Visual Arts: The Beauty of Bars of Color within Squares

Sometimes what is initially thought to be awkward will eventually be visually pleasing.
—Sol LeWitt, “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” 1967

Bars of Color within Squares, a permanent installation in MIT’s Green Center, Cambridge, MA.

mit-10_lewitt_1Finding Bars of Color within Squares. Photo: George Bouret

Reviewed by Yumi Araki

Hidden between three buildings surrounding Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT’s) Green Center, Sol LeWitt’s u-shaped 5,500 square-foot terrazzo floor installation, Bars of Color within Squares, is truly a spectacle not only to behold, but also to be experienced.

The experience begins with the search to find the door leading to the atrium, which is tucked away along the aptly named Infinite Corridor of MIT’s Physics Department. Even for the intrepid wanderer, finding the enchanted door with the hanging chalkboard bearing mystic symbols and complex equations is quite the feat. Luckily, the vibrant colors from the terrazzo floor peek through the door’s window, and suddenly the corridor doesn’t seem so infinite.

While deceivingly simplistic, the vibrant geometric squares that color the floors stimulate illusionary senses. They are representative manifestations of LeWitt’s style, which emphasizes concept over aesthetic. In his seminal 1967 essay, “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” LeWitt champions what he calls “conceptual art,” which emphasizes the concept or idea rather than the aesthetic or presentation of the work. He also strives to make art “mentally interesting to the spectator.” Thus much of LeWitt’s work treats art as not only something to behold, but also something to be experienced.

Bars of Color from another angle

Bars of Color from another angle Photo: George Bouret

Completed in 2007, the floor consists of 15 different arrangements of vibrant squares. The surface is made with epoxy (a fiber-reinforced plastic) and glass beads; this material differs from the make-up of traditional terrazzo floors, which are constructed with gravel, cement, and marble chips. Never an artist complacent with convention, LeWitt was among a prominent group of artists who, in the early and mid-1960s broke away from traditional art. He tossed away the canvas and used different materials, such as wood, cinder blocks, and metal. Gray and white lines encompass each square, giving each the distinctive definition of steppingstones arranged with linear precision like rocks in a colorful Zen garden.

At first glance, LeWitt’s terrazzo floor looks starkly elementary, even unimpressive, compared to the atrium that surrounds it. At ground level, the terrazzo arrangement looks like a floor of a kindergarten classroom. In fact, the floor appears to be no more than what the installation promises: bars of color within randomly arranged geometric figures. The simple, primary color choices strike you as kid’s stuff. But it takes more than an initial look at the floor to experience and understand LeWitt’s conceptual presentation.

Encompassing the terrazzo floor is the aforementioned atrium space, which is evocative of some high-tech, aerial metropolis. Electric cables and lab equipment peek through the skeletal, glass-windowed building at the center of the floor, and the central structure resembles an energy source with networks of passageways leading in and out of the structure. At any moment it seems like a hovercraft could shoot from the center on to a passageway leading to the terrace on the other side. The passageways are also open-air and walled with glass, which adds to the sci-fi “Metropolis” appeal.

Built in a way that expands the campus from within, the architectural strategy designed by Payette Associates of Boston takes advantage of the nooks and spaces among the three buildings within MIT’s Physics Department complex. The approach effectively creates a building within a building. The metaphysical space is calm and serene, and the glass windows that span the back wall draw in soft rays of light, creating an escape from the cognitive hubbub outside.

The contrast between the vibrant squares and the ultra-chic space around them seems to clash at first. But at the end of the ground floor where the u-shape plateaus, a door opens to a staircase leading upward to the glass-windowed central structure. Cubicles and professors’ offices occupy the second floor, and the third and fourth floors adhere to the same design. At the end of each hallway, a lounge and study area (evident from the ubiquitous equations scribbled across chalkboards by the tables) jut away from the offices to form a terrace that overlooks the terrazzo floor.

Looking Down

Looking down on Bars of Color: a view that taunts the eye. Photo: George Bouret

Peering down at LeWitt’s installation from above drastically transforms the flat terrazzo into three-dimensional-looking spaces that taunt the eye. Just one climb to the second floor transforms what were mere squares into colorful depth fields, which change according to the angle of view. The shapes and illusionary effects are most vivid from the third floor as the shapes begin to take the form of rooms. Some color blocks resemble bird’s-eye views of empty hallways while others look like they offer aerial snapshots of a maze. Slowly the linear shapes and the perceptions that the colored squares conjure begin to adapt to the surrounding high-tech space.

LeWitt also argued in his seminal 1967 essay that successful conceptual art usually relies little on an artist’s skill or craftsmanship and more on the notion that “the idea becomes a machine that makes the art.” Indeed, many of LeWitt’s works appear geometric and incredibly simplistic. Even his public installation at the Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Washington, D.C. is titled just the way it looks (Within a Circle, Lines in Four Directions). But upon changing the environment or perspective, the lines seem to move, creating an optical illusion.

The same effect is evident for Bars of Color. But without proper architectural consultation and collaboration to translate idea into art, LeWitt’s art would arguably resonate differently. Would the bars of color effectively morph into illusionary 3-D spaces without MIT’s facilities or Payette Associates’ creative direction?

The artistic space continues on the third and fourth floors, where LeWitt’s earlier paintings and pieces by other contemporary artists including Conlon Williams and Kes Zapkins are displayed in a space behind the offices. The theme of vibrant colors against intricate geometric shapes ties the collection together, creating a small gallery within the central building. Come to think of it, MIT revels in this architectural aesthetic as it continues on the walls of the institution’s Visual Arts Center and the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory.

Conceptual artist Sol Lewitt

Conceptual artist Sol LeWitt

Bars of Color within Squares both defies and adheres to the definition of conceptual art. LeWitt’s revolutionary aesthetic resonates because it appears to be simplistic yet uses that apparent directness to camouflage an impressive complexity. Still, without the artistry of those who can convert the conceptual into the physical and the surrounding atmosphere that augments the ideas and energy of the art, the approach would remain one-dimensional. LeWitt’s imagination needs the right space to grow in.

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