Yet flexibility and innovation have consistently characterized Mehretu’s practice over the past 20 years. After the artist graduated from the MFA program at the Rhode Island School of Design in 1997, she used architectural plans (an airport diagram, for example) as source materials for her paintings’ underlayers. In the early 2000s, she began working from actual photographs of buildings, again excerpting or quoting their elements to create an underlying compositional structure. Her early work often featured gridded sections and hard-edged shapes that swirled to create a sense of three-dimensionality.
For example, in a suite of three 2004 paintings, Stadia I, II, and III, rows and columns of thin ink lines underlie brightly hued circles, linked triangles (which resemble hanging pendants), and thicker straight and curved lines that appear to shoot from the canvas. The paintings incorporate tracings made from hundreds of sports stadiums spanning 2,500 years of global history: from the Olympiastadion that Hitler built to Chile’s National Stadium, which dictator Augusto Pinochet used as a prison camp. Mehretu thinks of the stadiums as a “metaphoric structure of our collective history for spectacle, propaganda, and crime.”