I’m a sucker for public art, for the most obvious reasons: For the way a strategically placed piece can rise up to startle and greet you out of nowhere, take your breath away, and change the course and mood of your entire day. The subway is one of the best places for this scenario, but in the crazy, annoying, smelly hurry of the day, I hardly ever stop to notice that almost every station houses some amazing artwork. A few of my favorites are listed below.
Taking a little tour just to see this work will change your whole view of the train system. Plus, it’s perfect timing for an underground expedition, given that it’s still too cold to really enjoy walking the streets above ground, and subway art is free--perfect for all of us who are broke and/or unemployed.
If you want more, there’s a pretty complete list at nycsubway.org (but look out for temporary exhibitions that are no longer up), or you can check out these books.
NOTE: If you want to see all of the following on one trip, start at 14th Street-Eighth Ave. Then take the L heading to Union Square. From here, take the Q heading downtown/Brooklyn to Atlantic-Pacific. From here, take Q again, this time heading uptown toward Manhattan (don't forget to look out the window starting at the next stop!). Get off at Union Square, transfer to the 6, and head waaaay up to Westchester Square.
1) 14th Street-Eighth Avenue (A, C, E, L)
I used to work in the building above this station, and Tom Otterness’s bronze sculpture series, “Life Underground,” was one of my first experiences with subway art. Otterness’s whimsical, moneybag-bearing creatures that comment on capitalism manage to be both whimsical and foreboding, and are especially symbolic today. I wrote about these for ARTINFO in 2007.
Photo Courtesy MacRonin47, via Flickr.
2) 14th Street-Union Square (4, 5, 6, L, N, Q, R, W)
This station is full of more obvious art, but you have to look closer to find my favorite—Mary Miss’s “Framing Union Square” installation that incorporates pieces of the original 1904 station. Look for red frames and eagles wearing the number 14.
3) Atlantic Avenue-Pacific Street in Brooklyn (2, 3, 4, 5, B, D, M, N, Q, R)
The Museum of Modern Art recently installed its “MoMAAtlantic/Pacific” advertising campaign at this stop, but more than an promotion for the museum, it serves as a mini-installation previewing all the midtown museum has to offer. More than 50 reproductions of works in MoMA’s collection—including those by Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol—are interspersed throughout this station through March 15. The works look somewhat different than they did when they were installed, however, after the street artist Poster Boy got his hands on them.
4) DeKalb Avenue in Brooklyn (B, D, M, N, Q, R)
The MTA recently restored Bill Brand’s 1980s optical illusion piece, “Masstransiscope,” so head back toward Manhattan on the B or Q and look out the windows on the right side of the train. Budget Travel’s blog has good YouTube video.
5) Westchester Square-East Tremont Avenue in the Bronx (6)
Caught at just the right moment, in just the right light, legendary artist Romare Bearden’s stained glass “City of Light” stained glass cityscape will stop you in your tracks.
Other stations to check out:
- 14th Street-Sixth Avenue (F, L, V)
- 191st Street (1)
- South Ferry (1)