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Remembering 'Color Cubes,' downtown Detroit's lost public art landmark

Rubello's Color Cubes


This piece is adapted from matrix for color cubes, an interactive web feature by the author and Jonathan Gabel that was published in the November 2014 issue of Infinite Mile, an online journal of art + cultures in Detroit.
 
Last Spring, downtown Detroit lost one of its most iconic pieces of public art when "Color Cubes," a distinctive geometric mural painted on the north side of the historic Julian C. Madison Building in 1973, was painted over to make room for a temporary 7-11 ad.
 
The erasure of the mural was a painful shock to those of us who loved it. It happened quickly, with no warning, over the course of an afternoon. We learned of the destruction after the fact, from social media or from one or two online news sources, which we read with a sinking sense of incredulity and loss.
 
The wall where Color Cubes once stood





 
Sure, "Color Cubes" had seen better days. It had faded over the years, and some of its once-bright paint had peeled in patches. But that curious, run-down, eye-catching abstract painting was beautiful and beguiling, and, more than that, it was us; it was Detroit, as surely as the Joe Louis fist or the Noguchi fountain, or that big, kitschy whale mural on the Broderick Tower. And besides, most of Detroit has seen better days -- having developed a finely-honed ability here to look past a little wear and tear at whatever's shining underneath, we never thought for a second that its mere decrepitude meant that "Color Cubes" was in danger.
 
But it's just like Joni Mitchell sings, "Don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone," and once I had accepted that "Color Cubes" was really and truly gone, I started to wonder what it was, exactly, that we'd lost. Who had made it? Why? Under what circumstances? So I embarked on a journey to piece together the story of my favorite mural, and the story, as it turns out, is one that bears telling (and re-telling...), especially now that "Color Cubes" itself exists only in our collective regional memory.
 
I figured I should start my investigation at the source, with a visit to the Ray Township home and studio of David Rubello, the artist who designed "Color Cubes" in 1972 and oversaw its creation one year later.
 
The Artist
 
Anyone who admired "Color Cubes" over the 41 years of its existence knows the name Rubello, since it was an integral part of the piece, having been precisely painted just underneath the colorful imagery in small, black, capital letters: RUBELLO. It was a bold move, that careful signature. It added something important to the piece, a paradoxical sense of both crystal clear attribution and, as the years passed, deepening mystery: "Who," I suspect I was not alone in idly but frequently wondering, "is Rubello?"

David Rubello 
David Rubello was born in Detroit in 1935. He tells me that as a teenager in the '50s, he rode the streetcar from his home on the city's east side to Cass Technical High School, where he majored in art. While at Cass Tech, and for a year after he graduated, he also took painting and drawing classes at the art school of the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts, an institution that decades later would become the College for Creative Studies (CCS). Inside Arts and Crafts' Brush Park headquarters, Rubello's talents were nurtured by some of Detroit's most prominent mid-century artists.
 
In the years since, his long career has taken him as far from Detroit as Rome, where he earned a Bachelor's degree in 1961 and where he returned to continue his studies in the late '70s, and Copenhagen, where he began painting in an abstract, geometric style in the late '60s. He earned a master's degree from the University of Michigan in 1972 and, in addition to being a painter, photographer, and poet, he worked in the auto industry for more than 20 years as a clay modeler. A passionate educator, Rubello has taught in Pennsylvania, New York state, and Maryland, as well as in Detroit at CCS.
 
It's been a long time since Rubello's paintings looked much like "Color Cubes." He is a prolific and restlessly inventive artist, and even while his work has retained a fundamental concern with abstraction, geometry, and color, it has evolved considerably over the decades. But for now, let's return to 1972, when Rubello, then 36, was one of a dozen artists invited to participate in an extraordinary effort to decorate a dying city.
 
The Project

Color Cubes in progress

 
In the early 1970s, Detroit was still reeling from the violent 1967 uprising that had claimed more than 40 lives and left hundreds of buildings in ruin. It was also suffering from the more insidious, widespread decline that had started decades before that. A prescient 1972 report commissioned by then-governor William Milliken highlighted growing unemployment, poor public transit, segregated and sub-standard housing, inadequate health care, and high crime as just some of the ongoing threats to the city's (and region's) long-term health.
 
