Auction  October 10, 2023  Rebecca Schiffman

Julie Mehretu Work Sets New Auction Record for African-Born Artist

Via Sotheby's

Julie Mehretu, Untitled, 2001. Acrylic, ink and graphite on canvas, in 2 parts. Each: 182.8 by 243.8 cm. 72 by 96 in. Overall: 182.8 by 487.6 cm. 72 by 192 in.

In a groundbreaking moment for the art world, Untitled, 2001, a large-scale work by the visionary Ethiopian-American artist Julie Mehretu set a new record at Sotheby’s Hong Kong, when it fetched $9.32 million. This sale, on October 5, marks a significant milestone, as it is the highest amount ever paid for a work by an African-born artist. The previous record of $6.33 million was set in 2008, with The Visitor (1995) by South African artist Marlene Dumas

Mehretu's career has been on a steady rise over the past decade with one high-point being a major mid-career survey at the Whitney Museum in New York in 2021. The market has likewise shown a sustained interest in her work over the past decade.

A search of auction records at Christie’s and Sotheby’s reveals that her works are steadily outpacing their estimates. In May 2013, Mehretu’s Retopistics: A Renegade Excavation sold for $4.6 million on a low estimate of $1.4 million. In 2014, her work Excerpt (Molotov Cocktail) (2003) sold for $1.8 million on a $1-million low estimate. And in 2022, a black-and-white acrylic-and-graphite-on-panel work from 2012 sold for $1.26 million, quadrupling its low estimate.

Via Wikimedia Commons

Julie Mehretu pictured in her studio.

The work that just sold is a diptych measuring 16 feet wide overall (each piece is 8-feet-wide). As such, it is one of Mehretu's most ambitious paintings. Composed of lines and optical colored planes that converge, dissipate, and dissolve into one another on a beige ground, this work is a strong example of Mehretu's signature style, with its abstract mark-making that acts as its own lexicon of signs. 

“I am also interested in what Kandinsky referred to in ‘The Great Utopia’ when he talked about the inevitable implosion and/or explosion of our constructed spaces out of the sheer necessity of agency," Mehretu said about the piece in a 2003 interview, excerpts of which were shared by Sotheby’s. "It is in these same spaces that you can feel the undercurrents of complete chaos, violence, and disorder.” 

Untitled, 2001, was included in the 8th Baltic Triennial of International Art in 2002 and the Casino 2001: 1st Quadriennale voor Hedendaagse Kunst at the Stedelijk Museum in 2002. It is part of a series painted from 2001-2004 in which Mehretu introduced brightly colored shapes into her pictures, which had until then been largely monochromatic.

Mehretu has also been the recipient of many awards and commissions. In 2000, she was the recipient of a grant from the Foundation for Contemporary Arts Grants to Artists Award. She was a 2005 MacArthur Fellow, an award often referred to as the "genius grant." In 2007, she was given a $5 million commissioned by Goldman Sachs to create a mural for the lobby in their building. During her residency at the American Academy in Berlin, between 2008 and 2009, Mehretu was commissioned by the Deutsche Guggenheim to create seven paintings. In 2015, Secretary of State John Kerry presented her with the US Department of State Medal of Arts, and in 2019, her work was included in the Venice Biennale’s 58th International exhibition, “May You Live in Interesting Times." In 2020, she was named one of the 100 most influential people by Time magazine.

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