Along The Way

MTA Arts for Transit

by Sandra Bloodworth and William Ayres with foreword by Stanley Tucci

The Monacelli Press, 215 pages, more than 200 color illustrations, 2006, $50

Magnificent Finds for Future Archaeologists!

Book cover

Book cover with detail of large mural by Roy Lichtenstein in Times Square subway concourse

All images from the book except as noted

By Carter B. Horsley

This excellent book documents the fabulous Arts for Transit program begun in 1985 by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to commission site-specific works of art that relate directly to the places in which they are installed and the community around them.

By 2006, more than 160 works had been installed in New York City subway stations and MTA commuter rail stations and the program is on-going.

For someone who has not ventured into the city's subways in many years, the works of art that can be discovered are a shock given their very high quality and the fact that they are the antithesis of the grafitti that smeared what at times seemed like every inch in the 1970s and early 1980s.

"This visual feast, through which we are fortunate enough to move, is as ambitious as anything the WPA achieved seventy-some years ago. Arts for Transit has brought a fallow period for public art to an end and shown us respect for the past, for ourselves, and for those who will ride the same rails for generations to come," declared actor Stanley Tucci in the book's foreword.

Indeed, the program's achievement is remarkable given the generally low esteem in which "public art" is held in many circles and the program's surprising lack of publicity.

Not only is the quality of the installed art very high, it is also very often full of humor, or, perhaps, magnificent mischief and poignant portraits.

"Ghost Series" by Andrew Leicester

"Ghost Series" mural at Long Island Rail Road Station at Penn Station by Andrew Leicester, 1994, photo by Carter B. Horsley

In the corridors of the Long Island Rail Road Station at Penn Station can be found several large bas-relief terra-cotta murals by Andrew Leicester that appropriately mourn the passing of the great railroad station on the site that had been designed by McKim, Mead & White. Entitled "Ghost Series," the murals were installed in 1994. The book notes that "these murals symbolically reveal the original architecture now ignominously concealed behind new walls - and buried in the landfills of the New Jersey Meadowlands," adding that "Taken together, Ghost Series is a thoroughly compelling and fitting memento more."

"Artemis, Acrobats, Divas and Dancers" by Nancy Spero

"Artemis, Acrobats, Divas and Dancers," by Nancy Spero, IRT 66th Street Station at Lincoln Center, 2001, photo by Carter B. Horsley

One of the more spectacular and exotic works is "Artemis, Acrobats, Divas and Dancers," a series of 22 glass mosaic panels by Nancy Spero at the Lincoln Center station of the West Side IRT at 66th Street. They were installed in 2001. The Diva is repeated in various forms and, the book notes, "follow the riders through the station, giving the illusion of movement and change." "Spero's works," it continued, "evokes both Lincoln Center's performing arts instititions - opera, ballet, classical music - and the vibrant, artistic characer of the Upper West Side neighbood. She conveys this through the use of iconic images of women both real and mythical, from such varied sources as archaeology, architecture, mythology, and the contemporary world."

"4 Seasons Seasoned" by Kushner

One of two huge glass mosaics, entitled "4 Seasons Seasoned," installed in 2004 by Robert Kushner in the 77th Street station of the East Side IRT, photo by Carter B. Horsley

Perhaps the most spectacular installation is "4 Seasons Seasoned," two large glass mosaics that dazzle subway riders hurrying through the turnstiles. Created in 2004 at the 77th Street station of the East Side IRt by Robert Kushner, it was fabricated by the Miotto Mosaic Art Studios.

The book provides the following commentary by the artist:

"My intention is for people to enter the station, pass through the turnstile, look up and take note, and then go on with their days feeling a little lighter, having glimpsed something beautiful for a passing moment. As people come and go from this stop, either to their job, home, Lenox Hill Hospital, Central Park, or the museums in the neighborhood, recreation, culture, work or healing are often on their minds. Flowers can be associated with all of these activities and become particuarly apt subject matter for this station."

