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A Graveyard, Democratizing Decoration, and Art Beyond Repair: Joyce Kozloff’s ‘New England Decorative Arts’ at Harvard Station

Joyce Kozloff's “New England Decorative Arts” in Harvard Square Station.
Joyce Kozloff's “New England Decorative Arts” in Harvard Square Station. By Courtesy of Cymie Payne
By Marin E. Gray, Crimson Staff Writer

One of Harvard Square Station’s liveliest art installations was born in a graveyard.

“I began with the gravestones,” said artist Joyce Kozloff on how she developed her public artwork “New England Decorative Arts.” A colorful, eight by 83-foot-long ceramic tile mural against a gently curved wall, the piece has enlivened the Harvard bus terminal’s double-ramp walkway since its installation.

The work was Kozloff’s first public art commission, received in 1979 and installed in 1985 with hand-painted low-fire tiles and glazes. Having been selected as an artist for the station, she traveled to Boston to mine for local inspiration as she consulted with the architects designing the space.

There, the artist was advised to visit one of Boston’s cemeteries.

“They told me that that cemetery had these motifs that were very particular to New England. And I went and I made sketches,” she said.

The piece is indeed bracketed on either end with gravestone motifs, bringing to life the spirit of its Boston context. “There were four motifs … sad angels, weeping willows, angels, and deathheads.”

Each motif takes on a character of its own when discovered in the dedicated two-tile-wide strip on either end of the work, whimsically layered within tiles of varying shape and color.

Kozloff’s mural is divided into eight sections, each comprising a unique set of interlocking geometric shapes: octagons, eight-point stars, notched crosses, diamonds, and squares. These varied shapes dance with one another to form a textile-like composition of pale greens, warm yellows, muted reds and oranges, and indigos.

The gravestone designs are far from the only means of integrating Boston’s visual culture. The piece on the whole draws from the art of colonial New England, incorporating inspiration from bowsprits, weathervanes, quilting, and colonial wallpaper stencils. A tiled tapestry of the visual motifs of the formation of what is now Boston, the piece communicates the character and history of the region via its visual traditions to residents and visitors alike.

While researching Boston and its formation, Kozloff was first struck by the city’s unexpected configuration. Boston hadn’t subscribed to the typical city divide, consisting of a center filled with workers toiling in factories in poor conditions while gentry lived comfortably around the outskirts.

“With Boston, it was the opposite,” she said — while the gentry enjoyed green swaths with gardens and parks in the city center, milltowns of people working in the harsh conditions of mills and textile factories formed the city perimeter.

Kozloff calls attention to this divergence with an intentional inversion, instead spotlighting a New England milltown within the piece’s largest central passage. A thin wooden fence cuts zig-zags diagonally across this section, running toward the viewer as it carves out a unique three-dimensional space for the milltown, separating this section from the two-dimensional plane of the rest of the work. Textile mills and factories appear in huddled clusters throughout the scene, alternately guided by and rejecting the rigid geometrical confines of individual tiles. Though the section doesn’t feature human figures, the scenes and realities of colonial workers are deliberately ushered inward to the forefront of the piece and viewers’ attention.

But the piece doesn’t stop with merely an external visualization of the physiognomy of colonial Boston. Kozloff described how stencils were used as wallpaper at this time, since the latter had become too expensive to import from Europe.

“These stencilers would sort of go from house to house and stencil these motifs, which were like wallpaper,” she said.

To incorporate these motifs into the piece, Kozloff herself drew from a book of stencil motifs, assuming a pseudo-role as stenciler herself in decorating the wall of Harvard’s home station.

The second section nestled along the wall’s upper curvature features sailing boat designs originally engraved by Paul Revere, who had also worked as a silversmith and engraver prior in addition to being a revolutionary.

Yet the installation is revolutionary in a far deeper sense. The rest of the piece pays homage to traditionally female decorative art forms like quilting, a theme the artist has often probed within her work as an originating member of the 1970s Pattern and Decoration movement.

“As soon as I realized that the arts that are traditionally done by women are not considered high art, as a young feminist, that became a subject of interest to me,” she said.

For Kozloff, the medium of public art itself provided an unprecedented opportunity to break into the art scene as a woman artist.

“The gallery system was very closed to women. But this was a new wide open field,” explained Kozloff of the proliferation of public arts programs in the ’70s. “A lot of the women who I knew in the feminist art movement, like me, began doing public art around that time.”

Though for all of the piece’s layers and symbolisms, Kozloff doesn’t expect passengers to halt their commutes to contemplate her work at length in one sitting. Rather, the motion of hurried commuters and the repetition of daily transport routines is embedded within the piece’s very structure.

“I had a model made by an architecture student, a cardboard model. And I imagined myself a little person moving through that model, and what you’d see from different points … I’ve always tried to imagine the experience of passing through it,” the artist said.

