Published on January 31st, 2013 | by Taylor Majewski0
Tour of Subway Art in New York City
The subway in New York City is a dirty, gloomy and crowded mode of transportation. But almost all New Yorkers and visitors must use the subway at some point to quickly and cheaply get around, whether it be for the daily commute, the late night ride home or a visit to Times Square. During a recent trip to New York City, I couldn’t help but notice an aspect of the subway that is defiant of its dismal nature. There is art down there. What used to be simply a set of tracks for fast moving trains is now a fortified underground museum. Each stop showcases a different artist, transforming daily travel into a series of exhibitions.
A number of female artists have contributed their talents to brightening the passageways. The sentiments in their works correspond to the locality of each particular subway stop, keeping in mind that their audience is mostly made up of locals who will see the art on a day-to-day basis. Collectively, the subway art of New York captures the essence of New York City as a whole: a melting pot of different people who all have the same goal of finding success in the big city.
The Harlem 125 Street station is characterized by its stonewalled and iron fences, serving the Harlem neighborhood for over a century. Alison Saar’s Hear the Lone Whistle Moan, a series of bronze grills and reliefs, decorates the platform. The title of the work was inspired by the spiritual belief that the train is a metaphor for the journey to heaven. Saar’s sculptures depict a narrative of two people; one is a young women coming into the city with aspirations to make it big, while the other is a successful businessman leaving for the night to return to his quiet suburb. Saar believes that these two characters exemplify how many people have utilized the transit in New York, especially the Harlem 125 station, which is the first stop connecting the New York and Connecticut suburbs.
One of the most popular subway stops in New York City is Grand Central station. Here, artist Jackie Ferrara’s Arches, Towers, and Pyramids uses basic geometric forms to reflect the many railways that connect to the terminal. The walls of Grand Central are adorned with sets of mosaic bands, which blend effortlessly with the bustle of the busy station. The design is simple and mathematical, balancing out the hectic nature that accompanies Grand Central visitors throughout the day.
Uptown from Grand Central, New Yorkers can take a quick subway ride to the most opulent neighborhoods in the city: the Upper East Side. In this neighborhood, artist Amy Bennett has decorated the 86th Street station with Heydays, a glass mosaic on a mezzanine wall. Similar to her other paintings of homes in the neighborhood, Heydays portrays a series of large estates and summer homes in Bay Ridge — a growing neighborhood in Brooklyn — before the area was made more urban, highlighting the neighborhood’s rural origin.
On the West End D Line, artist Amy Cheng’s Rediscovery portrays her perspective as an immigrant living in New York City. The work, which consists of vibrant, laminated glass in large platform window screens, echoes the large scale of the city and the hugely diverse population that inhabits it. Rediscovery is meant to reflect the human desire for discovery, exemplified by New Yorkers of all different backgrounds on their journey to the Big Apple.
Artist Susanna Starr’s A Continuous Thread accompanies transiters along their route from Manhattan to Brooklyn. The piece is composed of six laminated glass windows on train platforms. Susan Auld’s poem, In the Shadow Of The Design, accompanies Starr’s artwork, examining the connection between material items and people, and how these relationships frame our memories. The last two stanzas read, “Two loose threads dangled/from the doily’s edging/each going its own way/as generations will,/but still bound by the constancy/of kindred connections.” Just as relationships have a tendency to develop and transform, Starr’s design visually changes, representing the constant evolution of bonds between people. As the natural light of the city changes throughout the day, the dimensions of Starr’s images also change in the viewer’s eyes.
All of these works reflect the intimacy artists share with New York City. Cheng and Starr are highly conscious of the diverse makeup of one of the largest cities in the world: a feature that makes its urban environment so fruitful. Saar underscores the subtle truth about Harlem as a connecting point between the rest of the world and the big city. Bennett and Ferrara illustrate the classic symbol of New York as a thriving resource for people seeking diverse opportunities. The simple fact that these works are received daily by an equally diverse audience underlines the powerful effect of an exhibition that stretches across the city.
For a more in-depth tour of New York’s subway art, visit www.mta.info.