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MIT’s public art collection is both extensive and impressive

Sol LeWitt’s “Bars of Color Within Squares’’ at MIT’s Green Center for Physics. George Bouret/Photo: George Bouret

CAMBRIDGE - The Massachusetts Institute of Technology campus is not what you’d call cozy. Nor is it exactly picturesque. Even on a good day, this city within a city, with its daunting architecture, its dearth of trees, and that disconcerting railway track cutting straight through its heart, can make you feel like you’ve wandered onto a futuristic film set or a painting by de Chirico.

There’s definitely no ivy about. What’s more, MIT buildings tend to have numbers rather than names, adding to the sense that you need to crack some kind of code simply to get from A to B. Which may be fine if you’re smart enough to get into school there, but it’s a little discouraging for the rest of us.

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Certainly, it’s not the first place you’d think of for a Sunday stroll.

But a Sunday stroll across MIT is actually a wonderful option for anyone interested in large-scale, boldly conceived modern and contemporary art. With the help of a freely available map provided by the school, you can find yourself walking all over a stunning, brightly colored floor piece by Sol LeWitt, taking in outdoor sculptures by Alexander Calder, Mark di Suvero, Jacques Lipchitz, Louise Nevelson, and Henry Moore and sniffing out installations by such international stars as Frank Stella, Dan Graham, Matthew Ritchie, and Lawrence Weiner.

That’s just for starters. And it doesn’t include the amazing range of noteworthy architecture that provides the setting for many of these pieces: buildings designed by I.M Pei, Frank Gehry, Steven Holl, Eero Saarinen, and Alvar Aalto.

As students across the state go back to school, it’s a good time to make the most of MIT’s public art. The university’s List Visual Arts Center, which oversees the collection, has spent the summer pursuing an ambitious cleaning and conservation project.

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“We’ve been keeping the conservators busy all summer,” said Patricia Fuller, the List’s curator of public art. The results, in several cases, are eye-popping.

Calder’s magnificent “Big Sail,” which was the first to undergo a beauty regime, was looking haggard when conservators got to work back in May. There was rust in the welds; chips, stains, and water discoloration on the surface. Conservators found a wasps’ nest hidden in one crevice, along with unsightly evidence that pigeons do not - surprise, surprise - discriminate between abstract and figurative sculpture; it’s all fair game for them.

Parts of “Great Sail” had to be sanded back and treated with a rust conversion agent before the entire sculpture was repainted. The whole thing gleams now. It stands in McDermott Court, making a striking contrast with I.M. Pei’s severely rectilinear buildings, just a stone’s throw from the Charles River, whose sailing boats its erect and arcing form echoes.

Not far away, in Killian Court, a Moore sculpture called “Three-Piece Reclining Figure, Draped,” which had been nicked and scratched and scarred by graffiti over many years, has been getting some serious attention from Clifford Craine of Daedalus, a leading metal conservation company based in Watertown.

First, though, a decision was made to perch the sculpture on a plinth, in an attempt to discourage students from getting too cozy with it. A crane was called in to hoist it up. Craine then set to work removing old coatings before cleaning away evidence of corrosion, re-patinating the surface, and finally applying a new, removable coating to prevent it from turning green.

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The weather has proved to be a major obstacle - not just the abundant rain, but the sunshine, too, which can quickly make the bronze so hot that it burns your fingers. But on a very warm August day, surrounded by his various potions and tools, Craine seemed unfazed: “It’s such a beautiful sculpture,” he said. “It’s a pleasure to work on. An honor.”

The List Visual Arts Center is guaranteed only $7,500 a year from MIT for conservation of its permanent collection. To execute a major conservation effort like this, it has to rely on applications to the Council for the Arts at MIT and a good deal of generosity from people like Elliot Wolk, an MIT alumnus who helped with the Calder project, and the McDermott, Webster, and Henry Moore Foundations, which all helped with the Moore. A huge wall mural by Kenneth Noland, an installation by Ritchie, and a wall piece by Sarah Sze are among the works that have been refreshed by the recent conservation effort, with several more works, such as the Nevelson, slated for upcoming treatment.

The List is responsible for overseeing the permanent collection, which includes a large cache of paintings, prints, and photography, as well as the public art scattered around the campus (for an interactive map, visit listart.mit.edu/map). Some of the major public works were gifts: Lipchitz’s wife Yulla, for instance, gave the four striking Lipchitz sculptures located at the Hayden Library.

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But newer pieces have come into the collection thanks to an innovative “percent-for-art” policy, according to which 1 percent of the cost of any new MIT building is set aside for commissioned art (in each case, the amount is capped at $250,000). Governments occasionally impose programs like this, but it is unusual for an institution to do so. The MIT policy has been in place since 1968.

Without it, it’s hard to imagine how the school’s new Green Center for Physics (known affectionately to MIT eggheads as Building 6C) would have come to be adorned by LeWitt’s stunning polychrome terrazzo floor.

This piece utterly transforms what used to be an open-air courtyard and is now a modern, transparent building within an older, more opaque one. It was completed in 2007, just a month after LeWitt died.

It seems to have affected more than just the look of its environment: Jane Farver, the List’s director, says she has noticed physicists using colors that echo LeWitt’s bright primaries and secondaries in their experiments, visible through the lab windows. Fuller, meanwhile, says she once passed by one of the building’s ubiquitous blackboards to find the usual scrawled equations replaced by a diagram of LeWitt’s mathematically precise floor design.

For the past 10 years, an average of one new building a year has been erected on the MIT campus. That has meant a lot of new art. Artists making new work for student dormitories have been invited to engage with students during the process of executing their commissions, giving rise to interesting results.

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The conceptualist Lawrence Weiner, for instance, who works with ambiguous fragments of text painted on walls or, in this case, carved into granite, had his carefully chosen words - “a relative calm,” “poised at a tangent to,” and “dead center” - inscribed by students on beer coasters in the college bar. The official opening of Weiner’s work coincided with Halloween; some students used the occasion to carve his phrases into pumpkins.

“The culture at MIT has changed a lot over the last 10 years,” says Farver. “The more public art and artist involvement, the more receptive students have become.”

Currently under construction are a new Cancer Center, a Business School, and an expanded Media Lab. These have given rise to three new commissions by big-name artists: Cai Guo-Qiang is making a ring of linked stones carved from white granite. Anish Kapoor will install a curved and reflective sculpture in a lobby. And Richard Fleischner has redesigned the plaza around the new Media Lab extension.

These, too, should be worth taking in on a Sunday stroll not too far down the road.


Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com