Underground Art

Any self-respecting art lover in New York is sure to visit the Met, but may overlook the M.T.A. “There are

Any self-respecting art lover in New York is sure to visit the Met, but may overlook the M.T.A. “There are many people throughout the world who would be amazed; curators who take the subway are blown away,” said Sandra Bloodworth, who has directed the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s Arts for Transit program since 1996, adding murals and mosaics by Museum of Modern Art stalwarts like Roy Lichtenstein, Elizabeth Murray and Sol LeWitt to subterranean walls. “You can see all of this work [by artists] in these museums-on the way to those museums.”
Since the Arts for Transit program began 25 years ago, it has installed more than 200 permanent pieces of artwork in subway stations all over the city (A complete guide is available at www.nycsubway.org). Beyond the works by famous names, they include murals by public-school children and works by emerging artists who later became better known. Where does the money come from? In 1982, New York passed the “Percent for Art” law, which requires that 1 percent of the budget for eligible city-funded construction projects be spent on artwork for city facilities.
The art is carefully selected to match the station. Ms. Bloodworth said, “It’s about what will resonate with the riders.” So here’s a look at some of what’s available for the $2.25 cost of a MetroCard.  

Roy Lichtenstein’s
Times Square Mural
Times Square Station: 1, 2, 3, N, Q, R, 7 and S trains
Perhaps the most famous piece of art in the M.T.A. system is Roy Lichtenstein’s Times Square Mural, created in 1994. This 53-foot-long panel, in Lichtenstein’s iconic comic-book-print style, was one of the artist’s last works. The mural shows the progression of transit, representing both the past (an arch like the kind used in the construction of the original 19th-century subway system) and the future (an ultramodern rocket-ship train). Lichtenstein was commissioned for the piece, but chose to give it as a gift to the city he was born in.

Béatrice Coron’s Bronx
Literature and All Around Town
Burke Avenue Station: 2 and 5 trains
In Bronx Literature, Béatrice Coron depicts the lives and works of four authors, using vivid stained glass. The large windows focus on Sholom Aleichem, James Baldwin, Nicholasa Mohr and Edgar Allan Poe, all of whom lived in or wrote about the Bronx. (The Poe panels include ravens, a full moon and a windblown landscape where pages fly from books.) En route to Bronx Literature, passengers may be able to see one of the more recent works commissioned for the M.T.A.: All Around Town. The cut-paper poster hanging in subway cars, depicting a silhouetted city, was made by Ms. Coron in 2009.

Raul Colon’s Primavera
191st Street Station: 1 train
Primavera, the 15-foot-tall wall of color at this uptown subway station, was designed by Raul Colon, a celebrated artist and illustrator of children’s books, including My Mama Had a Dancing Heart and Roberto Clemente: Pride of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Primavera has the same magical feel of a children’s book, as a dancing couple (intentionally interracial, to celebrate the diversity of Washington Heights, said Mr. Colon) floats in the foreground. “I wanted to brighten [the station] up,” the artist said. “I thought of a nice spring day, a warm feel. I wanted to make it a celebration.” Mr. Colon was inspired by the feeling of Washington Heights, and by the arched space. “It had the feel of those old murals and religious paintings from the Renaissance. That’s why the children have those mystical wings,” he said.

Robert Kushner’s
4 Seasons Seasoned
77th Street Station: 6 train
Passengers rushing through the turnstiles at 77th street to catch the No. 6 train might do better to catch the gilded leaves in the glass mosaics on either side. The beautiful work, titled 4 Seasons Seasoned, was created for the M.T.A. in 2004 by Robert Kushner. Mr. Kushner was a performance artist in the 1970s, before becoming a prominent member of the Pattern and Decoration Art movement, which was influenced by Eastern cultures’ emphasis on artistic decorative patterns. The work here has the same Japanese style and floral motifs that are prominent in many of Mr. Kushner’s other works, which can be seen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and MoMA, among other museums.

Elizabeth Murray’s
Between 59th Street and 59th Street/Lexington Avenue stations: 4, 5, 6, N and R trains
23rd Street/Ely Avenue Station: E train
A red tree blooms eternally in the 59th Street Station passageway, thanks to Elizabeth Murray, one of only a handful of women ever to be honored with a career-long retrospective at MoMA. The giant mosaic, which wraps around walls and corners, was created by Murray in 1996. Named Blooming, after the Bloomingdale’s above it, this work features giant slippers and coffee cups, artifacts of the daily morning commute. Another Murray work, Steam, is on view at the 23rd Street/Ely Avenue Station in Queens. It displays the same colorful whimsy as Blooming-in one mosaic, a city skyline is trampled by giant boots.

Al Loving’s
Brooklyn, New Morning
Broadway/East New York (Broadway Junction) Station: J, Z, L, A and C trains
Blue-, yellow-, green- and red-tinted sunlight forms patterns on the faces of passengers walking through Brooklyn’s Broadway Junction Station. In 2001, Al Loving installed 70 stained-glass windows and a bright mosaic wall to make Brooklyn, New Morning. The richly colored panes sport geometric patterns and loops. Loving, who died in 2005, was a well-known abstract artist whose work is in permanent collections at the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Tom Otterness’
Life Underground
Eighth Avenue and 14th Street Station:
A, C, E and L trains
Do not be alarmed by the crocodile coming out of the sewer grate. It is just one of more than 100 sculptures in Life Underground, one of the most playful and popular installations in the M.T.A. system. Public artist Tom Otterness hid quirky statues around corners, under handrails and behind fixtures at the station. He said that the work has a political undertone, inspired by 19th-century political cartoonist Thomas Nast. “I took many of the images-the money-bag head, other satirical images-from him and converted them into sculpture,” Mr. Otterness said.

Sol LeWitt’s
Whirls and twirls (MTA)
Columbus Circle: 1, A, B, C and D trains
The aptly named Whirls in Columbus Circle was one of Sol LeWitt’s last commissions, and it was unveiled two years after the famed conceptual artist’s death in 2009. The 583-square-foot installation, full of fanciful loops and geometric shapes, is made up of 250 vivid porcelain tiles. Reds, greens and yellows swirl together in a dizzying array of colors. The piece is officially called Whirls and twirls (MTA)-because another similar creation of LeWitt’s, Whirls and twirls (MET), is installed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Ellen Harvey’s
Look Up Not Down
Queens Plaza Station: E, F, G  
and R trains
Ellen Harvey designed glass mosaics of the city skyline and installed them into the walls of this busy Queens station. The cityscape illustrated there represents the actual skyline as seen from above the subway station in 2005, when the piece was created. In the mosaic, the sun is positioned in the place where the World Trade Center once stood. Look Up, Not Down, encourages passersby to be optimistic. Ms. Harvey transports passengers from underground outside and up, to a perpetually sunny day.


Underground Art