Julie Mehretu Reaches for New Heights

Her 2009 commission for the lobby of the financial behemoth Goldman Sachs could have been viewed as cozying up to the one percent. She chose the opportunity to work at a scale unprecedented for her and on a wall visible to a broad public, including service workers in the building. Measuring 23 feet by 80 feet, “Mural” maps the whirl of global trade and communications and was deemed “the most ambitious painting I’ve seen in a dozen years” by Calvin Tomkins of The New Yorker.


Ms. Mehretu is one of the top-selling living female artists.

Nathan Bajar for The New York Times

All of that is a lot to live up to as Ms. Mehretu faces her new commission.

While the history of art is punctuated with epic painting projects by men — from Giotto to Michelangelo to Diego Rivera — the director of SFMoMA, Neal Benezra, said he was “hard-pressed to think of another woman painter working at this scale in a public place.”

At regular intervals during the completion of these new paintings, the jazz composer Jason Moran, Ms. Mehretu’s friend and Harlem neighbor, set up camp on the balcony of the church. He made the formerly sacred space reverberate with compositions spun off his electronic piano while she painted.

“Jazz has always been the form of music that marks these temperature changes in America,” said Mr. Moran, who will perform the result of their collaboration this fall in Performa 17, a visual art and performance biennial in New York. “It’s turbulent now, as America has always been. Julie and I are making this response in concert with each other.” Mr. Moran, who is the artistic director of the Kennedy Center in Washington, riffed directly off the markings in her paintings as though he were reading a score.

Ms. Mehretu searched throughout New York for a space big enough to make these paintings before striking a deal with real estate developers to use the church, just down the street from where she lives with her spouse, Jessica Rankin, and their 12- and 6-year-old sons. Being able to duck out for lunch at home or parent-teacher conferences has made her grueling work schedule more manageable.

Graceful and coolheaded, the artist is prone to speaking in elliptical phrases that build on one another, in a way that echoes her artwork.

Ms. Mehretu, who received her M.F.A. from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1997, has always layered…

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