Robert Motherwell’s JFK Mural

This is the third post in a series on Art Hiding in Plain Sight

The John F. Kennedy Federal Building’s Motherwell mural is not hard to find, although it is one of few paintings you have to pass a security screen to reach. Hundreds of people walk under this Art Hiding in Plain Sight every day because it hangs above a well-traveled hallway.

New England Elegy, Robert Motherwell, JFK Federal Building, General Services Administration

“New England Elegy”

Those folks probably don’t give it a second glance and that’s too bad. This large painting offers more than meets the eye—and what meets the eye is a powerful abstract composition.

“New England Elegy”

Entitled “New England Elegy,” the mural in black, blue, white and yellow is the first painting in a series of that name. The series began when the U.S. General Services Administration commissioned American Artist Robert Motherwell (1915 – 1991) to create a mural that would hang in the large, glassed-in corridor of the J.F.K Federal Building in Government Center.

The wall plaque beside the painting states,

“The mural is an abstract painting which represents a bereavement of the martyred and beloved President John F. Kennedy.  It evokes varying triumphant and melancholy emotions upon each individual viewer in reflecting on the heroic president’s life.”

It was completed and dedicated in 1966. The striking abstract painting is 108 square feet and cost $25,000. Although chiefly black on white, it has a blue lower border and a bright yellow line running through a center section of white.

The Controversy

Almost as soon as it was hung, “New England Elegy” generated controversy. Its artistic merit was quickly bypassed, as some viewers found in it a Rorshach version of President Kennedy’s assassination. A great deal of ink and opinion ensued. The artist commented on this controversy, denying any such intent.

“The painting is totally abstract. It is not a picture of Kennedy’s death, but an elegy, which is an expression of grief for someone dead, like a requiem mass.”

No one ever claimed to find images in any of Mr. Motherwell’s other work, including the 103 additional Elegy paintings. Still, the image can be difficult to unsee.

The controversy was so powerful here, however, it preoccupied Bostonians for some time. Although a tempest in a teapot, it might have motivated some people to view the painting who otherwise would have ignored it as a work of art. I remember going to see “New England Elegy” after it was hung and, at the time, you could just walk into the building.

Robert Motherwell

Robert Motherwell, ArtFuse

Courtesy of ArtFuse

Robert Motherwell was an American abstract expressionist painter, printmaker, author, and editor. He was one of the youngest of the New York School of artists, which also included Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, and William Baziotes.

Through his writing and teaching, he became an unofficial spokesman and interpreter for the Abstract Expressionist movement. Mr. Motherwell’s extensive oeuvre has been collected by major museums all over the world.

His third marriage was to the painter Helen Frankenthaler for 13 years. He died in Provincetown on Cape Cod in 1991.

The J.F.K. Federal Building

The Kennedy Federal Building stands on the northwest side of Government Center Plaza, bounded by Cambridge, New Sudbury, and New Congress streets.

John F. Kennedy Federal Building, Boston, Government Center, Walter Gropius, The Architects Collaborative, TACMaster architect Walter Gropius (1883 – 1969) and his firm, The Architects Collaborative (TAC), designed the modern structure with the assistance of Boston architect Samuel Glaser.

The U.S. General Services Administration website says of his designs,

“Gropius’s Modern designs make no reference to regional or local architectural influences. Uniting new social demands with advanced technological possibilities, he radically simplified building design. Building forms were basic and usually built of glass, steel, and concrete with minimal ornamentation.”

Check. Check, And check. You either like this structure or you do not. Construction began in 1963 on land purchased for $1.2 million. The construction itself cost $24 million.

Although technically one structure, the Kennedy Federal Building consists of twin 26-story high-rise towers, which sit on axis to each other, and a low, four-story building. This modern combination of tall towers paired with low buildings decreases the visual bulk that would be created by a single monolithic building containing 839,000 square feet.

Finding the Motherwell Mural

New England Elegy, Robert Motherwell, hallway, corridor, JFK Federal BuildingTo find “New England Elegy,” go into the J.F.K. Federal Building’s Cambridge Street entrance, aka the Visitor’s Entrance, in the four-story portion of the building. A security screening station is located just inside the door.

When you go through the gate, you step into the glassed-in corridor with the mural straight ahead. It marks the entrance to the towers.

  • Closest T Stop: Government Center. Walk up to Cambridge Street and turn right.
  • Closest Parking: Center Plaza – If you can afford it. (Rates go down on nights and weekends) You can also park at the Boston Common Garage and walk down Tremont to Cambridge Street.

Art Hiding in Plain Sight

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About Aline Kaplan

Aline Kaplan is a published author, a blogger, and a tour guide in Boston. She formerly had a career as a high-tech marketing and communications director. Aline writes and edits The Next Phase Blog, a social commentary blog that appears multiple times a week at aknextphase.com. She has published over 1,000 posts on a variety of subjects, from Boston history to science fiction movies, astronomical events to art museums. Under the name Aline Boucher Kaplan, she has had two science fiction novels (Khyren and World Spirits) published by Baen Books. Her short stories have appeared in anthologies published in the United States, Ireland, and Australia. Aline’s articles have also appeared on the Atlas Obscura website. She has been an active member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America since 1988 and is a long-term member of the Spacecrafts science/fantasy writers’ group. As a tour guide, Aline leads architectural and historical walking tours of the city for Boston By Foot, ghost tours for Haunted Boston and historical bus tours of the city. She lectures on Boston history and has appeared in the Boston Globe, as well as on TV for Chronicle, an award-winning television program that broadcasts stories of New England. As a lecturer, Aline has spoken at Brandeis and Tufts universities for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. She has also addressed as service organizations and local meetings. She is a graduate of Northeastern University in Boston and lives in Hudson, MA.

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