By Claudia Trezza
Three leaders in art, architecture, and culture sat down for an incisive conversation at the American Academy in Rome last month, discussing a broad range of subjects, from their artistic inspirations to the roles of their backgrounds, politics, and the city of Rome.
The Ethiopian-born American abstract painter Julie Mehretu and the architect J. Meejin Yoon, dean of the College of Architecture, Art, and Planning at Cornell University (2006 Fellow), discussed those themes in a Conversation/Conversazioni moderated by Adam Weinberg, Alice Pratt Brown Director of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, and titled “After Charlottesville.”
All three speakers are 2020 Residents at the Academy, and works by Mehretu and Yoon will be exhibited together this spring as the second part of the exhibition Encounters, opening May 28, 2020.
In response to Weinberg’s questions about her first interactions with art, Mehretu recalled being “completely blown away” by Rembrandt’s Sacrifice of Abraham as a child growing up in East Lansing, Michigan, where she usually found her only exposure to art in magazines. Since that early age, she said, she simply “loved making art.”
Yoon also recounted having been struck by painters, such as Lucio Fontana and Sol LeWitt, but being even more fascinated with the buildings that played host to their works. She realized that “the containers were works also, in themselves.”
Both Mehretu and Yoon said that they benefited from collaboration, though one more than the other.
Yoon believes that working with people across disciplines made for better buildings “because,” she said, “they ask those essential questions that among your own discipline you’ve stopped asking.” She added that while it was crucial to stay true to the initial concept of a project, negotiating and exchanging ideas with clients and people in the communities was key.
For Mehretu, working alongside others was more of a step toward understanding her own work, allowing her to “watch and listen to myself more,” she said. But eventually the work was hers alone, she said, and that creating art was for her a more solitary and independent experience, even when working on commissions that included architects and other artists.
To underline the point, Mehretu spoke about a mural the investment bank Goldman Sachs had commissioned her to make in the lobby of its New York offices. Once her idea for the mural had been decided on, she said they didn’t interfere. “There was no conversation about how the painting would look like,” she said.
Yoon and Mehretu have previously spent time in Rome, a city that Weinberg described as “a giant topographical drawing, with all the layers and the pentimenti,” referring to the traces of earlier painting beneath layers of paint on a canvas.
Both women talked about the essential role that architecture and art played in the city, compared to some of the places in the United States where they grew up, and how Rome influenced them. Mehretu sees the imprint of Rome on her earlier work, after living in the city. The pieces, she said, reminded her of “excavations,” imbued with “an embedded past.”
But Mehretu also talked about how today’s politics and social movements were inextricable from her work and from art in general. “It’s completely embedded and engaged with one another,” she said. The artist explained how she creates abstract paintings based off of blurred photos of sociopolitical events, such as recent protests in Barcelona and riots in Charlottesville. For her, the blurring made the works more historical, biblical, and universal.
Yoon, partly out of necessity, also takes into account modern-day politics. She described her current project at the University of Virginia, where her firm Höweler + Yoon is working on a memorial for the thousands of enslaved laborers who lived and worked at the university in the early to mid-nineteenth century. Community members requested a figurative representation of the enslaved people, which she said she was not capable of delivering. As a result, she brought in Eto Otitigbe, an artist who explores the intersections of race, power, and technology, to make a hologram of a freed slave to challenge perspectives.
Weinberg asked Mehretu and Yoon when they attained the confidence to move beyond their inhibitions and fears. Both women said they were driven by a sense of urgency. “There is not that much time left,” said Yoon, adding that she wanted to use all the talent and agency given to her.
Even if, the three agreed, these were dark times, Weinberg asked the artist and the architect for glimmers of hope. Mehretu urged young people to “continue to invent and insist on what else might be possible.” Yoon identified young artists and architects as “change agents” that can push for progress. She encouraged them to “shift, press, nudge, needle.”
The American Academy in Rome, Weinberg declared, was the sort of place that could foster such change and provide those “nodes of freedom, courage, creativity, and possibility.”