With autumn almost here and the holiday season not far behind, New York City often lands on the travel plans of explorers. While there’s plenty to see on the streets of the city, below the streets mosaic, terra cotta, bronze, glass, and mixed-media sculptures await. For the price of a Metro Card, you’ll find a subterranean art museum in the New York City subway stations.
From its beginning over 100 years ago, the New York City subway system was never intended to be a faceless labyrinth of concrete and steel. Designers sought to soften its rather rough edges with works of art and ornamentation. It’s all still there and thanks to the MTA’s Arts in Transit program the early artwork has been restored and joined by new additions. More than 300 works from artists have been commissioned by the agency since its opening in the 1980s, including these urban masterpieces.
A New York City Timeline on the Subway Walls
In the subway’s earliest days, William Barclay Parsons and Heins & LaFarge established a two-prong philosophy to ornament the subway stations: adorn the subway platforms with beautiful ceramics that provide straphangers with an easy way to identify the station locations. Some identifications are obvious with ornamented station numbers. In Times Square you’ll find the station’s name spelled out in white letter tiles on a blue-tiled background surrounded by a decorative border of mosaic garlands and topped with beaux-arts classical details.
Other stations tell the history of the neighborhood. Ceramic beavers symbolic of the Astor’s fur trade adorn the walls at Astor Place station. At Fulton Street station Robert Fulton’s steamer paddles up the Hudson past green shores under a blue sky. And at Wall Street, you’ll find a Dutch colonial house protected by the old wooden stockade from which the street got its name.
Over time the style evolved from the beaux-arts designs of elaborate curves and flowers to the flat and rectangular designs of the Arts and Crafts movement. Station names are spelled out in white tiles on colored backgrounds framed by brightly colored rectangular, square or diamond-shaped individual tiles.
At the 135th Street station of the 2 and 3 subway line, the walls are covered with a “Harlem Timeline.” On the downtown platform, a glass mosaic by Willie Birch pays tribute to Harlem greats like Charlie Parker, the Reverend Adam Clayton Powell Jr., and Langston Hughes. On the north platform, Billie Holiday is displayed in a vibrant mosaic. Folk art, African American quilts and textile designs from Africa and Mexico are all incorporated into the artwork.
The Whimsical Creations of Tom Otterness
At the 14th Street station on 8th Avenue, Tom Otterness’ mischievous cast-bronze characters rise from beneath the platform floor and scamper along the ceilings and staircases. Here the urban myth of alligators under the city comes to life as one snatches hold of the pants of a runaway character. Inspired by 19th-century political cartoonist Thomas Nast, Otterness portrays politicians with moneybags for heads. The messages are pretty clear on some like the depiction of a worker woman reading a book on top of a possibly dead businessman lying on a pile of money and a large man in a suit and top hat wrestling away coins from a tiny figure adorned in a dress. On the staircase, a moneybag head shines bright from people giving him a rub for good luck on the way to and from work.
Art on a Grand Scale at the Second Avenue Station
When the Second Avenue Subway stations opened on New York’s Upper East Side in early 2017, the city gained more than a long-awaited transportation stop. The station has the largest permanent public art installation in New York state history with large-scale works by notable artists.
At Second Avenue, the entire subway station is an immersive art experience. Artist Chuck Close’s installation, “Subway Portraits” features 12 large-scale works nearly nine feet high portraying cultural figures including Philip Glass, Alex Katz, Cindy Sherman and Cecily Brown. His goal was to create mosaics upstairs that reflect the subway riders below.
Sarah Sze created an abstract project entitled “Blueprint for a Landscape” which features everyday city objects—scaffolding, birds, paper scraps. The items are tossed together on blue and white porcelain wall tiles. The artwork includes references to energy fields and wind patterns and spans about 14,000 feet.
The Vik Muniz “Perfect Strangers” installation at the 72nd Street stop focuses on the diversity of New Yorkers who live and work near the station. From blue-collar workers to professional businessmen to children, over three dozen human-scale portraits line the station’s platform.
Next time you’re in New York, linger for a bit in the subway stations and see what you discover.