Goodnight Raleigh - a look at the art, architecture, history, and people of the city at night

On Again; Off Again: DH Hill Library’s ‘Color Wall’

How can one describe NC State’s “Color Wall”? To me, this unique kinetic sculpture is an exuberant symphony in light. Vertical patterns of color slowly and methodically undulate, everchanging, across a white background divided by slender black metal vanes. The 12′ x 36′ mural projects from behind a glass wall on the first floor of the DH Hill Library book tower, facing Hillsboro St. The color and light display, which is intended for viewing at night, is an incredible sight to behold. I was a student at NC State when the Color Wall was installed in 1972, and for me it was love at first sight. Many times a couple friends and I would sit in our parked car in the bank parking lot across the street, transfixed and mesmerized by the stunning display of color.

The “Color Wall” was the creation of Joe Cox, a Raleigh artist and faculty member in the College of Design (1954-1980). Known primarily for his painting, his field of expertise was in exploring the artistic application of light and color. The sculpture had been commissioned by Chancellor John T. Caldwell and was installed in the newly completed DH Hill Library book tower in 1972. While its concept was genius, its execution was technically quite simple. A 90 watt light bulb casts its light through a colored gel affixed to its housing. There are 23 bulbs. The patterns of hundreds of vertical bands of multicolored light are created when the beams pass over each other and against dozens of fixed, black metal vanes. The entire display was orchestrated by a mechanical system of switches and gears which Cox himself fabricated.

I remember that a viewing of the Color Wall was often an on again, off again proposition, as the mechanical elements of the switching system were given to frequent malfunctions.  More than once I would tell a friend about it with great enthusiam, only to hear later from the disappointed friend: “It wasn’t working.” As I recall, the Color Wall did not function at all for the entire decade of the 1990s. By 2003 an effort was initiated to restore and bring the Color Wall back to life, and by 2005 the switch had been turned back on.

Earlier this year I described to a friend the fantastic (some would say ‘psychedelic’) nighttime display of color and light on Hillsboro St. As he had never heard of the Color Wall, he went over to investigate. The next day he reported he had discovered the light sculpture was, sadly, again not functioning. Upon further inquiry, I found out that the mechanical switching system that operates the lights had suffered a total breakdown, and is irreparable. Given the current situation with the state budget, restoration through public funds is, for the foreseeable future, unlikely. So is this the final curtain for the Color Wall? — perhaps the most significant work of 20th century public art in Raleigh. Is the Color Wall “off again” ? Or will we be able to switch it back on again? — and this time permanently.

This is how the “Color Wall” looks today. Where’s all the color?


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