New York Subway has been put into operation by Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) since 1904. During its long history, except bringing convenient transportation service, New York Subway also promotes public arts as an underground gallery. Since the establishment in 1985, the department of Art for Transit has always introduced original art projects to various subway stations in NYC, including many mosaic tile artworks.
In the beginning of 2016, Andrew Cuomo, governor of New York released a brand new $27-billion five-year plan to renovate public transportation system. Then, in January 1st 2017, the Second Avenue Subway was put into operation and immediately became the largest permanent public arts project in the history of NYC. In particular, mosaic installations created by world-renowned artists in the 63rd Street station, 72nd Street station, and 86th Street station tell unique stories of New York and New Yorkers in different themes and add artistic dynamics to the busy subway transportation.
“Elevated” is a large-scale glass mosaic installation on the wall of the 63rd Street station. It was created by Korean-American artist Jean Shin inspired by archival photos of MTA (Figure 1-3). The artwork vividly presents history of the subway line, such as the scene of dismantling elevated rail at the Second Avenue and the Third Avenue in the 1940s. In addition, mosaic near the elevator record transformations of the US through the collision between the image of ladies and gentles in the 20th century on the wall and real-life passengers in fashionable clothes.
Figure 1. Jean Shin’s 63rd Street station artwork shows a geometric image of elevated girders dismantled in the 1940s(Source)
Figure 2. Sketch and source of inspiration of Jean Shin’s 63rd Street station artwork(Source)
Figure 3. Jean Shin’s 63rd Street station artwork shows passengers in the 20th century in glass mosaic(Source)
“Perfect Strangers” located in 72nd Street station is a group of 30 mosaic figures created by Brazilian-American artist Vik Muniz (Figure 4-7). The artwork depicts New Yorkers of different genders, ethnic groups, occupations, and educational backgrounds. These mosaic figures are just like authentic recordings of contemporary New Yorkers, and everyone could find his or her own silhouette from the artwork. According to Muniz, all figures in his artwork are ordinary people, but every ordinary person hopes to be a perfect stranger in others’ eyes. Maybe we could only remember those strange faces in the subway, and each figure in the artwork just reflects a common individual in our daily life.
Figure 4. Vik Muniz’s life-size mosaic portrait at the 72nd Street(Source)
Figure 5. Vik Muniz’s life-size mosaic portraits at the 72nd Street(Source)
Figure 6. Vik Muniz’s life-size mosaic portraits at the 72nd Street(Source)
Figure 7. Vik Muniz’s life-size mosaic portraits at the 72nd Street(Source)
“Subway Portraits” is a collection of mosaic portraits located in the 86th Street Station (Figure 8-10). It was created by Chuck Close based on real photos of several cultural celebrities, including Philip Glass, Zhang Huan, Kara Walker, Alex Katz, Cindy Sherman, Cecily Brown and himself. Those mosaic portraits were installed on the wall at the entrance of the subway station as well as at the central hall. As Close proposed that, “the richness of the city is all the various cultures coming together, and the richness of my art will be to simultaneously let people in on how many ways there are to build an image”.
Figure 8. Chuck Close’s mosaic portrait at the 86th Street station(Source)
Figure 9. Chuck Close’s mosaic portrait at the 86th Street station(Source)
Figure 10. Chuck Close’s mosaic portrait at the 86th Street station(Source)
In conclusion, those mosaic artworks together form the impressive underground gallery in NYC. Although they have different forms, styles, and sizes, they all conform to the same standard, which is being suitable for an open and pleasant space. From the 63rd Street to the 86th Street, the subway system has witnessed the passing time and alternation of several generations. It has a long history over one century but it has performed new vitality to all New Yorkers through public arts. Nowadays, public arts as a rapidly growing field has blurred boundaries of multiple disciplines and gone beyond many mediums to bring the audience visual enjoyment. It also triggers people’s deep thinking about the space and society in the past, at present, and in the future.