But downtown Detroit in the early '70s was also home to a handful of well-funded organizations and coalitions that were actively working to resolve the urban crisis. Local urbanist Francis Grunow thinks of this time as downtown's "last gasp, before a long sigh, and an eventual reseeding that has taken decades to start flowering again."
 
The various development organizations of the day pursued a wide variety of programs that they hoped would help reverse the city's fortunes, including education and housing reform, economic and business development, and much more.
 
Starting with the nonprofit Detroit Renaissance, they also experimented with the restorative possibilities of large-scale public art. Detroit Renaissance commissioned three large murals by notable Detroit artists on three different buildings in the city's commercial center in 1971. (Only one, John Egner's now partially obscured untitled mural on the north face of the Park Shelton in Midtown, remains. If you look carefully at the east-facing back wall of the First National Building downtown, you can still make out the faint outline of another: Alvin Loving's magnificent Message to Demar and Lauri, which was sandblasted away sometime in the late '80s or early '90s.)

Remnant of Loving's "Message to Demar and Lauri"
 
Those first three murals were generally well-regarded, and their perceived success in giving the city a "visible lift," in the words of Detroit Renaissance's then-president Thomas Reid, inspired another organization, New Detroit, to pursue its own public art effort in the following year.
 
New Detroit's "Living with Art" initiative was more ambitious than Detroit Renaissance's program. It included the commission of public sculptures as well as murals, and its reach extended from the city's center into some neighborhoods, too. All told, at least twelve artists, including David Rubello, were commissioned to design murals and sculptures that were installed around the city in 1972 and 1973. (Click here for a record of as many as I could identify and find.)
 
All of the artists were encouraged to choose sites for their work themselves. After Rubello's initial idea to paint his mural on the Ambassador Bridge was rejected, he selected the 1906 high rise on Washington Boulevard (then a well-trafficked shopping and hotel district), designed "Color Cubes," and oversaw its week-long realization by two local sign painters.
 
The End?
 
Forty-some years after they were created, you can find all of Living With Art's sculptures, most of which are in decent condition, in various public places around town, including Clark, Harmonie, and Pingree parks. The murals, however, have not fared as well. With the loss of "Color Cubes," only two remain: you can still make out Steve Foust's faded "Taj Perfume Company Mural" on Gratiot in Eastern Market, and David Tammany's distinctive decoration of the back of the Skillman Building on John R in Midtown is in surprisingly good shape. But the other murals – on Washington Boulevard, in Harmonie Park, in northwest Detroit, and inside the old General Hospital – are all gone. If, over the decades, they weren't removed in one way or another from the buildings they'd been painted on, then they were destroyed when the buildings themselves were demolished.

David Tammany mural on the Skillman Building





 

Steve Foust mural
 
In one respect, the fact that so few of the early '70s murals remain helps me reconcile the loss of "Color Cubes," which, it turns out, enjoyed a relatively long life for a mural in Detroit.
 
But in a place with a recurrent theme of loss (loss of people, loss of neighborhoods, loss of buildings, industry, jobs, capital, infrastructure, and yes, art) it is dispiriting to think that with more forethought and self-regard, we might have chosen to maintain these remarkable murals instead of neglecting them, and therefore been able to enjoy them, both as art and as sites of local distinction, well into the future.
 
What's done, however, is done, and it is in the nature of cities to change. Now, as a new generation strives to uplift Detroit, we have the chance – and the responsibility – to identify, understand, and celebrate the things that make us uniquely us, and to work to ensure that they, too, are not lost.
 
---
Matthew Piper writes about art, culture, and sustainability in Detroit.

Contemporary photos by Matthew Piper. Historic photos by David Rubello.

Read more articles by Matthew Piper.

Matthew Piper is a writer and photographer covering art, architecture, and sustainable development in Detroit. Follow him on Twitter @matthewsaurus and on Instagram @matthewjpiper. Find more of his work at matthewjpiper.com.
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