The church was vaulted and grand and in no way recognizable as having been abandoned except for an awareness among everyone there—for a marquee event as part of the Performa biennial in New York—that it had served for a while as Julie Mehretu’s studio. The same reverent setting in Harlem was the birthing place of two enormous paintings—each measuring 27 by 32 feet, now on view in a site-specific home at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Pictures of Mehretu raised up on cherry-pickers accompanied the work’s creation in the months after last year’s presidential election, and the whole endeavor had an air of mystery about it then, especially for New Yorkers who never got to see the paintings before they shipped away so far from home.

As the story goes, Mehretu was paid visits while working there by her friend Jason Moran, a decorated jazz musician who would hang out on the balcony and play electric piano while she painted.

Jason Moran, American jazz pianist, composer, visual artist, and frequent collaborator with Joan Jonas, Lorna Simpson, Stan Douglas, and Glenn Ligon, would join her regularly on the balcony of this cavernous temporary studio. He improvised a score of quickly paced, melancholic songs on an electric piano, ones which sound similar to those played during New Orleans funeral processions, in response to her covering each enormous canvas with her signature mark-making style.

The projections of the paintings—which were commissioned by SFMOMA and can only be seen in the museum’s spacious atrium—did only so much to command attention, with an inertness inherent in digital images that only scales up with size. But there was enough evoked to trigger imaginings of what it might have been like in the church during the paintings’ making, with Mehretu working over textures and layers—of frenetic streaking marks, jaundiced pastel backgrounds, and digitized dots suggestive of something having been torn away—and Moran, alone in the balcony, pressing away at piano keys in response. Just the simple idea of the two of them there alone brought a certain howl to mind.

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