Details from "City Dwellers (for Costas and Maro)" by Mark Hadjipateras, 28th Street Station of the N, R and W lines, 2002

Perhaps the most whimsical installation can be found at the 28th Street station of the N, R. and W Lines where Mark Hadjipateras created "City Dwellers (for Costas and Maro) in 2002.

The artist maintained he was inspired by the Toy Center that used to be located nearby at 200 Fifth Avenue across from the Flatiron Building. The book notes that the artist "works in a funky cartoonlike style," adding that "his City Dwellers animates the platform walls with fanciful images of robotlike people. His creations may seem wacky, but the artist has used universal symbols and forms in the compositions to reference the neighborhood and its history involving tecynology, toys and commerce."

Detail of "Life Underground" by Tom Otterness, bronze, 14th Street Station, Eighth Avenue line, 2001

If there is one artist who is the Rembrandt of the Underground, it is Tom Otterness, whose Botero-like creations are full of vitality and humor. His installation, "Life Underground," in the 14th Street Station of the Eighth Avenue line was made in 2001 and among its many sections is one that shows an alligator crawling out of a sewer to eat a man with a "money bag head," who probably threw one of his albino relatives down the toilet.

Different Detail of "Life Underground" by Tom Otterness, bronze, 14th Street Station, Eighth Avenue line, 2001

The book remarks that Otterness's figures "are humorous, captivating, and also a bit disconcerting," adding that "he has succeeded in invigorating an antiseptic environment and transforming it into a place of joy and whimsy. It quotes the artist: "I wanted to celebrate the monumental effort it took to create the system - an effort of both design and drudgery, of muscle and mind - and to represent the system as an underground world of its own, a subterranean cross-section of New York." "In the 14th Street stataion, these figures," the book continues, "lurk in the stairwells; they dangle from the ceiling; they peer at riders from under barriers; they rest at the foot of pillars."

"The Return of Spring" by Jack Beal

"The Return of Spring," by Jack Beal, glass mosaic, Times Square station, 2001, photo by Carter B. Horsley

At the Times Square station, Jack Beal created two large glass mosaic murals, "The Return of Spring" in 2001, and "The Onset of Winter" in 2005. They face one another. The book notes that "in these dramatic murals, Jack Beal links the subway to classical myths that deal with the relationship between goings-on above ground and below," adding that "the artist explains that he based his work on the Greek myth of Persephone, who was abducted by Hades and wishked away to the underworld."

"A Gathering" by Walter Martin and Paloma Muñoz

"A Gathering," by Walter Martin and Paloma Muñoz, bronze, Canal Street station of the A, C and E lines, 2001

The book notes that in their 2001 installation, "A Gathering," at the Canal Street station of the A, C and E Lines, Walter Martin and Paloma Muñoz have created "a scene that seems, at first glance, reminiscentof Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds." "But," it continued, "the birds in A Gathering are comforting rather than menacing. There are 174 grackles and blackbirds, in a number of different poses, and seven crows, all cast in bronze and given a glossy black patinated coating. They stand in groups, like people waiting in the subway, thinking, conversing, or ignoring one another....Birds, the artists noted, are very social creatures; riders may find echoes of themselves and other subway travelers in their lively,cocky, quizzical interactions." The artists also installed a "Travelers" series in the lower level of Grand Central Terminal in which they created "twenty sculptural vignettes and photographed them to appear to be snow globes, creating magical winter wonderlands."

"Signal" by Mel Chin

"Signal," by Mel Chin, stainless steel and glass and ceramic tile, Broadway-Lafayette station of the B, D, F and V lines, 1997

At the Broadway-Lafayette Station of the B, D, F and V Lines, Mel Chin collaborated with Seneca tribe member Peter Jemison in 1997 to create "Signal," which "draws upon the rich historyof the crossroads" that "once served as a trading route for the tribes of the Six Nations (Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Mohawk, Tuscarora, and Oneida)." This installation is one of the finest in the system.

