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
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.
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
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
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."
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."
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.
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."
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."
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."
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
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.
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.
"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."
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
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
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
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
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.