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One BIG Painting: Mehretu’s “Retopistics: A Renegade Excavation”

The painting is brought into the south lobby.

The painting is brought into the south lobby.

Julie Mehretu, b. 1970 "Retopistics: A Renegade Excavation," 2001 Ink and acrylic on canvas

Julie Mehretu, b. 1970
“Retopistics: A Renegade Excavation,” 2001
Ink and acrylic on canvas

On Tuesday, Crystal Bridges’ team of preparators installed a new painting in the Museum’s south lobby. Retopistics: A Renegade Excavation, by Julie Mehretu, measures 17 feet long and just over 8 feet tall.  It’s one of the largest works on canvas in the Museum’s collection.

Julie Mehretu combines architectural features with layer upon layer of abstract elements, some of which seem just about to resolve into something recognizable, as if they were captured in motion, or in the process of becoming.  She thinks of the various elements in her work as individual characters in a wide-ranging narrative: each with its own trajectory, its own story, and its own unique pattern and purpose of behavior.

Julie Mehretu: "Retopistics: A Renegade Excavation" detail.

Julie Mehretu: “Retopistics: A Renegade Excavation” detail.

The many different types of marks in the work—drips, lines, abstract sketches, and colorful cartoon-like explosions and flames—are layered over a set of architectural drawings based on blueprints of airports around the world. The baseline drawings provide a space for the artist’s “characters” to inhabit and give a context to their interactions. Consider the great diversity of people you encounter in an airport:  all the stories of joy and sorrow, excitement and fatigue, anxiety and hope. Like Mehretu’s artwork, the image this projects may seem chaotic at first, but when you remember that each element within that apparent chaos has its own story and moves along its own route, the chaos begins to look more like the frenetic, businesslike activity of an anthill.

“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…My initial impulse and investigation was to try and develop, through drawing, a language that could communicate different types of narratives and build a cityscape, each mark having a character, a modus operandi of social behavior. As they continued to grow and develop in the drawing I wanted to see them layered; to build a different kind of dimension of space and time into the narratives.”                              -Julie Mehretu

An Unusual Path to Installation:

Preparators settle the large canvas in its protective framework onto dollies to begin the journey down to the South Lawn.

Preparators settle the large canvas in its protective framework onto dollies to begin the journey down to the South Lawn.

Installation of Mehretu’s painting was a different sort of operation from the norm.  Because of the work’s size (it came in a crate that was 20 feet long and more than 10 feet tall), it had to be unloaded and removed from its packing outside the Museum.  The stretched canvas is also too large to be transported in the Museum’s art elevator, so it had to enter the building via the south entrance: four levels down from the loading dock above.

The shipping frame is removed under a tent near the Museum's south entrance.

The shipping frame is removed under a tent near the Museum’s south entrance.

After the shipping company unloaded the enormous crate in the Museum’s lower parking area, a team of preparators unpacked the artwork from its outer, heavier crate and carefully maneuvered it down the switch-back trail, across the bridge, and down the Tulip Tree Trail to the South Lawn. There, a large tent had been erected to protect the work from sun or rain while the artwork was uncrated and members of the Museum’s facilities team removed a pair of doors from the south entrance, allowing preparators to carry the work inside.

You can watch a quick Instagram video of the installation here.

Guests can now view Retopistics: A Renegade Excavation in the south lobby.  On your next visit, be sure to remember to take the short walk down the Great Hall corridor from the main lobby to enjoy this complex and fascinating artwork up close!

The painting is brought into the south lobby.

The painting is brought into the south lobby.

Linda DeBerry
Senior Copy Editor / Publications Manager

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