NEW YORK — Deep below the frenzied streets of New York City are the gritty subway tunnels and platforms packed with people. Roaring trains and a sea of humanity meld with grey concrete surroundings. You’re rushing along when a kaleidoscope of color jolts your eye. A scene crystallizes.Over the past 30 years, 300 artworks have been commissioned by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and installed across the five boroughs and commuter rail stations. They’re site specific and integrated into the architecture.
You’re looking at a picture on the subway wall. A mosaic painting of a crowd watching a film crew on-set, Alice in Wonderland, a gigantic hot dog. You sense a subtle intrusion of composure in this space defined by commotion. And you smile.
“People are stuck in the subways, which is what makes them the perfect place for art,” said Lee Freeman, a New York artist. “I spend a lot of time with my head glued to the window because you never know what you’ll see.”
A small amount of money in the MTA budget is for artwork. “It’s a recognition that we’re spending significant sums on improvements and want to give people something that’s aesthetically pleasing,” said Lester Burg, senior manager of MTA Arts & Design, the program that commissions the work.
Xenobia Bailey, a Harlem-based fiber artist who uses the medium of crochet, is the latest to create a museum-like space in the subway. She was selected to fill two ceilings at 34th Street-Hudson Yards, a new station and the first to open in 25 years.
Her panoramas of bold cobalt blue punctuated with majestic circular mandalas of red, yellow, orange and black evoke the orbiting galaxy. “It’s the cosmos,” she said. “I wanted the pieces to be motivating like the sunrise, sunset and shooting stars. I wanted to design something with a similar ambience that would inspire an invigorating state of being.”
On the Eighth Avenue platform at 14th Street, diminutive and whimsical bronze rascals are engaged in a lot of mischief. One creature is struggling to crawl under a gate. Another is stuffing a bag with presumably stolen tokens.
“I first noticed these small figures by Tom Otterness years ago when I was a graduate student at NYU,” said Gina Fuentes Walker, a Manhattan artist and photographer. “I still love to look at them while waiting for the train.”
At Times Square-42nd Street, Roy Lichtenstein’s mural of a teeming metropolis is mounted up on the platform pillars and is the perfect backdrop for the masses on the thoroughfare below.
“It’s an incredible piece. I look at it every day,” said Joe E. Dade, a public safety official with Times Square Alliance. “It’s very futuristic.”
At many renovated elevated stations, art is on the outside platform in the form of laminated glass windscreen panels. As the D train crosses Brooklyn, riders see a gallery of multicolor landscapes, floral prints and abstract drawings.
“Art can brighten a passenger’s day. It can transport you from agitated to calm, if you keep your eyes open,” said Fuentes Walker.
Hoffer is a freelance writer.