The book provides the following commentary:

"One the mezzanine walls are figures that represent the nations with outstretched arms reaching to one another. Below, on the main concourse, the conical forms at the bases of support pillars break up the severe geometry of the space and suggest campfires used to send signals. Here lights within the cones brighten and dim as trains approach and depart. Patterns within the steel forms are based upon tribal badge patterns, which themselves were based upon a fusion of various cultures with which the tribes came in contract. Another historical overlay is seen in the tile patterns that surround the concourse; they evoke rising smoke while the pattern is inspired by an Iroquois message of peace."

Marine Grill mural

Marine Grill murals, created in 1912 for the McAlpin Hotel on 34th Street and Sixth Avenue, and installed in 2000 at the Fulton Street-Broadway-Nassau station, glazed terra-cotta, painted cast and wrought iron

In 1912, Frederick Dana Marsh created a series of twenty terra-cotta murals for the Marine Grill restaurant in the new Hotel McAlpin. The murals all had maritime themes celebrating New York harbor and they were fabricated by the Atlantic Terra Cotta Company on Staten Island. "When the hotel was converted into cooperative apartments, the murals were taken to storage, where they remained for a decade, under the guardianship of the Landmarks Preservation Commission. In 2000, six were installed at the Fulton-Broadway station along with the ironwork entrance gate from the Marine Grill. All of this blends perfectly, both aesthetically and philosophically, with the terra-cotta murals installed elsewhere in the system by the original builders of the subway. As part of the rebuilding of the Fulton Street Transit Center, the murals will be moved to the William Street entrance," the book maintained.

Architectural artifact from the Brooklyn Museum

Detail of "New York City Architectural Artifacts from the Collection of the Brooklyn Museum," Eastern Parkway-Brooklyn Museum station of the 2 and 3 lines, terra-cotta and glass mosaic, 2004

At the Eastern Parkway-Brooklyn Museum statiaon of the 2 and 3 lines, 78 architectural artifacts from the collection of the Brooklyn Museum have been mounted on station walls. Vel Riberto Consulting collaborated with the museum on the selection of artifacts, which were framed in new mosaic designs in 2004.

"Railrider's Throne" by Michelle Greene

"Railrider's Throne" by Michelle Greene, steel, 116th Street station of the West Side IRT at Columbia University, 1991

"I wanted to create a whimsical environment that allows the commuter to feel special as opposed to aliented. I believe that art in a public space has the potential to stir people from their daily routine" The book quotes Art News, the magazine, in January 1992 that a frequent user of the station commented "What's weird about that chair is that when you sit in it everyone stares at you. It feels royal." Another rider said that a musician plays his violin sitting in the chair, adding that "at first, I thought he brought the chair with him," and that "I think he makes more money when he sits there."

"Open Street," by Houston Conwill

Detail from "Open Street," by Houston Conwill, bronze, 125th Street Station of the 4, 5 and 6 lines, 1986

The first commission of the Arts for Transit program was "Open Street," a bronze installation by Houston Conwill at the 125th Street station of the 4, 5 and 6 lines in 1986. "Two of its triangular segments contain time capsules 'holding information and 'secrets' about a certain place at a certain time - Harlem in the 1980s." "Covered with grates so viewers can peer into them, the other two triangular elements reveal a variety of objects," the book states, adding that "Acknowledged as one of the pioneers of African American visiual postmodernism, Conwill often works in collaboration with other artists, including his sister Estella Conwill Majozo, a poet."

"For want of a nail" by Arts for Transit Collaborative

"For Want of a Nail," Arts for Transit Collaborative, glass and ceramic mosaic, handmade ceramic tile relief, hand-cast glass, bronze, and cut granite, 81st Street Station Eighth Avenue line, Museum of Natural History stop, 2000

The book says that the title for "For Want of a Nail" at the 81st Street Station of the Eighth Avenue line "is taken from a proverb" and "asks the viewer to ponder the way in which everything in the universe is connected and how it, the earth, and organisms have changed and continue to change over time." The installation was by the Arts for Transit Collaborative and was made in 2000. It is at the American Museum of Natural History stop.

