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.
4 thoughts on "Public Art | Mosaics Adorn New York City’s Second Avenue Subway"
Please share more about how this was accomplished! The technical nitty-gritty would be very interesting!
These mosaics are fantastic! Although it’s not of the essence, I’m very interested in the technical execution of the mosaics – the Chuck Close, the Vik Muniz and Jean Shin’s as well – and don’t see anything online. If you have information, I’d love to learn more about how these came about.
Thanks for being such a dependable source of what’s going on in the art-ceramics-design-craft realms!
Nancie Mills Pipgras
Hi, Ruth —
I’m sorry I didn’t see your question sooner. As the editor of Mosaic Art NOW, the collaborative process between artist and mosaic artist is one of my favorite topics. Here is what I know: Mosaika of Montreal was responsible for the incredible Chuck Close mosaics. Mosaika and Close worked together for 5 years adapting materials and techniques to married mosaic possibilities with Close’s signature “hand”. This article in Architectural Digest has some great close-up photos and some interesting thoughts from Close: http://www.architecturaldigest.com/story/what-does-chuck-close-have-against-public-art
The Vik Muniz mosaics were made by Franz Mayer of Munich, a firm with a 158 year history in mosaics for public spaces. Muniz has worked with mosaic visual techniques for years using non-traditional materials like photographs, soccer balls and rubbish. He has cited the mosaics of Ravenna as an inspiration point for his work.
Finally, the mosaic portions of Jean Shin’s works were executed by Stephen Miotto in partnership with Travisanutto of Spilimbergo, Italy. Miotto and Travisanutto have a great history with artists like Sam Gilliam, Faith Ringgold and Xenobia Bailey. A favorite of mine is the gigantic “Funktional Vibrations” ceiling for the 34 Street & Hudson Station https://news.artnet.com/art-world/new-york-newest-subway-xenobia-bailey-334475. Imagine translating crochet into mosaic on a grand scale…
It was Stephen Miotto who once said to me, “Our job is to be true to the original intent of the artist” and you can see that in these splendid works. These mosaics are not merely copies of originals made of materials that will stand the test of time. Because of a mutually respectful and inspired collaboration, they are something altogether new and fantastic. Again, I thank you for asking the question…these artisans deserve the recognition.
Nancie Mills Pipgras
Thanks, CFile for covering this major Mosaic Moment — the photos and commentary are terrific. I’d like to give a nod to the makers who are truly amazing. The extraordinary Mosaika of Montreal was responsible for collaborating with Chuck Close in translating his portraits into mosaic. Franz Mayer of Munich did a brilliant job of turning Vic Muniz’ wise photographs of every day subway riders into instant urban icons. I’ll be sharing your post on the Mosaic Art NOW Facebook page. Cheers!