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Artist Matt Mullican wins commission for mural in new Middlebury College library

March 20, 2005

A model depicts the mural "L'Art d'Ecrire" in the new Middlebury College library 

MIDDLEBURY, Vt.-Richard Saunders, director of the Middlebury College Museum of Art and Walter Cerf Distinguished College Professor, has announced that California-born artist Matt Mullican has received the commission of a mural for the college's new library. A combined project of the Middlebury College Committee on Art in Public Places (CAPP) and the Edwin Austin Abbey Memorial Fund for Mural Painting in America, the mural, titled "L'Art d'Ecrire" ("The Art of Writing"), is scheduled for installation in the library early this summer.  The mural will hang from the second and third story wall that rises above the information desk in the main entrance lobby of the building.

The Edwin Austin Abbey Memorial Fund for Mural Painting in America, which is maintained by the National Academy Museum and School of Fine Arts in New York, was established at the National Academy in 1932; this is the first project underwritten by the fund in the 21st century. In 1994 the Middlebury College board of trustees founded CAPP and designated one percent of the cost of building projects on campus to be set aside for the acquisition and care of works of art in public spaces. The mural project is the most recent of more than a dozen overseen by CAPP at Middlebury. Photos and information regarding works of art maintained by CAPP are available on the Web at

The announcement concludes two years of preparation. In 2003 a joint committee of the National Academy and CAPP publicly announced a competition for the commission of the mural. More than 70 artists were solicited to submit applications for the competition. A committee comprised of three representatives from Middlebury College, three from the Edwin Austin Abbey Mural Committee, and one representative from Gwathmey Siegal & Associates, the architectural firm that designed the library, selected three finalists from this pool. The three finalists were invited to visit the campus, survey the site, and propose a design for the mural. Mullican's design was selected in the fall of 2004, and last month a model of the mural was placed on public view in the library building.

The historic conjunction of Middlebury and the National Academy was further enhanced by the Glenstone Foundation, which provided additional support for the mural project. At the dedication of the library building on Oct. 8, 2004, Middlebury College President Ronald D. Liebowitz announced that the installation of the mural would be in honor of Charles Gwathmey, architect of the library, in recognition of his commitment to excellence in education.

Now living in New York, Mullican was born in Santa Monica, Calif., in 1951. He received a bachelor of fine arts degree at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, where he studied with John Baldessari. He has exhibited his work widely in the United States and abroad since the mid-1970s. For nearly three decades Mullican has evolved a visual language that describes an imagined world, a universe of his own creation. Drawing from a rich vocabulary of images, many of which have roots in actual signs and symbols from the public realm, he composes grids of information that can be both literal and evocative.

The artist's work also includes a chromatic palette he has used since the 1970s. In addition to black and white, which represent language, his works employ the primary colors-red, yellow and blue-and, occasionally, green or white. For "L'Art d'Ecrire" Mullican has chosen to use black and yellow. Signifying "the world framed" in the artist's own terms, yellow provides a legible background for the artist's adaptation and incorporation of imagery from a wide range of published sources.

The mural will be comprised of 64 individual panels created using a transfer technique favored by the artist. Mullican first makes a vinyl template for each image, which is articulated as a positive relief. The yellow canvas is then laid over the template and rubbed by hand, with black oilstick. The imagery of the template is thus transferred, via the rubbing, onto the canvas. The artist's process and its final character are akin to the popular activity of making chalk rubbings from old gravestones. 

The title of the mural, "L'Art d'Ecrire," as well as a number of the images within the work, have come from the influential 18th century "Encyclopedia" compiled by the French academicians Denis Diderot and Jean d'Alembert. This multi-volume anthology of articles and images on a broad range of topics endeavored to catalogue all of human knowledge, with an unprejudiced respect for the mechanical arts as well as the intellectual, or liberal, arts. 

Like his Enlightenment predecessors, Mullican shares an enthusiasm for anthologizing.  Woven within "L'Art d'Ecrire," one can find references to a range of ideas that encompasses language, geography, history, the natural world and the built environment. Among the work's recognizable images are alphabets of myriad languages, charts of the heavenly bodies, and some references to Middlebury itself. For example, the library building has been acknowledged by two floor plans found in the mural's center panel. Mullican's iconography places an emphasis on the world as perceived through the visual language of commonly accepted signs and symbols that his viewers can read. More broadly, the fundamental concept of the library as a locus of knowledge, research and information resonates throughout the mural's imagery and themes.

An exhibition of Mullican's work opened March 18 at the Ludwig Museum in the German city of Cologne. Solo museum exhibitions of Mullican's work have also been mounted in Basel, St. Louis, Amsterdam, Brussels, Vienna, Hamburg, Santa Barbara, Washington, D.C., and New York. A retrospective, "Mullican Frame, More Details from an Imaginary Universe," was organized by the Museu de Arte Contemporanea de Serralves in Porto, Portugal, and circulated to museums in Barcelona, St. Gall and Bolzano, as well as Oxford, England, in 2000 and 2001. His public and corporate commissions may be seen at Akron University; the National Institute for Academic Degrees (NIAD), Tokyo; Schiphol International Airport, Amsterdam; Miyagi University, Japan; Los Angeles Convention Center; University of Houston; Santa Barbara Museum of Art; Swiss Bank Corporation, New York; and Haags Gemeentemuseum, The Hague, Netherlands. He is represented by Mai 36 Galerie in Zurich, and Tracy Williams, Ltd. in New York. 

For further information, contact Emmie Donadio, associate director of the Middlebury College Museum of Art, at 802-443-2240.

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