a large three-panel mural with black writing and glyphs etched onto a yellow background

Matt Mullican (American, born 1951)

L’Art d’Ecrire (The Art of Writing), 2004–2005

Oil stick and acrylic paint on 64 canvas panels, 25 x 74 feet

Collection of Middlebury College Museum of Art, Vermont. Commissioned by the Committee on Art in Public Places, Middlebury College, with funds provided by the Glenstone Foundation in honor of Charles Gwathmey, and The Edwin Austin Abbey Memorial Fund for Mural Painting in America of The National Academy Museum and School of Fine Arts, New York, 2005.039.1. Copyright © Matt Mullican, courtesy of the artist and Peter Freeman, Inc., New York.

Location: In the atrium of the Davis Library

For nearly three decades, artist Matt 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, Mullican composes grids of information that can be both literal and evocative.

The artist’s visual language also includes a chromatic palette he has used since the 1970s. In addition to black, which represents language, his works employ the primary colors—red, yellow and blue—and, occasionally, green or white. For L’Art d’Ecrire he 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 is 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, “The Art of Writing,” 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 recognizable images in this encyclopedic survey of world knowledge are alphabets of myriad languages, charts of the heavenly bodies, and some references to Middlebury itself. For example, the library building has been acknowledged in the form of 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.