April 07, 2016

Exploring the Vibrant Art of NYC's Subways

Words : Isabel Thottam
Photos : Rachel Amico

I remember when I was excited to ride the subway. As a girl from the suburbs with no car, the subway represented ultimate freedom. But, as soon as tourists realized I could give them directions, I was pretty over it. Between delays, cramped rush-hour traffic, and mystery liquids dripping from ceilings, the Subway isn't most folks' favorite place. Still, every so often, something beautiful will catch your eye.

In the 1980s, the MTA Arts & Design was founded to bring life into the underground. Some of it is simply mind-blowing, so I decided to share some of my favorites and their (sometimes surprising!) history:



1. LIFE UNDERGROUND, 2001

BY TOM OTTERNESS

14TH STREET/EIGHT AVENUE

The figurines dotting the 8th avenue stop on the L train have been a longtime favorite installation of mine. Other than the obvious animals tiled along the walls of the entrance to the Museum of Natural History, I hadn’t really noticed any subway art until I encountered these little characters. Created by Tom Otterness and installed in 2001, the statues that make up Life Underground depict some relatively bleak NYC scenes – often involving money signs. While some figures are jumping the turnstiles to avoid paying, some are being dragged out by police, and others are large, menacing figures taking coins from smaller figures. The piece is like a petite, more cartoonish version of actual life, and even though the scenes are bleak, the characters are honestly kinda cute.

Weirdly, Tom Otterness has sort of an evil past. Before his commercial successes throughout the nineties, he made independent “punk” films often focused on violence. His 1977 movie called Shot Dog Film (in which he shoots and kills an actual dog he adopted) eventually resurfaced, causing mass outrage and many of his serious art contracts to be cancelled. In 2014 an artist named Andrew Tider created his own addition to the 8th avenue piece – done in Otterness’s own style. The addition, set up briefly before being removed, showed a small bronze Otterness pointing a gun at a dog, and a small figure of a man standing on top of a coin photographing the scene. The symbolism is quite clear.


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2. SKY REFLECTOR-NET, 2014

BY JAMES CARPENTER DESIGN ASSOCIATES, GRIMSHAW ARCHITECTS, ARUP

FULTON CENTER STATION

While much of the subway artwork I prefer is more illustrative, the Sky Reflector Net at the finally-completed Fulton Center is an architectural wonder. The skylight has multiple functions – not only is it gorgeous to look up at, but it helps the station to be more energy efficient.

In fact, the skylight was designed using hundreds of reflective panels to bounce natural light down into the lowest levels of the stations. I find that the net is just as beautiful during the day as it is at night – and a view of the sky is particularly comforting after a long subterranean commute.

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3. OCULUS, 1998

BY ANDREW GINZEL & KRISTIN JONES

CHAMBERS ST

Oculus is sort of a buzzword in NYC at the moment. With the opening of Santiago Calatrava’s massive venus-fly-trap-esque Oculus at the World Trade Center, everyone has been sharing pictures of the white structure on the web. Underneath the World Trade Center – inside of the Chambers Street subway stop – there is an Oculus installation of a different kind. The piece is comprised of 300 stone and glass mosaic eyes dispersed throughout the walls of the station, as well as a floor mosaic depicting the world.

Despite flooding and damage sustained during the 9/11 attacks, the work was largely unaffected. The eyes themselves were modeled after photographs taken of real New Yorkers, so, in my mind, the endurance of the work acts as sort of a testament to the city’s resilient spirit. The designers are also responsible for the iconic rippled facade at Union Square south, titled Metronome, and several other public works across the country.

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4. BLOEMENDAAL, 2010

BY ANTENNA DESIGN NEW YORK (MASAMICHI UDAGAWA + SIGI MOESLINGER)

96TH ST STATION

While certainly not the largest or most in-your-face installation on this list, the Bloemendaal installation at 96th street is particularly unique. Composed of symmetrical wire-frame steel flowers suspended at the top of the station entrance, this piece does what many of the other subway artists attempt to do – bring the outdoors inside.

The flowers are relatively nondescript, but are a playful reminder of the past if you’re willing to do a little digging. Before it became known as the Upper West Side, the neighborhood housing the exhibit was called the “Bloomingdale District,” which before being anglicized was called Bloemendaal by Dutch settlers. Bloomingdale Road, which was created as a wide trade route for tobacco grown in the once-fertile area, is what we now refer to as Broadway.

