Public Art

Coming to Light, 1994

Jim Melchert
225-foot-long ceramic mural installed along a hallway with one long wall of windows

Jim Melchert, Coming to Light, 1994. Commissioned with MIT Percent-for-Art Funds.

Koch Biology Building (Building 68), Lobby
Jim Melchert
Hand-glazed ceramic tile
168 x 2700 in. (426.7 x 6858 cm)

Commissioned with MIT Percent-for-Art Funds

Although Jim Melchert began his artistic career as a conceptually oriented painter, he is best known for his unique procedural works involving ceramic tiles: he breaks, draws on, reassembles, and glazes them, often emphasizing gestural lines or physical fractures.

The resulting works dynamically balance chance and control, the organic and the synthetic, the intuitive and the intellectual, the handmade and the manufactured. 

Coming to Light, a 225-foot-long mural, brings his experiments in ceramics to a larger scale while responding to the architecture of the building and to the forms of research conducted within. The work is installed along a hallway with one long wall of windows. This allows viewers to see glimpses of the mural from outside the building and provides continually changing light conditions that affect the appearance of the work, particularly in the sections with textured tiles. The mural itself is divided into sections with different visual vocabularies, some graphic and others freeform, all appearing both elementary and scientific. One section is dominated by overlapping circles suggestive of Venn diagrams, or of the process of focusing binocular lenses on a microscope. Another section depicts a spiral that also evokes the double helix of a DNA molecule. A third contains a cluster of seemingly abstract forms in variegated colors—Melchert’s imagination of microorganisms. For the artist, these abstract forms all serve as visual metaphors for the iterative processes required in scientific experiments, and emphasize the importance of art in visualizing what we cannot yet see or understand.

James (Jim) Melchert (b. 1930-2023) was born in New Bremen, Ohio. After graduating in 1952 from Princeton University, where he studied art history, Melchert spent four years teaching English in Japan. He returned to the United States in 1956 and received an MFA in painting at the University of Chicago. After taking classes with ceramicist Peter Voulkos, he followed Voulkos to the University of California at Berkeley, where he embarked on a degree in Decorative Arts, devoting himself exclusively to ceramics. Melchert taught at the San Francisco Art Institute from 1961 to 1965 and was a professor at University of California, Berkeley from 1965 to 1992. He was later the director of both the American Academy in Rome and the Visual Art Program at the National Endowment for the Arts. Melchert also holds a Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts Degrees from the San Francisco Art Institute and the Maryland Institute College of Art. He was awarded the Centennial Medal of the American Academy in Rome and the Distinguished Alumnus Award from the College of Environmental Design at the University of California, Berkeley. Melchert’s work is held in private collections as well as in the public collections of the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. He lived and worked in Oakland, California. 


Listen: Jim Melchert on Coming to Light