altering entrenched power structures to create open public forums and stimulate dialogue. As part of an effort to critically examine its own institutional history, the University of Virginia commissioned Höweler + Yoon to spearhead the design for a memorial to the approximately four thousand enslaved laborers who constructed and maintained the UVA campus, which was designed by Thomas Jefferson, a slaveowner. The memorial, the result of a collaborative design process, is located in the valley on the east side of the Great Lawn, directly east of Jefferson’s famous rotunda. In Jefferson’s original plan, the swales framing the Academic Village obscured the labor of slaves from students on the lawn. Reversing this strategy, the memorial undermines the unjust power dynamics central to the original landscape. An abstract granite form embedded in the terrain, the memorial creates a circular gathering space for the community, a forum for public conversation. Measuring eighty feet in diameter, the ring-like enclosure echoes the dimensions of the rotunda and formally evokes both the “Ring Shout,” a dance in which African American slaves celebrated spiritual liberation, and a broken shackle signifying the end of physical bondage. The marks carved into the granite surface on the interior commemorate both the known and the unknown names of the enslaved laborers. Engraved on the rough-hewn outer wall is a striking portrait of Isabella Gibbons, an enslaved domestic worker at UVA who learned to read and write, and who, once emancipated, founded the Freedmen School in Charlottesville.
The memorial’s development, begun in 2016, coincided with the 2017 right-wing rally in Charlottesville. As a result, the memorial, completed in spring 2020, provides not only a space to honor the dead, but a site for catharsis and conflict resolution. Redressing historical omissions and acknowledging African American laborers—individuals essential to the realization of Jefferson’s campus and the ideas it enshrines—the memorial folds together layers of history in a way that engenders both remembrance and reconciliation.
As Weinberg pointed out during the conversation, Mehretu figures prominently in a generation of African American artists combining abstraction with social and political content. Blurry silhouettes from photographs of the protesters clashing with police in Charlottesville provide the point of departure for several of Mehretu’s recent works. In collecting these images, she noticed their affinities with paintings of martyrs by Caravaggio and others. De-focused, pixilated, often swiveled 90 degrees, and distilled to abstract shapes punctuated with pulsating color, the photographs serve as a form of underpainting to which the artist applies additional layers of marks, digital blurs, and airbrushing. In the Charlottesville works in particular, the artist reflects upon the outbreak of nativist language in public discourse and the ghosts in the unconscious summoned by the violent encounter. While Mehretu believes that abstraction is always political, in these works the blurred forms generate something else. In paintings consecrated to making as a form of knowledge, she is constantly looking to invent and mine new marks and combinations of forms. Thus, like the Memorial to Enslaved Workers, Mehretu’s paintings with their accretions of bodies and gestures bear witness to conflict while creating a new “space of possibilities” capable of yielding social and political paradigms.
Julie Mehretu (2020 Resident), who was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in 1970 in the wake of the independence movement, currently lives and works in New York. In 2005 she received the American Art Award from the Whitney Museum of American Art, as well as the prestigious MacArthur Fellows Award. In 2020, major survey of her work was co-organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.
J. Meejin Yoon (2006 Fellow, 2020 Resident), a Korean American architect and designer, is the dean of the College of Architecture, Art, and Planning at Cornell University. In 2004, she founded Höweler + Yoon Architecture with partner Eric Höweler. Their firm is widely recognized for working across the domains of architecture, urban planning, public space, immersive experience, and design strategy.
Please read Mark Robbins’s preface and Peter Benson Miller’s introduction to the Encounters series to learn more about the project, as well as visit Encounters I: Abstracting Rome to view the first half of the exhibition.
In fall 2019 Claudia Trezza spoke with curator Peter Benson Miller about his ideas for the exhibition, which investigates the enduring impact of the city of Rome as a dynamic creative laboratory through a series of interdisciplinary exchanges.
1. Julie Mehretu, in Catherine de Zegher et al., Drawing (as) Center: 25th Anniversary Benefit Selections Exhibition (New York: Drawing Center Publications, 2002), 14. Mehretu and Weinberg discussed the “activist gesture” in conversation with J. Meejin Yoon held at AAR.
2. Christine Y. Kim, “Julie Mehretu (A Chronology in Four Parts),” in Christine Y. Kim and Rujeko Hockley, eds., Julie Mehretu (Munich: Delmonico Books; New York: Prestel, 2020), 75.
3. These issues were the subject of a conversation between Dell Upton and Adachiara Zevi, “Are Monuments History?” held at the American Academy in Rome on March 12, 2019, https://livestream.com/aarome/events/8597096/videos/188599562.
6. See Marie-Ange Brayer, ed., Domaines publics: Collection du FRAC Centre (Orléans: éditions HYX, 1999), 58–65; and Jean Louis Maubant, et al., Artistes Architectes (Villeurbanne, France: Le Nouveau Musée/Institut d’art contemporain, 1996–97), 58.
8. Kim, 56.
9. For images of these recent works in progress, see Julie Mehretu: Sextant (London: White Cube, 2018).