This post’s title, a quote from Jonathan Swift, the 18th Century satirist sets the stage perfectly for today’s subject and it also helps to emphasize a notion repeated often in this blog – so many fascinating sites are right under our noses in our home towns (it also fits under the recurring banner, “Man-Made Beauty” to be referred in the future as MMB*). This time I was thrilled to rediscover or actually “see” for the first time a place that until now was a rather disagreeable conduit from one point to another: the NYC Subway system.
I do think I am a pretty observant person. Walking through the underground maze of station platforms, thoroughfares and underpasses I thought I was pretty aware of my surroundings a rather critical necessity to ensure safety, if nothing else. Still, even though ALWAYS rushing I thought I managed to also take in some “extras” – intriguing ad posters and architecture, musical performances such as singers, violinists, guitarists, flutists. The latest was a steel drum soloist playing classical music rather than the usual tropical version such as this:
However, I recently took a tour of a small slice of our underground transit system (Manhattan only, and just a handful of stations – more to visit in the future) and I discovered I have been woefully unaware of some extraordinary artwork. If you will recall in my post “WHERE NO TRASH DARES TO GO: THE MOSCOW SUBWAY” I was amazed at their rail stations with marble floors, brass statues of soldiers and workers, chandeliers, mosaics, paintings and other works of art. So here I am in my hometown – never “seeing” until now that we also have some noteworthy adornment..
The NYC subway system was in the midst of a massive capital improvement program in the 1980’s when the MTA Art and Design program was created. As the century-old transportation network is restored and renewed, decorative items of the past are preserved and protected and new contemporary elements are introduced. The founders of the New York City subway believed that every design element in the system should show respect for the public and enhance the experience of travel. New works of art were commissioned under the proviso that they uphold the “high” standards initiated over 100 years ago. ONe percent of the annual transit budget goes to fund this.
Since the environmental conditions within the subway system calls for durable matter that can easily be maintained, the materials used in the new artworks include mosaic, terra-cotta, bronze, glass and mixed-media sculpture. The Arts and Design program also plays an important role in the physical restoration and attention to design elements within the stations; this includes not only artwork, but gates, fare vending machines and even the design of subway cars.
Now onto the art. Some are valiant works at protecting/restoring the original pieces of a station sometimes down to the architecture itself. Here at 14th Street/Union Square historical elements have been recovered. There are 6 “14” eagles from the original 1904 station construction surrounded by the original marble tile:
Additionally there are red frames in the station walls at 115 locations highlighting a fragment of the station’s construction such as old mosaics, rivets, steelworks, and wiring. The artist, Mary Miss named her work “Framing Union Square:” and hoped the public could look below the surface and see a slice of the station, its structure and its history.
The new art is thematic, often related to the site of the station. The artwork at the 23rd Street Station is entitled, “Memories of Twenty-Third Street,” (Keith Godard, artist) and has two interrelated motifs. Above ground is the Flatiron Building, a triangular-shaped property specifically molded in 1902 to fit the wedge-like intersection of Fifth Avenue and Broadway. Being much taller than its surrounding edifices, the Flatiron Building produced a wind-tunnel and legend has it that many men were attracted to the site looking for a glimpse of then-forbidden leg
Policemen seeing this ogling would chase the men, giving them the “23 skidoo.” There are other derivation theories for this saying, but I like this one – as it fits my post 🙂 The wind surely set hats sailing as well which leads us to the magnificent mosaics on the walls, depicting the chapeaus of famous people who for one reason or another frequented the 23rd Street Station:
PHINEAS T. BARNUM
JOHN SHERWOOD STRATTON (TOM THUMB)
ERICH WEISS (HARRY HOUDINI)
SAMUEL CLEMENS (MARK TWAIN)
Back to 14th Street at 8th Avenue this time for one of the most popular installations in the NYC Subway Art program – it has delighted both young and old with its charm and whimsy. This work is entitled “Life Underground” and has been lovingly put together by artist Tom Otterness in 2001. In fact, the artist has spent so much time and money on this project that his wife has tongue-in-cheek lamented that he needs to stop before there is no inheritance left for his children. The sculptural group consists of over 100 cast-bronze sculptures that took over 10 years to complete. Strategically placed, these figures include the child chomping alligator featured at the top of this post as well as these delightfully silly pieces, starting with two characters trying to saw off a support beam:
NB That coffee cup is NOT part of the installation, but those bronze pennies behind it are. They are a part of a series of “moneybags”pieces meant to depict Boss Tweed and the corrupt Tammany Hall that was skewered by 10th Century political cartoonist Thomas Nast. I have included a picture of the cartoon so you can see the homage paid by Otterness:
It is striking that these pieces are so often passed by, ignored by the public as they run to catch their train. While I was there only one little girl (ah youth) shrieked with glee upon discovering the animals shown above and dragged her parents over to take a look. There is hope for our future.
Let me leave you with this striking comparison of the bronze statues of the Moscow station. Of course they are so large it is virtually impossible to miss, and the superstitious Muscovites have rubbed the statues so often that those parts touched are bright and shiny:
Next week we’ll continue this underground visit to view more fantastical pieces of art . Who would’ve thunk? In a subway?