Crystal Bridges to present lecture by big-name artist with big ideas (and big canvases)

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

As artist Julie Mehretu wrapped up the installation process for her gargantuan canvas installation inside the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art late last year, she knew what she learned in the process provided big new ideas to explore in her future work.

How big? Well, the two works at SFMoMA, which are called “HOWL, eon (I, II),” are 32 feet by 27 feet each. That kind of big, and her ideas are of the size to match.

Distinguished Lecture at Crystal Bridges

Who: Julie Mehretu
When: 7 p.m. Nov. 8
Admission: $15 general public; $12 members; $5 students by calling 657-2335 or via

On Thursday (Nov. 8) she comes to a place where another of her big ideas are prominently displayed. Her work “Retopistics: A Renegade Excavation” can be viewed in the south lobby of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. “Retopistics” is small, by comparison, at about 17 feet long and eight feet tall. The work is so large it wouldn’t fit through the art elevators at the museum and special accommodations were made to get it on the gallery wall.

Mehretu will visit the museum for the museum’s Distinguished Lecture series. Her presentation begins at 7 p.m.

Mehretu, originally from Addis Ababa, Ethopia, now calls New York City home. Crystal Bridges has been attempting to bring in Mehretu for several years, but her schedule hasn’t aligned. She’s excited to spend a moment with “Retopistics” which she credits as her first large-scale work and the beginning of her transition to massive canvases.

“It’s still an important painting. It brought in all of these different elements” and was the first of its type, she said.

The largeness shouldn’t intimidate anyone. Mehretu suggests looking at it from a wide angle to take it all in and then work more closely to take in some of the granular detail.

The artist will spend some time exploring the collection at Crystal Bridges. Landscape art, particularly that of the Hudson River School, has served as recent inspiration. The Bentonville museum has several examples of such works from artists such as Asher B. Durand, Thomas Cole and Albert Bierstadt.

Mehretu makes landscapes, but much different than those made by the Hudson River artists. Her landscapes are abstract and representational, bolstered by her love of architecture and design. “Retopistics” contains a structural element of blueprints of airports. Her current solo exhibit, “Sextant,” which ended its run in London on Nov. 3, finds inspiration in recent events such as the Grenfell Tower fire in London and the white supremacist rally and counter protest late last year in Charlottesville, Virginia. The current examples start with a news photo, and like all of Mehretu’s works, contain many layers and span multiple techniques, including acrylic paints, pencil, screen printing and more.

In her career, Mehretu has received a series of notable commissions and awards, including being awarded a Medal of Arts from the U.S. Department of State. Her works can be seen in dozens of museums through the country, including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and the Whitney Museum in New York.

Mehretu will discuss her inspirations and techniques during her discussion at Crystal Bridges.