Why This Art: Utopian Elation in Julie Mehretu’s ‘HOWL, eon (I, II)’

Artist Court Lurie finds brilliant connection in this painting commissioned by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

julie mehretu’s howl, eon i, ii is a diptych created in 2016 through 17 that was commissioned by the san francisco museum of modern art as a gift from helen and charles schwab
Julie Mehretu’s “HOWL, eon (I, II)” is a diptych created in 2016–17 that was commissioned by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art as a gift from Helen and Charles Schwab.
©​ Julie Mehretu; Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery; Photos by Tom Powel Imaging

When I engage with HOWL, eon (I, II), by Julie Mehretu, I am filled with gratitude. I’ve cried when I’ve encountered paintings like this, and this one makes my heart ache. It is a love song that moves me. It is a steeple for pupils of light who arrive at its doorstep seeking questions, searching its face for truth. After deep examination, architecture is revealed, meticulous brushstrokes that spark a story that speaks loudly. Hold still and listen. The painting breathes with gray thunder. Hold still—watch the world unfold through its lines and holes. A world filled with the wails and whimpers of mothers. Yet the palette runs through like a glimmer of hope in the face of rage, injustice, and the greater laws of the land. It exudes connection, deliberate, specific, brilliant.

Here, Mehretu handles transitions with wit and grace as color palette meets line meets shadow meets pinks meets blues meets whites. Through lime and peach and pear and pine, through drumbeats, and bass players, and horns blowing, and people glowing. Inside these crevices, mysteries of reconciliation and forgiveness are found.

This article appears in the Fall 2022 issue of Alta Journal.
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My feet dance in the streets. Mehretu moves my hands to write and my body to paint and draw. To howl in the face of unfound freedom. To scream in the streets for holy redemption! Can mountains be moved with art? I am feeling optimistic (and still a little sarcastic) and have begun to dream again. This painting calls to my people, “Go to one another. Come together, and build together.”

The gesture of HOWL is a map of worlds colliding in prose and poetry to shape a language, bridging one reality to another. Crafted like a cerebral poem, HOWL enlivens a conversation about utopian elation. Listen to it and you may hear the whispers of tomorrow.•

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