Underground Art Museum

Leo Villareal, “Hive (Bleecker Street)” (2012), Bleecker Street 6 station, LED tubes, custom software, electrical hardware, aluminum, and stainless steel (photograph by James Ewing, all images courtesy the Monacelli Press)

There are over 250 art projects lodged in the transit infrastructure of New York City. Some are garish or grand mosaics that cover whole subway tunnels, others you might walk by for years without recognition. A new book compiles them in a guide to city’s subterranean galleries.

Underground Art Museum

Sol LewWitt, “Whirls and twirls (MTA)” (2009), 59th Street-Columbus Circle (courtesy Dattner Architects)

Commissioned by MTA Arts & Design (formerly MTA Arts for Transit), New York’s Underground Art Museum: MTA Arts & Design by Sandra Bloodworth, director of MTA Arts & Design, and William Ayres, an independent curator, was published late last month by the Monacelli Press. It’s an update of the more joyously named 2006 Along the Way, also by Bloodworth and Ayres. Since that first book, nearly 100 installations have joined the “museum.” This includes huge pieces like Leo Villareal’s “Hive (Bleecker Street)” (2012), a honeycomb of LED light patterns at the new Bleecker transfer, and smaller works like Duke Riley’s “Be Good or Be Gone” (2011), glass windows at Beach 98 Street in the Rockaways.

“At any given time, more than fifty new artworks are in progress, a fact that makes MTA Arts & Design one of the largest sources of public art commissions in the world,” the authors write. They also hint at bigger things to come with the Second Avenue line which will provide “MTA Arts & Design an unprecedented opportunity to partner with other MTA professionals from the outset to create a totally new environment.”

Underground Art Museum

Duke Riley’s “Be Good or Be Gone” (2011) faceted glass at Beach 98 Street (photograph of the book by the author for Hyperallergic)

Underground Art Museum

Shinique Smith, “Mother Hale’s Garden” (2013), Mother Clara Hale Bus Depot, glass and ceramic mosaic with laminated glass (photograph by Eric Wolfe)

Underground Art Museum

Ben Snead’s “Departures and Arrivals” (2009) mosaic and ceramic tile work at Jay Street-Metro Tech (photograph of the book by the author for Hyperallergic)

The book concentrates just on the MTA Arts & Design work, which dates to 1985, rather than older subway decorative design, although the authors do give tribute to art like the 1904 elements by Heins & La Farge, whose ceramic mosaics you can still view in Times Square, and whose terra-cotta beaver plaques still adorn Astor Place. Yet it’s an interesting compilation of how art is installed in such a difficult place as mass transit, where it must pop out of the chaos but also not obstruct its flow. And it is purely a compendium, there’s not much commentary on public reaction or interaction.

However, it’s a great resource for transit and art nerds. There were several projects I pass all the time I hadn’t recognized as art, such as “Framing Union Square” (1998) by Mary Miss where red aluminum subtly outlines particular details of the station, and James Garvey’s bronze “Lariat Tapers” (2011) that wrap pillars at Wall Street. The background on the meaning of the art is also engaging, such as Ben Snead’s “Departures and Arrivals” (2009) at Jay Street-Metro Tech featuring five types of fauna, including those that migrated to Brooklyn for mysterious reasons, like the monk parrot that nests in places like the spires of the archway at Green-Wood Cemetery. It would be a bit handier if New York’s Underground Art Museum was more pocket rather than coffee table size to be a true underground guide, but sparks appreciation in the extensive art enlivening the daily commute, especially for those of us whose home stations (25th Street on the R) still remain sadly bare. Although with the rapid installation of new art in recent years that may not be true for long.

Underground Art Museum

James Carpenter Design Associates, Grimshaw Architects, and ARUP, “Sky Reflector Net” (2014), Fulton Center (photograph by Patrick J. Cashin)

Underground Art Museum

Barbara Grygutis, “Bronx River View” (2010), Whitlock Avenue 6 station, stainless steel (photograph by Peter Peirce)

Underground Art Museum

Jean Shin, “Celadon Remnants” (2008), Broadway Station, MTA Long Island Rail Road, ceramic and glass mosaic (photograph by Seong Kwon)

New York’s Underground Art Museum: MTA Arts & Design by Sandra Bloodworth and William Ayres was released October 28 by the Monacelli Press. 

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...