NEW YORK CITY — A frequent refrain around Cfile is, “other countries get all the cool stuff.” We often say this in reference to public art because, frankly, even defunct Soviet-era bus stops are more inspiring than BART stations in San Francisco. Other places seem to see the value of public art in the way that our country doesn’t. What we see as frivolous, other countries see as sparing their citizens from a morning commute through a dimly-lit warren of existential depression.
Above image: Detail from Sarah Sze, Blueprint for a Landscape, 2017. Photograph by Allison Meier.
So when New York City steps up and commissions the largest art installation in the state, it’s often framed in terms of practicality before anything else. Take this clip from the New York Times in reference to the Second Avenue subway station:
When a city has been waiting for a badly needed new subway line since 1929, public art is probably far down the list of expectations, well behind accommodations like a) working trains, b) lights and c) some means of entrance and egress.
But when commuters descend into the new Second Avenue subway’s four stations, at 96th, 86th, 72nd and 63rd Streets, now set for a New Year’s Day opening — or perhaps a little later if things don’t go as planned — they will find one of the most ambitious contemporary art projects that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has ever undertaken. The agency’s art department, M.T.A. Arts & Design, founded and first funded in 1985, is rarely — in a salmagundi system 112 years old — presented with a brand-new, blank canvas.
The installations were more warmly embraced by Allison Meier of HyperAllergic, who stopped to appreciate the scope of art in a public space:
According to the MTA, it is the system’s “first major expansion in more than 50 years” as well as “the largest permanent public art installation in state history.” That’s due to large-scale installations that fill the Second Avenue Subway’s four stations (including the existing 63rd and Lexington stop, which was expanded for the line). These public artworks join the extensive underground art museum funded by the MTA’s Percent for Art program and commissioned by MTA Arts & Design. Much as with last year’s new subway station — 34th Street–Hudson Yards, featuring futuristic art by Xenobia Bailey — the focus is on mosaics. Sarah Sze’s expansive “Blueprint for a Landscape” unfolds across 96th Street, Chuck Closes’s towering “Subway Portraits” loom over pedestrians at 86th Street, Vik Muniz’s life-size figures stand like totems of New York diversity at 72nd Street, and Jean Shin delved into photographic archives to remember the demolished elevated tracks at 63rd Street.
Public art is a quality of life issue. It reinforces the character of and gives character to the place it occupies. I’m especially taken by the portraits in many of these tile mosaics. In a strange way they remind me of old Norman Rockwell paintings, only more documentary than sentimental. It takes one a minute to notice that the two men are holding hands. People of different ethnicities and social standings gaze back at you, reinforcing their presence and the presence of the people they represent upon repeated trips to the train. It’s a fantastic idea. Heartwarming. Cheers to the MTA and their improvements for the lives of New Yorkers. We should all be so lucky.
Bill Rodgers is the Managing Editor of cfile.daily.
Do you love or loathe this contemporary ceramic art? Let us know in the comments.