Those who may attempt to take in the full work on their next visit to the station will experience what Kozloff noticed in the model: The wall on which the piece is installed is closest, and therefore most visible, immediately upon entry to the lower ramp, but curves overhead out of sight as one descends. Passengers climbing the upper ramp will find the opposite is true. While separated from the art initially, the wall bounds up to meet them once they reach the highest, farthest point of the ramp.

“So the most detailed stuff is at both ends. And then in the center, where you never get close to it, it's broader, the way it's painted,” said Kozloff.

Beyond the logistics of viewing the piece, Kozloff considered the piece’s effect on the experience of moving through the walkway. The tiling maintains a playful but strategic balance in its colors, forms, and illustrated textures, the sections alternately immersing passersby in warm or cool colors.

“I thought of it like a person walking through — they’re going through these different passages like chapters in a book or sections of a symphony or something. And so they have different rhythms. Some are shorter, some are longer; some are brighter, some are cooler.”

Still, Kozloff didn’t assume that all who walk by will fully experience the piece’s syncopated rhythms or iconographic complexities on the first pass. Her considerations for the piece also warmly embrace those whose priorities for their time in the station don’t include viewing her art. “New England Decorative Arts,” after all, sits above a walkway rather than a waiting area, assuming a transience in its viewers further enforced by a rather firm “No Loitering” notice posted across from the piece.

“People are going to be running through it … to make their trains or their buses, and many of them will go through there every day of their life, twice a day if they’re commuting. So I wanted to give them things to see on different days,” Kozloff said.

The piece reveals itself bit by bit, a story begging to be revisited and seen anew on each pass through the terminal rather than an instant image to be consumed at once like those to which we’ve grown accustomed. As with György Kepes’s installation “Blue Sky on the Red Line” of the upper bus terminal, Kozloff’s piece offers enchantingly layered significances to be discovered by those willing to devote an extra moment of regard.

Yet those who do choose to linger — or dare to loiter — by the piece for a moment longer will find an unfortunate surprise: The piece today is in ruin. Cracks strike unforgivingly through the tile, and much of the right-most section has been stripped down to the tiles’ rough inner ceramic with but a few remnants of colored glaze peeling from the wall.

“I created the piece in low fire clay with low fire glazes, which I would not do today. I didn’t know better, and no one told me,” the artist said. The poorly engineered wall’s misplaced joints along the surface’s curvature have forced cracks through the wall, and moisture seeping from the street through the porous surface has relentlessly damaged the piece since its installation.

“My piece could not be restored,” said Kozloff. “I have to make a new piece, and it’s very expensive and for a multitude of reasons.”

To ensure the new piece’s longevity in spite of the wall’s deficiencies, the process of installing a replacement work would be intensive: The porous wall must first be covered with a new impermeable barrier before Kozloff’s new, more vitreous mural could be installed without contact with the wall itself. Beyond raising the funds for the new piece, the MBTA must authorize the initiative, which has yet to happen.

“I hope to see it restored in my lifetime,” Kozloff added. For now, the original piece, born in a graveyard, is now doomed to its own grave.

The “Arts on the Line” program responsible for the commission of the pieces enjoyed by passengers along the MBTA lines has now dissolved, leaving behind a line of unsupported art and no resources with which to maintain, replace, or create new installations. Though the artist contracts originally included a repair and maintenance clause, the dissolution of the program and lack of money allocated to art has left the pieces to decay.

For Joyce Kozloff’s work and for public art in Massachusetts, the stakes are high. As the MBTA works to eliminate pesky slow zones on its lines, it is imperative that the value of public art be factored into the passenger experience beyond the tracks themselves.

“I feel like it’s an open air art gallery in a way, you know. And if you get off at a certain station, you can look at it and look closely at different parts of it. And I think it does make a difference,” said Kozloff.

Joyce Kozloff’s work, though in poor condition and worsening by the day, certainly makes a difference in Harvard’s station. It animates and elevates Harvard’s subterranean commute, visually narrating regional context with a digestible vibrancy which would otherwise be drearily absent from the underground space. From those rushing through the tunnel with the piece in the corners of their eyes to those who look at the work to truly see it, Joyce Kozloff’s first public art commission was built to unconditionally enrich the experience of all its viewers.

To be certain, the MBTA has safety concerns to prioritize on its lines. But it’s hard to imagine that walking past abandoned artworks left to ruin would inspire confidence in the line for even the most inattentive of passengers.

Would passengers rather rush off to their trains without the life brought by installations like “New England Decorative Arts,” chased by a relentless program of beige tiling and fluorescent lights? For the sake of the everyday passerby and the stakes of Boston’s public arts scene, the MBTA’s pieces and passengers deserve far more than a transit institution blinded to the value of its art by its tunnel-vision.

—In her column “Underground, Overlooked,” Marin E. Gray ’26 platforms the public art installations of the MBTA’s Red Line stations. She can be reached at marin.gray@thecrimson.com.

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