Julie Mehretu’s Paintings Strike a Chord with Jason Moran

Photography by Damien Young

Julie Mehretu and Jason Moran.

Among the performances unfolding throughout Performa 17, few have a monumental backstory like MASS (HOWL, eon), which debuts tonight at Harlem Parish. One would expect as much from either of its creators, jazz musician Jason Moran or artist Julie Mehretu—who, as collaborators, make a formidable duo indeed: Moran, considered one of his generation’s leading jazz pianists, is also a prolific composer. He began moonlighting in the art world around 2005; he’s since worked with figures like Glenn Ligon and Lorna Simpson, and frequently performs alongside Joan Jonas. He’s now represented by Luhring Augustine, and, this spring, he will have his first solo museum show at the Walker Center.

Meanwhile, following Mehretu’s groundbreaking 2010 mural, which soars across 80-feet of wall just beyond the entrance to Manhattan’s Goldman Sachs building, she has continued to take her large-scale, staggeringly intricate paintings to new heights. Her latest is HOWL, eon (I, II), a diptych unveiled by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in September. She had spent more than a year completing the two massive canvases, which, with each at 27 feet tall and 32 feet wide, she accommodated by moving her studio to the cavernous nave of a shuttered church in Harlem.

A Texas native, Moran graduated from the Manhattan School of Music in 1997. Not long after, he signed with Blue Note, the iconic jazz record label that launched his idol, Thelonious Monk. Moran would soon be headlining esteemed venues across New York, and, later, around the world. However, Harlem always felt like home. A little after 2000, Mehretu also set up shop there. They became casually acquainted through Harlem’s creative community. During a 2012 visit to Documenta 13 in Kassel, Germany, Moran was struck by Mehretu’s series, “Mogamma: A Painting in Four Parts”—enough so that he reached out to her to share his impressions. Back in Harlem, they picked up the conversation.

Fast forward to 2016. Moran found himself in between rehearsal spaces. Guess who had spare room in a vast, otherwise empty neighborhood church? Eventually, Moran became a fixture at Mehretu’s makeshift studio. Meanwhile, watching HOWL, eon (I, II) take shape, Moran’s observations naturally fell into a score. Gradually, he and Mehretu developed a performance concept to accompany the emerging composition. Now, with Performa’s backing, the resulting piece, soundtrack and all, will premiere as MASS (HOWL, eon).

How and when did you first meet Julie? How did you get to know each other as friends, and now, as first-time collaborators? I think of my first introduction to people like Julie, is seeing their work around the world. As a traveling musician, I end up spending a lot of time away from New York, and in my downtime, I’m going to museums and seeing what’s on the wall. I could be in Germany, and see a gallery show of hers, or I could be in L.A., and see a few works. About five years ago, I saw her large, sprawling paintings at Documenta. We had met each other through a small scene in New York—kind of a village of artists and musicians and writers (like, my dream scenario of what the Harlem Renaissance was, we’re making true right now). I wrote her: “This is a graphic score,” meaning, these are music gestures. I’ve looked at enough music to know what music looks like, and this is music! And this is a painting of course, but this is also another kind of sweeping gesture that musicians often rustle our way through. So, we started talking once I got back to New York. We would meet for breakfast at this place in Harlem called Sylvia’s. We’d just talk about paintings, and then she would tell me about things like the moments when paintings used to be unveiled in a theater, from behind a curtain, and they would let an audience sit and look at it. Then, she was working on these pieces for San Francisco. I was also closing my rehearsal space I had uptown, and I said, “Can I just bring some instruments over there?” To this huge church. She said, “Sure!” That’s how it started.

Photo by Sarah Rentz.

Was this performance an idea you had discussed? Or was it more spontaneous? After a certain point, we formalized it with Performa. It’s rare that a musician and an artist can be in a space working together, in their most vulnerable time, because the ideas aren’t finished—we’re scratching out thoughts, some of them will make it to the end and some of them won’t. When we’d meet together, we wouldn’t say too much to each other. If I walked in and she was already on the cherry-picker, three stories in the air, working on a mark, I would go up to my instrument and start playing. I would do these two, three-hour stretches of just composing. Then afterward, we’d talk. We had one talk about sharing a space, as one who works with sound and one who works with image, but how we both depend on that: In my rehearsal space, the things you see on the wall would tell you what I needed to see to be inspired. In an artist’s space, the music that they always have playing in the background lets you know that they’re listening to tons of music, and know a lot about it. Then, these were some of the first things we’re writing post-2016-election. This was something that you could not ignore, I would say. She’s dealing with a scale larger than she’s ever worked with before. There’s all this uncharted territory. Her dealing with the idea of a landscape, and what the future holds for the country that we live in, made it powerful.

You’ve spent a lot of time visiting and working alongside visual artists in their studios before, haven’t you? Yes. Over the past 15 years, a lot of the community I’ve met has been in this world where artists are looking for sound to accompany maybe a video or performance. I’ve ended up spending just as much time in galleries and in studios to understand some of the language. An artist speaks very differently than a person who improvises, but I think what ends up being layered into the content—what informs a mark, or what informs a music phrase—those are from the same place. Usually, we try to coax each other into a certain understanding about what a viewer sees when they watch a video or watch a performance or see a painting. We want those to have a lasting effect on people. Musicians talk about attacks, how you attack a note; the attack that a painter has to have with the mark that hits the canvas, or with whatever medium, has to have the effect that once the viewer leaves, they can still think about that painting three weeks later, or six months later, or six years later. I think Julie gets at that longer trajectory in these pieces. To paint a landscape demands distance—the viewer is made aware of multiple subjects all at once.

On a personal level, how has the art world you’ve experienced differed from the music world you’ve experienced? Have you had to reckon with underlying beliefs that, at first, maybe didn’t seem compatible, in that there wasn’t a clear way to believe both sides? I went to a music conservatory, and I’m a music student, through and through. One thing that I was taught was to spend as much time viewing things in the day before I went to see a concert in the evening. By virtue of living in New York, you can go see a lot—you can go see the people on the street, you can walk into a gallery. I think, once I started working with a lot of performance and visual artists, did I see how the process was similar to what a jazz musician does—this was the thing that really captivated my mind in 2005, and I met people who were keen in exploring the process in front of the audience. Jazz musicians, they take a theme and then they totally unwrap it, sometimes even tear the paper to shreds in front of the audience, which is what John Coltrane is most famous for, breaking these compositions apart bit by bit. So, I wanted to understand more about that. In having discussions with many artists over the years, and working with them in many situations, I learned a lot about what was missing from my conservatory education: that you should understand culture in how it works across disciplines. Some artists have helped me find certain texts about jazz, or understand aspects of the music that the conservatory never taught us. That has helped me tremendously.

In so much of academia, particularly on the humanities side, it always seems like there’s a 50-year lag between the most recent parts of the curriculum, and what’s happening in the real world. Yes. If some 19 or 22-year-old is coming out of school, then they have a long career ahead of them, and they’ll figure it out whenever they figure it out, hopefully. But I think to give people the resources or ammunition to deal with the ups-and-downs of what it is to be a creative artist in America, you need to be aware of a lot, and the various conversations that happen within the fields. And to know that you’re not alone—not thinking that you’re some original, having some original thoughts, all off by yourself, and feeling…lonely. [laughs] You are not! So, go find the people.