Though the sculpture’s presence is understated, it is undeniably full of life. Antenna Design is also responsible for one of the most recognizable designs in the subway – the colorful Metrocard machines.

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5. CLARK STREET PASSAGE, 1987

BY RAY RING

CLARK ST. STATION

Most passageways in subway stations are a little scary to me. Whether it’s being stuck in a tunnel with a stranger, or the often flickering fluorescent lights, they just give me a weird vibe. The passage at Clark Street is the opposite – the geometric flooring is playful and sort of makes me think of a deconstructed pizza. 

Though the artist, Ray Ring, doesn’t have much of a web presence, I was pleased to find his website replete with colorful graphic collages. I’ve felt kinship with the passageway for a long time, but I felt kinship with the artist himself once I was able to view his other works. His website shows large, geometric collages that he has constructed out of packaging, and I am currently constructing a collage of packaging from my recent trip to Japan.

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6. BLOOMING, 1996

BY ELIZABETH MURRAY

59TH STREET/LEXINGTON AVENUE-59TH STREET

Elizabeth Murray’s enormous glass mosaic at 59th and Lexington is a fantastical expanse of shapes and colors that wraps around the station depicting steaming cups of coffee and bright shoes. The New York Times described her as “a New York painter who reshaped Modernist abstraction into a high-spirited, cartoon-based, language of form whose subjects included domestic life, relationships and the nature of painting itself.”

Murray experimented with canvases and mediums throughout her career, and has work in the permanent collections of several of New York’s largest museums – as well as an additional mosaic in Queens. Murray is one of the very few female artists to have her work showcased in a full retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, and received numerous accolades before her death in 2007.

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7. HIVE (BLEECKER STREET), 2012

BY LEO VILLAREAL

BLEECKER STREET/LAFAYETTE STREET

Though I always try to appreciate and support art in every medium, there are a lot of people who don’t really “get” art. Not everyone goes to galleries or museums, and not everyone seeks art out. Part of what’s wonderful about the art displayed in the subway is that it is public, and available to everyone in equal measures.

Leo Villareal’s Hive is a great example of how art has the power to draw people in. Comprised of huge LED hexagonal honeycombs, the ceiling of Bleecker Street has been transformed into an ever-changing light show. Unlike most subway installations – which are usually mosaics or traditional sculptures – the Hive is relatively high-tech, and requires both physical and technical maintenance. Villareal primarily works with light sculpture, and prefers to manufacture an element of change in all of his pieces.

The sequence’s opacity, speed and scale can all be manipulated through custom software” he says. “Ultimately, complex compositions are formed and then displayed in random order and for a random amount of time in the final artwork. The visual manifestation of the code in light is my core interest.”

Watching people become mesmerized by the ceiling as they ride the escalator is almost as mesmerizing by the piece itself.

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8. A GATHERING, 2001

BY WALTER MARTIN AND PALOMA MUÑOZ

CANAL STREET STATION

This is one of my favorite subway installations for a few reasons, because, mainly, it’s just delightful. There are over 150 bronze birds perched along the canal street station, and all of them look oddly human, as if they are just going about their business. They’re present, but not demanding, and you could easily pass them by in a hurry. Still, I enjoy their presence every time I see them. There is a wonderful contrast between graceful, flying, animals and screeching, subterranean, train cars. I enjoy that this installation makes no political statement, rather, it simply brings a touch of nature to the underground.

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9. MY CONEY ISLAND BABY, 2004

BY ROBERT WILSON

CONEY ISLAND-STILLWELL AVENUE

At the very end of the Q train is the Coney Island subway station, and, despite the beautiful above-ground glass installations along the way, the large, Robert Wilson designed stained glass wall is by far my favorite.

Depicting old photographs of the iconic beach in vivid colors, Wilson (the famous director/designer/artist responsible for

Einstein on the Beach, and The Life and Death of Joseph Stalin) truly sets the stage.

Coney island is one of my favorite places in New York, hands down. It’s kitschy, it’s classic, and it’s a beach within reasonable distance to a sprawling metropolis. I don’t need a particularly nice beach to be happy – just some sand to walk in, some shells to hunt for, and a brilliant sunset that lights the water up to a neon blue color. Coney Island has all of this, but also has the sort of things that make it distinctly New York. There are the Coney Island Art Walls, which, in the summer, are graced by Smorgasburg’s food trucks. There are the movie screenings on the beach, and there is the subway that can take you back to your apartment once you’re good and sunburnt.

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