Accessibility links

In NYC’s 'Underground Art Museum,' Works to Delight the Passerby

  • Carolyn Weaver

Millions of New Yorkers and visitors ride the New York City subway and commuter trains each day. Along the way, they encounter one of the most far-flung public art collections in the world. New York’s “underground art museum,” as it is sometimes called, includes more than 250 murals, sculptures, bas-reliefs and decorative elements, made of glass, ceramic tile, porcelain enamel, stone, metal and mixed-media. They range from huge to small, and from old to newly installed.

There’s the vast aquamarine mural of the night sky, in place for a century on the ceiling of Grand Central Terminal’s main room. It reverses the order of the heavens, except for the Orion Constellation, for reasons lost to history. In the nearby Grand Central Market, a chandelier sprouts like an upside-down olive tree, glittering with crystals. It was made by sculptor Donald Lipski in 1998.

Artists include those still emerging and the long-famous. There’s Roy Lichtenstein’s pop art porcelain enamel mural at Times Square, and Sol Lewitt’s vibrantly colored “Whirls and Twirls” at Columbus Circle. Toby Buonagurio’s jewel-like ceramic plaques, encased in a glass-block wall, vividly illustrate the performing arts, fashion and street life at 42nd Street.

Sandra Bloodworth, director of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s arts program, which was established in 1985, and co-authored a new book about it, New York’s Underground Art Museum, said the program “actually began much earlier. When the subway was founded in 1904, a percentage of money was set aside to create a special ornamentation within the system, both terra cotta and metal work, in order to make this very special place that people would want to use.”

The website says New York’s subway stations are distinguished by “the overwhelming use of tile and mosaics, initiated by subway art director/engineer Squire Vickers in the 1910s, at the end of the Arts and Crafts era, and continued by him into the 1930s, with the IND subway line’s precise Machine Age graphics.”

Giving Stations 'Local Flavor'

For the last 30 years, artists have been commissioned to make works that relate to city life or the neighborhood where the station is located. There are beach scenes in stations near the Atlantic Ocean, and native plants and flowers in a garden scene in Brooklyn. Wildlife mosaics and fossil-like bronze plaques greet visitors arriving at the subway station next to the American Museum of Natural History. Small, bulbous creatures made by sculptor Tom Otterness whimsically populate another station, illustrating city lore, like an alligator emerging from a sewer to attack a man.

Outside the city, one suburban Metro-North train station hosts a bronze bas-relief of life-size dairy cows, and another, a multicolored sculpture of houses that appear to rise or fall, depending on which direction the train is heading.

At Times Square, Jane Dickson’s confetti-like mosaics, “The Revelers,” evoke New Year’s Eve celebrants. Tonya Pierre, standing in front of two figures in her red coat one day recently, almost looked like part of the art. She is an enthusiastic supporter. “When I’m stressed I look at the subway art. I love the colors,” she said. “Where I live, at the 191st station, they have a mosaic of a man and a woman like, floating across the water, and it’s beautiful. It’s just beautiful to have art everywhere.”

Not far away, Colombian tourist Alejandra Acosta stopped to photograph a glass mosaic mural by the late African American artist Jacob Lawrence.

“It’s nice when you see these kind of things that catch your eye, when you’re walking in these spaces, like the subway stations, that seem a little bit dull. For instance, the one I saw at the Museum of Natural History is beautiful,” she said, referring to an under-the-sea ceramic mural that brightens a corner of the subway station near the museum with dazzlingly colored fish, an octopus and other sea creatures.

Keeping Art Fresh

Downtown at the new Fulton Center subway hub, Sandra Bloodworth said the MTA’s newest major work, its “crowning piece of art,” is the massive “Sky Reflector-Net,” designed by James Carpenter Design Associates, with Grimshaw Architects and Arup. A 16-meter-diameter glass “oculus,” a kind of giant skylight, rests above the Fulton Center’s conical atrium. Perforated aluminum and glass panels on nets of tensioned cables direct sunlight deep into the warren of subway lines below.

“Together they’ve created this work of art that brings light into the station. As Jamie Carpenter says, the sky is ‘folded’ onto the Sky Reflector and down into the center below, onto the people as they travel through the station,” Bloodworth said.