Subway art offers sweet surprises
Every day, millions of New Yorkers navigate the 722 miles of underground transit lines, racing for trains, leaping through closing car doors, then fighting for their right to personal space. Obviously, there’s little time to consider an island-wide course in art appreciation. But my last trip to Manhattan – in the dead of winter – turned out to be a lovely episode of artistic discovery. By letting my eyes wander, I began to really see the history of the city through its art underground.
City of Light
A stunning site: The stained glass windows designed by one of America’s most important and inventive artists – Romare Bearden – in the mezzanine of Westchester Square station. The panels depict – through the artist’s cubist interpretation – an elevated subway train winding its way through the New York City skyline. The colors are dazzling.
You can find an overview of New York Transit art by clicking here.
Beneath Bryant Park – at 42nd St., down a long corridor to the Fifth Avenue exit, you’ll find quotations ranging from “Jack and Jill,” to an obscure passage from James Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Wake” – each tableau framed by delicate mosaics of golden tree roots (from above) and by mosaics of layered bedrock, below (Pics #3 and #4).
While thousands of riders pass a nearby quote attributed to Swiss psychiatrist/philosopher Carl G. Jung, it’s anybody’s guess as to whether they give it a second thought. It reads, “Nature must not win the game, but she cannot lose.” (Pic #6) The piece is actually called “Under Bryant Park,” a reference to the preserve of well-tended greenery above the station, and the artist says the Jung quote “has to do with human imperative: trying to control external nature.” My hunch is, most passengers would settle for controling the population of the rodents darting over the tracks.
Some of the most whimsical collections of images appear at the 81st Street station, home to the American Museum of Natural History. I watched this installation grow over the years, and its treatment of wildlife large and small always captivates the attention of small children, including me. (Pic #5)
“Mosaics make sense”
According to Sandra Bloodworth, director of the Arts for Transit program at the MTA, there are always “durability issues” in the subway environment, so mosaic and tile are ideal materials for these public projects. That could explain why an historical New York “original” was recently unearthed at the 59th St.- Columbus Circle station. (Pic #7)
The newly-discovered sign is from 1901, and was created three years before the first underground line opened. Back then, the architects used its walls as an art gallery, experimenting with decorative ideas in various colors of tile. These “experiments” were eventually covered over and forgotten. NYC Transit says it is working on a design for a window in the wall so this treasure can be shared.
For a peek in the meantime: it’s on the the uptown platform of the No. 1 train, and according to the gothamist.com intern who shot this photo (Elyssa Goldberg) “it was very much hidden and high up.”
Tile and Error?
Okay, just because….
Someone might have gotten sent home from work early (Pic # 7) — I’m guessing Spellcheck wasn’t anywhere near the G-Train platform that day.