For many Boston residents, the rainbow-hued gas tank alongside I-93 is as well-known a landmark as Faneuil Hall or Fenway Park. Though the tank was first painted nearly 45 years ago, the artist who created the vibrant design remains a household name.
“In Boston, when you say ‘Corita Kent,’ everyone’s reaction is the same: ‘Oh, the gas tank!’” said Susan Dackerman, the curator who organized our latest special exhibition Corita Kent and the Language of Pop.
The design for the tank—giant swathes of color in primary and secondary shades—is arguably Kent’s most eye-catching work, and certainly the most monumental. While Kent first tried out the design on a 7-inch-tall model (on loan for our exhibition from National Grid), it was ultimately transferred by professional sign painters onto a 150-feet-high tank. Kent once said of her design, “It’s a joyous expression, joining heaven and earth together.”
Painted in 1971, Kent’s design can be viewed as a response to her pop art contemporaries, including Ed Ruscha. Between 1938 and 1968, Kent lived and worked at Los Angeles’ Immaculate Heart College, in the shadow of the famous Hollywood sign. The huge white letters, affixed atop Mount Lee in the early 1920s, were increasingly dilapidated by the mid-20th century.
Ruscha, whose studio at the time was located near Immaculate Heart, also had a daily view of the crumbling sign. In 1968, he produced Hollywood, a screenprint that literally cast the sign in a new light. He set the restored and intact letters on a ridge, silhouetting them by a vivid sunset. Ruscha “essentially rehabilitates the sign, turning it into an icon of pop art,” Dackerman said. Not long afterward, the sign was indeed rehabilitated and became the landmark we know it as today.
It’s likely that Kent took inspiration from this transformation, Dackerman said, hoping to create the same sort of striking impact on another utilitarian object—this time in Boston. Kent moved from L.A. to Boston in 1968, and in 1970 received a commission from Boston Gas executive Eli Goldston to decorate one of the company’s holding tanks. “Kent created for her new hometown a pop monument as recognizable and fabled as the Hollywood sign in the city she left,” said Dackerman.
The tank, now owned by National Grid, has long been a point of pride for the companies that have overseen its care. When the original tank needed to be replaced in the 1990s, the decision was made to re-create the rainbow design on a new tank. A former student of Kent’s, Mickey Myers, managed the project (Kent passed away in 1986), working with the same firm that had painted the original tank.
“National Grid and its legacy companies have a long history of not only providing gas and electricity throughout Massachusetts, but also being a strong community partner,” said Marcy Reed, president of National Grid, Massachusetts. “In commissioning the painting of this tank, Boston Gas turned what could have been merely an industrial eyesore into a quintessential landmark. We’re happy to support this exhibition and are thrilled that the museums’ patrons will have the opportunity to appreciate this artwork as much as we have.”
Corita Kent and the Language of Pop is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts and major corporate support from National Grid. 90.9 WBUR is the media partner for the oral history project about Corita Kent and her work, a collaboration between StoryCorps, the Harvard Art Museums, and National Grid.
Editor’s note: We’re grateful for the insights and context provided by Taylor Walsh, whose research on Kent’s design for the gas tank will be included in the exhibition and its accompanying catalogue.