If you spend most of your time getting around New York by walking, Uber or house car, it’s entirely possible to miss out on seeing the MTA Underground Art Museum, an Ali Baba-on-steroids-sized treasure trove.
New York’s MTA, the Metropolitan Transit Authority, not only operates most of the public transportation options in the boroughs, it contracts with artists to create site-specific works for its stations.
New York City’s first official subway system opened in Manhattan on October 27, 1904. By the early 80’s, the city teetered on bankruptcy, its public transportation system the poster child for urban decay. That began to change with an injection of $18 billion for subway rehabilitation and the creation of MTA Arts & Design – a visionary move during a difficult time – to oversee the creation and installation of permanent artworks throughout the New York City transit system, Metro-North Railroad, Long Island Rail Road and the bridges and tunnels of the five boroughs.
From the beginning, the aesthetics of New York’s subway system were intended to be as important as the functional:
The juxtaposition of the words “art” and “underground” may seem anomalous, but in New York City the two have gone hand in hand ever since the earliest days of the subway system. William Barclay Parsons, chief engineer for the fledgling undertaking, insisted that the construction documents specify that the stations be designed, constructed, and maintained with a view to the beauty of their appearance, as well as to their efficiency.
In 1995, there were 48 new permanent artworks. Today, there are more than 300 by world-famous, mid-career and emerging artists including Chuck Close, Sol LeWitt, Roy Lichtenstein, Faith Ringgold, Robert Kushner and Maya Lin. The MTA Arts & Design also commissions art, projects and events under five other umbrellas: music, poetry, graphic posters, digital art and photography.
At any given time there can be 50 artistic works underway, making the MTA one of the largest commissioners of public art in the world.
The new art works are sited amongst the original, historic installations – the iconic name plaques created in white glass tiles, brickwork, terra cotta and tesserae, used to differentiate each station in the system.
Each new piece is site-specific, fine tuned to the needs of its environment, determined in consultation with station architects and designers, reflective of the neighbourhood – its culture, history, diversity and built landmarks – and a link between passengers and unique places and spaces. Some projects are realized in partnership with a local institution, such as the American Museum of Natural History and Yankee Stadium.
For MTA artists, architects and designers, the exposure is unparalleled: more than eight million pair of eyeballs view their works every day. For riders, the regular and the occasional, it’s an opportunity to elevate the everyday through the richness of treasures hidden in plain sight.
Recommendations for Viewing the MTA Art Installations
- For the best chance of catching the artworks, especially in large or complex stations, read ahead here and here and make note of the lines/platforms where they can be found.
- Go it alone if you can’t find a suitable treasure-hunting partner. In some stations there can be a crowd enjoying the pieces/environment making it a pop-up social hub, a great place to meet like-minded people.
- Ride at off-peak hours for more freedom to ogle without interrupting commuter flow.
All project descriptions are quoted from the MTA Arts & Design website. More information can be found on the MTA Arts & Design website.
Select MTA projects near the Langham Place, New York
Under Bryant Park, 2002
Glass, stone, and marble mosaic walls in passageway between 42nd Street and 5th Avenue stations
One of the largest artworks in the MTA system runs under 42nd Street along the corridor connecting the B, D, F, V lines with the 7 train. Above the site is the Main Library and Bryant Park, which are reflected in the artwork below. On the walls of the tunnel we see rock outcroppings, tree roots, pipes, animal burrows, and literary quotations. The artist based the project on the idea of systems.
34th Street-Herald Square
Reach New York, An Urban Musical Instrument, 1996
A green painted rectangular structure is suspended from the subway platform and engages travelers with its ability to produce sounds. Travelers place their hands in front of the box-like apparatus on the subway platform and a burst of musical notes are released on the opposite side, playing to the person on the other side.
Grand Central Terminal
As Above, So Below, 1998
Glass, bronze, and mosaic in Grand Central North passageway
The historic ceiling in the main concourse at Grand Central Terminal reveals the night sky with golden stars that form the constellations. Grand Central becomes a metaphor for our connection with the wider world beyond New York City and As Above, So Below takes the viewer around the world to the night sky above five different continents, representing myths, civilization, heavens, and the underworld.
Grand Central Terminal
A Field of Wild Flowers, 1997
Mixed-media on walls of Station Master’s Office
Roberto Juarez creates a place of refreshment and repose with his lush garden landscape, designed to appear as though it were seen through the windows of a slow-moving train. The work is one of the more fragile pieces in the system, executed in a multi-media collage that he describes as: “…consisting of layers of gesso, under-painting, urethane, and varnish, I also utilize natural materials – rice paper and a dusting of peat moss – to give my work added texture, strength, and beauty.
Grand Central Terminal
Aluminum and polyester resin sculpture with crystals in ceiling at 43rd Street in Grand Central Market
In Sirshasana, a sculptural chandelier in the shape of a golden-rooted olive tree is suspended above the street-level entrance to the Grand Central Market. With branches that span twenty-five feet and 5,000 brilliant crystal pendants, the tree dominates the area, bringing the feel of an outdoor market.
Select MTA projects near The Mark
Second Avenue Subway
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) Second Avenue Subway provides three new stations at 96th, 86th and 72nd Streets, and new entrances to the existing Lexington Av/63 Street Station. Each station features monumental public artwork by four renowned contemporary artists commissioned by MTA Arts & Design, collectively the most expansive permanent public art installation in New York history.
