Beneath the bustling traffic on Interstate 395, the ivory walls of the underpass at 6th Street SE have lost their original glossy look. The painted patterns of rectilinear blocks—red, white, blue, and yellow, with thick black outlines—have broken out in splotches of gray.
Along with the whir of cars overhead, the underpass echoes with the clamor of construction. North of the freeway is the Capitol Hill Historic District, where hard-hat-clad crews are erecting new apartment buildings on both sides of the street. Brick row houses line the road for much of the rest of the way up to Pennsylvania Avenue.
On the south side of the freeway, the Arthur Capper housing project is boarded up, marked by D.C. Housing Authority “No Trespassing” signs. The highway has long been the dividing line between upscale Capitol Hill and stereotypical Southeast; the underpass, a gateway between the two distinct neighborhoods.
It was once a dreary corridor of drab concrete. But in the late ’80s, north-side resident Warren M. Robbins “got sick and tired of driving through the dismal tunnel,” he says, and decided to spruce it up. His idea: to replicate the geometric paintings of Dutch-American neo-plasticist pioneer Piet Mondrian on both walls of the underpass. The tunnel currently bears 13 of these abstract designs, now in decay.
Why Mondrian? “Because,” Robbins says, “I was interested in Mondrian.”
Not everyone is such a fan, however.
Over the past two years, highway construction above has marred the murals’ appearance, leading to talk of refurbishment. Robbins is determined to have his Mondrians restored to their original form. But some local residents have other ideas, such as replacing them with artwork that has wider appeal, or even covering them up entirely.
Robbins isn’t about to watch his Mondrians disappear, however. “When that happens,” the 42-year Capitol Hill resident says, “I will leave.”
Robbins, 79, traces his passion for Mondrian’s rectangular renderings back to his childhood, when staring at bathroom tile sent his mind reeling. “You can look at certain geometric forms as coming out, or going in: concave,” he says. “You can work them to become positive or negative.”
A retired foreign-service officer, Robbins long ago began putting that early interest in the visual to use by amassing an art collection. While working as a U.S. cultural attache in Germany in 1958, Robbins happened upon an antique shop near Hamburg, where various African sculptures caught his eye. He ended up buying a total of 32 pieces.
From that initial collection, Robbins would start his own museum. Six years later, he purchased a former home of famed 19th-century abolitionist Frederick Douglass, where he put his pieces on display.
When his collection had expanded to more than 5,000 works, in 1979, Robbins handed it over to the Smithsonian Institution. The National Museum of African Art, now located on the Mall, includes a library named for Robbins, who retains the title of founding director emeritus of the museum.
Robbins’ row house, located just two blocks north of the Mondrian murals, is adorned with African art, complemented by 10 silk-screens of Mondrian’s paintings. Mounted to the back of his front door is a sign that once greeted passers-by entering the 6th Street underpass. “Please do not deface these murals,” it reads, “or dis our neighborhood.”
What intrigues Robbins about Mondrian’s work, he says, is its “balanced asymmetry.” That is, he says, “taking asymmetrical patterns and balancing them so they come into harmony.”
Coining the term “neo-plasticism” in a 1920 manifesto, Mondrian used blocks of primary colors and vertical and horizontal lines to express both spiritual and formal concerns. His abstract patterns have been imitated throughout popular culture—on dresses, handbags, L’Oreal hairspray bottles—and yes, the Partridge Family bus.
When Robbins first got the idea for the Mondrian murals, he called on his close friend Harry Holtzman—the childless Mondrian’s sole heir. Holtzman, an avant-garde artist himself, had financed Mondrian’s immigration from Paris to New York City in 1940 and supported him until his death, in 1944.
“Shortly before Harry died, some years ago,” Robbins says, “I said to him, ‘How would you like to see Mondrians on an outdoor mural in an underpass?’ Mondrian was very much interested in city streets. He said, ‘Sure.’ And I said, ‘Well, can we get it in writing?’ So I drafted a couple letters authorizing me to do this.”
Robbins then enlisted local muralist G. Byron Peck to supervise the painting, much of which was done by volunteers.
“It seemed like a really cool way to introduce a dual population to a style of jazzy artwork,” says Peck, whose prolific work includes murals at Metro Center, the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, the U.S. Nuclear Energy Commission headquarters, and Chief Ike’s Mambo Room. Peck also painted outdoor portraits of Duke Ellington, outside the U Street/Cardozo Metro station, and Frederick Douglass, on Massachusetts Avenue NW.
