Woodmere unveils exhibition telling story of Tom Judd's new subway mural

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Woodmere unveils exhibition telling story of Tom Judd's new subway mural
Installation photo of portion of Portal to Discovery mural depicting an early rendering of Independence Hall with unknown female portrait, 2020, by Tom Judd. Courtesy of the artist.

PHILADELPHIA, PA.- On Saturday, February 27, 2021 Woodmere Art Museum unveiled its latest exhibition, History in Motion: Tom Judd’s Subway Mural. Judd’s mural is an important addition to the city’s rich landscape of public art. Woodmere’s exhibition includes preparatory studies for the mural as well as in-process photographs of the installation.

The Mural

In connection with the reconstruction of the 5th Street-Independence Hall Station on the Market-Frankford Line, artist Tom Judd was selected to create a permanent installation for the station. Portal to Discovery, Judd’s mural on the eastbound and westbound platforms, presents figures who contributed to the founding of the United States as well as those who fought for “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” for all. Transit consultant David Seltzer explains, “What’s so amazing about this particular project is that the vision of the artist transforms the experience of the station. Art is not introduced as an element off to the side. Instead, the artist was given the opportunity to create an immersive civic dialogue across the space. That station itself becomes the work of art.”

Independence Hall Station, which last saw major upgrades in preparation for the 1976 Bicentennial, was selected by SEPTA to undergo reconstruction and art installation through SEPTA’s Art in Transit program. The program allocates up to one percent of a construction budget for the design, fabrication, and installation of permanent artwork. In early 2019, SEPTA announced a competition for a permanent public art installation. Judd was invited among 11 other artists to submit a proposal, which was narrowed to five semi-finalists. In late 2019, a selection panel, including SEPTA’s manager of Art in Transit, a design team representative, a community representative, an artist, and an arts professional, selected Tom Judd as the finalist. “Panel members believed [Judd’s] unique vision would most creatively enhance the physical environment of the station, enrich the experience of its regular riders, and generally welcome tourists to the Independence National Historical Park,” said Marsha Moss, a public art consultant involved with the project.

While construction on the 5th Street station was underway, Judd went to work refining his design, and investigating the best way to execute the mural installation one that would ultimately allow the artwork to shine while embracing the textures and character of the station itself. Ultimately Judd landed on a material called polytab cloth, that when adhered to a surface with Palmer acrylic glue, creates a seamless bond to the underlying surface. This material selection can be printed and painted on, and allowed for the textures of the station’s walls to become part of the mural. It also provided an efficient way for the artist to work on the mural while major reconstruction of the station was still underway.

An unforeseen challenge to the mural installation would be the pandemic. “Imagine, in the middle of a pandemic, entering an underground tunnel full of hissing noisy machinery, men yelling, dust flying, hammers hammering, and subway cars roaring into the station every five minutes. It was like a scene out of a modern-day Dr. Zhivago film,” Judd recalls of the installation process, which began in early 2020.

Portal to Discovery is peopled with significant characters from American history. They appear as painted images on the brick walls of the station in formats representing a broad array of objecttypes that history hands down to the present: familiar paintings in our city’s museums, heroic busts and full-length sculptures in stone, newspaper and popular illustrations, clothing and ensembles of historic costume, early American silhouette portraits, and portrait likenesses in gilded frames. “For me, Judd’s elastic application of his artistry to the serious reckoning with history is the heart of the subway installation,” says Woodmere’s Director and CEO, William Valerio. The mural includes portraits of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Philadelphians such as Frances E. W. Harper, one of the first African American women to be published in the United States, and Absalom Jones, an African American abolitionist and clergyman who founded the Free African Society with Richard Allen in 1787. “The founding fathers are present, as are the abolitionists who challenged race-based subjugation. That Judd takes a stand is evident in the murals themselves, but his primary gesture is to make a dreamscape of American history that sets his characters in dynamic motion, often with a strong dose of irony.”

In the artist’s statement regarding the making of Portal to Discovery, Judd describes, “I was moved by the courageous story leading to the founding of our country. But with every great story there are contradictions and missing pieces. The main contradiction that jumps out at anyone looking at this historic time is of a group of men creating a document that claims to stand for “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” for all people, while owning slaves and being seemingly oblivious to the inconsistency between their words and their deeds. What is equally intriguing is that Philadelphia was, at that time and in the following decades, one of the most progressive cities in the world in the Abolitionist movement…But in the end, my mural is not so much a literal history lesson as an overview of people and places capturing the sensibilities of that time. It is first and foremost a work of art, with its own language, contradictions, and perspective.”

The Exhibition

Through preparatory sketches, installation photos, interactive programs, and conversations with the artist, History in Motion seeks to shed light not only on Judd’s artistic process, but on the process of public art as well. From conception to installation, Portal to Discovery is an iterative process, rich with thought, research, remembrance, and celebration of this nation’s rich, complicated history—in the midst of a pandemic, no less. The exhibition follows the project’s journey, organized in three phases: presentation, fabrication, installation.

Tom Judd

Tom Judd grew up in Salt Lake City and attended the University of Utah from 1970 to 1972. He received his bachelor of fine arts degree in painting from the Philadelphia College of Art (now the University of the Arts). His work has been exhibited in museums and galleries across the United States, and is in the collections of numerous museums, including the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the Birmingham Museum of Art, and Woodmere Art Museum. Judd works in a variety of media, including painting, collage, photography, and installation.

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