When you think “New York City subway,” the first words that come to mind are probably congested, dirty, loud, among other less-than-positive descriptors. Most of us coming from New Haven associate the descent into the subway system with a sad departure from the grandeur of the Grand Central atrium. But if you take a second to look, you’ll find unexpected beauty in its tunnels.
Though we imagine New York City’s art attractions to be almost exclusively above ground, the subway stations are filled with public artworks commissioned and installed over the past 25 years. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority network continues to plan artistic installations with the goal of brightening every station in the city. The founders of the NYC subway wanted to reflect the city’s vibrant artistic culture beneath its streets, enriching the travel experience of millions of New Yorkers each day.
Subway stations are covered with carefully crafted terra cotta, bronze, glass and mixed media sculptures. Like art in more conventional aboveground museums, the works on the walls of subway stations are carefully preserved, even in the midst of construction for improving the technology and quality of the subway.
One of my favorite collections includes the “Architectural Artifacts from the Collection of the Brooklyn Museum, 2004” installed at the Eastern Parkway-Brooklyn Museum station. This subway stop — below one of the oldest and largest art museums in the country — houses the long-term installation of terra cotta artifacts and glass mosaics along its mezzanine and stairway walls. The bright blue mosaic tiles and carefully carved figures are a natural extension of the Beaux-Arts architecture of the building above. Appropriately, Beaux-Arts architecture is known for its sculptural decoration, classical details and mosaics — all of which the subway station possesses.
The artistic features of the subway system extend across the bridge to the 14th Street Eighth Avenue station. The station features prolific public sculptor Tom Otterness’ bronze sculptures on railings, beams and columns. Created in 2001, Otterness’ work is sure to garner a smile from even the grumpiest of rush hour commuters. The series, called “Life Underground,” features small men engaged in what Otterness imagines to be typical — or in some cases purely comical — underground tasks. In one sculpture, a man in a top hat slips under the railings, only to find himself looking up at a castigating police officer. In another, a giant alligator peaks out of a manhole cover to drag a frightened New Yorker down into the sewers with him. In a third, a man sits on a bench while holding an ostentatious bag of money — a shrewd commentary on commuters’ tendency to flaunt their iPhones and other pricey gadgets. Otterness equates this flashy behavior to clutching a large pouch bearing a dollar sign.
In the near future, even more stations will boast insightful and diverse art projects about New York culture. The Second Avenue subway line has scheduled to open its track in 2016 and with it pieces from leading artists like Sarah Sze, Chuck Close, Vik Muniz and Jean Shin.
Sarah Sze plans to ornament the 96th Street station with wild landscapes mimicking the commotion of everyday subway travel, replacing the skyscrapers and concrete with flora and fauna. 86th Street will boast Chuck Close’s photorealist portraits of important New Yorkers. Vik Muniz’s “Perfect Strangers,” depicting Muniz’s perspective on the subway goers themselves, will adorn the walls of the 72nd Street station. Finally, 63rd Street will play home to an installation of Jean Shin’s photographs on ceramic and glass from the Transit Museum. All of the works will embrace the diversity, culture and force of New York City.
So the next time you leave the aqua blue dome of Grand Central for the crowded subway below, don’t forget to take a moment and look up — there’s more beauty than you think.