Peck says the Mondrian designs are a good fit for the space. “The way the rectilinear lines of the [nearby] buildings match up with the rectilinear lines of the abstractive work,” he says, “you kind of bring a concept of life. You bring it into a field of appreciation for people who are just walking back and forth between the projects and the stores and houses. You liven the space and, hopefully, the intellectual outlook. You make people curious about what they are and why they’re here.”
The murals started out as “a modest project,” Robbins says, but quickly expanded. “First we did one. Then we did three. Then we gradually, through successive summers, did a total of 13,” he says. The effort also produced a 30-foot-high Mondrian design on an adjacent Ellen Wilson Dwellings building, which was torn down in 1996.
Although he says Mondrian’s estate signed off on the project, Robbins never applied for a permit to paint in public space. (Earlier this year, Peck went to the District Department of Transportation Public Space Committee for approval of another underpass mural, at 12th Street and Maine Avenue SW.) But the lack of authorization didn’t seem to matter. “When we were doing it,” Robbins says, “somebody from the city came by and said, ‘You know, you’re not supposed to do this without a permit—but go ahead.’”
Eventually, the city devoted funds and manpower to the project, and ultimately “took credit for it,” Robbins says. In fact, the bronze plaque mounted to the eastern wall of the underpass bears no mention of Robbins, though Peck is named as project artist. “This mural was completed,” it says, “with funds from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, the Mayor’s Summer Youth Employment Program, and D.C. Artworks.”
Robbins says the public’s response to the murals, which were completed in 1988 and repainted in 1995, has been overwhelmingly positive: “A few people said, ‘What is this? This is not art.’ But we didn’t want to fight that battle, so we ignored it. Most people that would drive by while we were doing it would give us the thumbs-up signal.”
“When it first went up,” says Capitol Hill native Julia Robey, “I was sort of like, ‘Huh?’”
Then a teenager, Robey is now quite familiar with what she calls Mondrian’s “symbolic images of street lines and democracy, equality, everything working in a rigid, never-ending cycle.” Having studied fine arts at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, Robey today serves as program coordinator for the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop. But she readily admits: “I’m not a big Mondrian fan.”
During freeway construction this summer, the District Department of Transportation threatened to cover the deteriorating Mondrians with anti-graffiti paint unless community members offered a better solution. Some residents liked the notion of a clean-slated underpass. “I vote to keep the walls plain,” wrote one resident to an area e-mail discussion group. “Anti-grafitti paint in a neutral color sounds perfect to me,” seconded another.
Robey, however, came forward with a plan to organize a collaborative effort, involving residents from both sides of the freeway, to revitalize the underpass. And the department abandoned its cover-up scheme.
But instead of restoring the Mondrians, Robey proposed creating a new mural, “something that would fit the space and make more sense to the community at large,” she says. “Images of, say, people being together, city life, Hill life, people united.”
Then Robey found out that the Mondrians had been initiated by Robbins, a founding Capital Hill Arts Workshop member, and promptly backed down. “As a community organization,” she says, “the last thing we want to do is step on anyone’s toes.”
Fellow Capitol Hill dweller Christine McCoy had earlier volunteered to help Robbins organize a rehab job. McCoy is something of a community activist, spearheading, for instance, an annual Earth Day cleanup of 8th Street SE.
But when McCoy met with Robbins, the two quickly butted heads. “Warren wanted to act as if he was the lord god king ruler of what the process would be,” McCoy says. “I was talking about going to the city to make sure we have permission to restore them—you know, get the right permits. He’d hear none of it. He was afraid it would slow down the process.”
It wasn’t long before McCoy bailed on Robbins. “The thing is,” she says, “we try to do things around here nowadays by consensus. Warren just wants to refurbish the Mondrians. I’m not sure that most people do. I got phone calls from people saying, ‘Let’s bag it. Let’s do something different.’ He feels like he owns that space and it needs to be restored in the way it is now.”
McCoy says she’s not against the murals’ restoration per se, but she takes issue with Robbins’ autocratic approach.
“I’d hate to see them painted over and just forgotten,” she says. “But I think it’s a community thing and needs to be decided by a number of different people in the community—not dictated by just one person.”
Robbins counters that he didn’t want “some committee of uninformed people putting up another mural of great black leaders.” That’s been done. “Better,” he opines, “to have people become educated to one of the most important painters of the 20th century.”
When asked whether passers-by get the murals, Robbins replies: “Not yet, but in time, they will.” Determined to trigger that epiphany, Robbins wants Peck and his crew to start scraping away the old paint and applying a new coat as soon as possible. “We want to pick up with it,” he says, “as soon as the weather clears.” CP