One of the most major works in the program is the very large "Times Square Mural" by Roy Lichtenstein that was fabricated in 1994 and installed in 2002 in the Times Square station. It is one of the artist's finest achievements. The book states that the mural "captures the spirit of the subway, its linearity and its dynamism." "It tips its hat to both the past and the future, with its retro-futuristic forms. The central image is a levitating winged tubular car making its way through the tunnels of a subterranean station."

Another major installation in the same station is "Times Square: 35 Times," a seires of very colorful and fine mult-dimensional ceramic plaques set in glass-block walls in 2005 by Toby Buonagurio and the book notes that "they remind passersby of Times Square's myriad wonders - both high and low."

Elsewhere in the same, enormous station is "New York in Transit," by Jacob Lawrence. Installed in 2001, it was the artist's last public work and was undertaken when he was gravely ill.

Another major work by a famous artist is "Passing Through" a very large glass mosaic installed in 2004 at the Lexington Avenue-53rd Street station. "Passing Through is one of Al Held's last great public works and one of his most vital and provocative. It is enormous, wildly colorful, and transfixing. Here Held set out to depict nothing less than the universe, conceived as a geometric abstraction, with precise milti-hued shapes afloat in space, dizzily defying gravity....Held's imagery powerfully evokes New York City's contemporary energy and complements, and sometimes mimics, the forms and styles of the Midtown skyscrapers overhead."

A plaque in the 86th Street stationAnother 86th Street station plaque

Two of the 40 ceramic plaques at the 86th Street station of the West Side IRT installed in 1989. Photo by Carter B. Horsley

In the 86th Street station of the West Side IRT line, Nitza Tufiño worked with 17 young people, mosts of whom attended or were graduates of the high school equivalency program at Grosvenor Neighborhood House, to create 40 ceramic plaques based on photographs of the neighborhood taken by the students. "Guided by Pedro Pietri," the book entry said, "whose poetry expresses what it is like to be a Puerto Rican in New York, the students also wrote a poem to capture the spirit of the neighborhood, its multiethnic character, its parks, the foods - the flavor of the community. The poem is captured in tile and installed in the station." The plaques are among the most colorful and charming in the program, which, at the time of publication of the book, has 50 more installations planned.

Initiated in 1985, this collection of site-specific public art now encompasses more than 160 pieces in mosaic, terra-cotta, bronze, faceted glass, and mixed media. The program takes its cue from the original mandate that the subways be "designed, constructed, and maintained with a view to the beauty of their appearance, as well as to their efficiency." Arts for Transit is committed to the preservation and restoration of the original ornament of the system and to commissioning new works that will exemplify the principles of public art, relating directly to the places in which they are installed and the community around them.

In the early 1980s, the city passed its Percent for Art legislation that mandated that art be a part of the design and construction of its capital building projects and the MTA Arts for Transit program was created in 1985. A decade later, 48 artworks were installed and in his preface to the book, Peter S. Kalikow, then MTA chairman, said that since the beginning of the program 162 works have been installed that have "made a profound difference in the quality of metropolitan New York City's transit users during the millions of hours they collectively clock each day - along the way."

Henry Geldzadler, commissioner of Cultural Affairs and founding curator of the department of Contemporary Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art served as the chairman of the program's first art selection panel.

At that time, wrote Sandra Bloodworth and William Ayres, "the public art movement was still in its infancy, but many issues had already been identified. Public art evolved from the nineteenth -century 'statue-in-the-park' to monumental modern sculpture, often by a well-known artist, set adrift in a sterile office building plaza. James Wines of the organization SITE (Sculpture inthe Enviornment) coined the term 'Plop art,' explaining, with some justification, that these pieces seem to have been 'plopped onto the plaza' with little or no consideration for their relationship with the particular location or their funciton. Arts for Transit was, from the beginning, determined to change the direction of contemporary site-specific public art, to encourage something different - and better."

Sandra Bloodworth has been director of MTA Arts for Transit since 1996.

William Ayres is chief curator at the Long Island Museum in Stony Brook, New York, and editor of 19th Century, the magazine of the Victorian Society of America.

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