NYCT Lexington Avenue – 63rd Street Station.
Ceramic tile, glass mosaic, and laminated glass. Fabricated by Frank Giorgini Handmade Tiles, Miotto Mosaic Art Studio, and Tom Patti Design.
Jean Shin used archival photographs of the 2nd and 3rd Avenue Elevated train to create compositions in ceramic tile, glass mosaic, and laminated glass. The imagery is manipulated and re-configured with each station level having its own focus, palette and material.
NYCT Second Avenue – 86th Street Station.
Subway Portraits, 2016
Ceramic tile, glass and ceramic mosaic. Fabricated by Magnolia Editions and Mosaika Art & Design
Chuck Close created twelve large-scale portraits for 86th Street that are based on the artist’s painstakingly detailed photo-based portrait paintings. His various painting techniques have been interpreted in ten works as mosaic, and in two as ceramic tile. Ten of the artworks measure close to nine feet high. The people portrayed represent the variety of individuals that pass though the MTA system, and are chiefly cultural figures that have frequently been subjects in his artistic career spanning over half a century, including Philip Glass, Zhang Huan, Kara Walker, Alex Katz, Cecily Brown, Cindy Sherman, and Lou Reed, as well as two distinct self-portraits.
NYCT Second Avenue – 96th Street Station
Blueprint for a Landscape, 2016
Porcelain tile. Fabricated by Sarah Sze Studio, Alcalagres & Estudio Cerámico.
Sarah Sze’s artwork at 96th Street profoundly impacts the station, as her imagery is applied directly on over 4300 unique porcelain wall tiles, spanning approximately 14,000 square feet. The designs feature familiar objects – sheets of paper, scaffolding, birds, trees, and foliage – caught up in a whirlwind velocity that picks up speed and intensity as the composition unfolds throughout the station with references to energy fields and wind patterns. Each entrance features a different shade of blue and a blueprint-style vector line design, a visual theme that is integrated with the architecture, creating one of the most dynamic stations in the MTA system.
NYCT Second Avenue – 72nd Street Station
Perfect Strangers, 2016
Glass mosaic and laminated glass. Fabricated by Franz Mayer of Munich.
Vik Muniz photographed more than three dozen “characters” who represent the unique and quirky kinds of people one encounters on the subway. These photographs have been recreated in mosaic and installed throughout the mezzanine and entrance areas, populating the station with colorful New Yorkers of all stripes. With the generous expanse of the mezzanine concourse, the figures humanize the space and provide bursts of color and visual interest, providing an opportunity for playful discovery while moving through the station. The main station entrance features a laminated glass canopy at street level depicting a flock of birds, bringing art and nature to the busy street.
Select MTA projects near Trump Soho New York
Empress Voyage 2.22.1794, 1998
Ceramic tiles and mosaic banding on platform walls and connecting passageway
Bing Lee’s Empress Voyage commemorates the pioneering expedition of the American merchant ship, Empress of China, which in 1794 returned to New York harbor filled with silk, tea, and porcelain (commonly called china, due to its origin). Through the artist’s lighthearted use of Chinese-derived icons, the tiles illustrate aspects of the then-new trade with Asia and celebrates today’s Chinatown.
JANET ZWEIG AND EDWARD DEL ROSARIO
Carrying On, 2004
Steel, marble, and slate frieze on platform walls
Carrying On is composed of almost two hundred silhouettes of people hauling “stuff” with them as they walk the city streets. The artist team worked from photographs of individuals moving around the city and in and out of the subway. According to the artists, the title of Carrying On can be read in a variety of ways. “People on the streets of New York are almost always carrying something, sometimes something huge and outlandish. After the 9/11 tragedy, New Yorkers felt that they must carry on with their lives. Finally, New Yorkers are notoriously opinionated and lively; they really do ‘carry on.'”
Platform Diving, 1994
Glass mosaic on platform walls
Brown’s seven glass mosaics are given a whimsical quality, as the artist creates aquatic creatures that act like humans as they wait for the train to arrive at their underwater station. “I wanted to explore the analogy between subway travel and the movement of our fellow creatures through their natural environment,” Brown says. “Underwater creatures navigate a complex spatial array of undersea passageways, much as we maneuver through our own manmade systems. I thought it would be provocative to portray them in a part of our world most closely resembling their own, but involved in activities familiar to us.”
JAMES CARPENTER DESIGN ASSOCIATES, GRIMSHAW ARCHITECTS, ARUP
Sky Reflector-Net, 2014
Perforated optical-aluminum panels; stainless steel cables and fittings
Sky Reflector-Net is an integrated artwork by James Carpenter Design Associates, Grimshaw Architects and ARUP, designed specifically for the Fulton Center. The monumental sculpture embraces light and air, creating a distinctive focal point within Lower Manhattan’s urban fabric.
Suspended within the atrium’s conical form, Sky Reflector-Net is composed of 112 tensioned cables, 224 high-strength rods and nearly 10,000 stainless steel components. Attached to the soaring cable-net are 952 perforated optical aluminum panels that distribute year-round daylight and bring the sky down into the lower levels of the Center. The artwork combines beauty and function, reduces energy consumption by 30 percent and powerfully connects the 300,000 daily transit users with a sense of daylight that will be constantly changing.