NYC Again – Subway Art!

Andrew: As mentioned earlier, there’s just too much to blog about NYC until Dearie gave me the idea to blog about the subway art that we had seen! Interestingly enough, we had also been sufficiently impressed by the art that we have a significant collection of photographs with the subway art.

Jasmine: I’ve always thought that entrances are so important yet so underrated, whether it’s a hotel reception, or a front page for a website, or the window display for a store. It sets the tone for what the visitor can expect, and when done well, serves as a portal into a different frame of mind.

That’s why I really liked how site- and context-specific some of these art pieces were, with deep respect for the historical purpose of the neighbourhood served by the subway. 

I understand that our very own Circle Line has some site-specific installations too, but as I’ve never quite paid attention to them (or perhaps the meanings are too obscure for me), I can’t quite comment. That’s a shame, considering I take Circle Line to work daily, but then again, my objective is standing around looking as pregnant as possible so that some kind soul gives up his seat for me. Heh.

Andrew: I have blogged about the Circle Line art in my own blog in two parts – Part 1 on Marymount Station and Part 2 on Dakota Station. Though not all pieces were successful, I applaud the efforts and look forward to more of this in our subsequent MRT lines! There’s so much room for artistic expression, that is linked to culture, history and location, in Singapore.

Here’s our collection of noteworthy photographs of Subway art in NYC. I’d like to add that what was significantly different about the NYC pieces was the element of interactivity and play to them – subway users could actually be ‘part’ of the art pieces and have fun with them! They actually have NYC Subway Art tours, which we might sign up for the next time we go.

MTA Arts for Transit, For Want of a Nail, at 81st Street – Museum of Natural History Station

Jasmine: On entrances, I thought that this was a great way to “welcome” one to the American Museum of Natural History. Some might say it is quite literal, embedding mosaics of insects on the subway walls, but it was perfect as subway art, which I feel should be accessible above all else. After all, commuters walk past hurriedly in seconds and won’t have time to register art that is too subtle. Therefore, to me, subway art needs to be simple yet visually arresting- nothing too deep or profound, as the subway is not the destination in itself but the gateway to one.



Andrew: Yes, this photograph on facebook had some people commenting that I actually had a ‘fun’ side. LOL. Of course I do!


Jasmine: What a beautiful, unexpected corner in the station! A train had just gone past, hence I was trying to catch my hair. In person, the 3D effect of the raised mosaics was stunning too.


Andrew: We were actually in a rush to the Natural History Museum as our itinerary was quite packed that day (so much to do in NYC), but we ended up spending about 15 – 20 minutes just taking photos!

Keith Godard, Memories of Twenty-Third Street at Twenty Third Street Station

Jasmine: Not many might know but Twenty Third Street used to be the vaudeville, fashion and entertainment district up until the 1920s! With this history of costuming and millinery, the artwork of different hats (or roles, played by entertainers) was most appropriate, and also fun for us to participate in, as the hats were at different heights!


The only chance I’ll get to wear a top hat

Andrew: This piece of art was at the station near to the Flatiron building. An interesting anecdote that I discovered as I read up more about this piece was that the Flatiron building, being taller than the buildings around it, caused the area to be very windy. That was indeed true during our visit there! Anyway, many young lads thus came to the Flatiron area, hoping to get a glimpse of some ladies ‘stockings’ as the wind blew up their skirts. Apparently, a glimpse of stockings was something shocking in that era. When spotted by police, they would run, and together with the windy conditions, that would cause many hats to fly!


My chic-est hair accessory yet

Samm Kunce, Under Bryant Park 2002, at 5th Avenue, 42nd Street-Bryant Park Station


Jasmine: This was very meaningful as it was under the veritable New York Public Library. The tree roots seemed to connote two levels of meaning: firstly, the more literal meaning that it was below ground level, and secondly, a clue as to the landmark it served, the Public Library, as books came from trees.

Andrew: The lines are from James Joyce’s Finnegans’ Wake and were meant to be read in a an Irish accent. There were many other quotations along this mosaic, from Carl Jung and even Mother Goose nursery rhymes ("Jack and Jill”), catering to many different audiences. One could spend a long time just ‘reading’ while walking along the line.

I recall there was an attempt to incorporate poetry along our MRT lines – perhaps this approach can be taken as we now have signifcantly ‘larger’ MRT lines, like the transit stations (Outram Park). We could use the walls of the walk-areas to incorporate similar art pieces!

Tom Otterness, Life Underground, at the 14th Street, 8th Avenue station


Jasmine: Ohhh… this was my favourite piece of subway art in New York! Legend –ok, actually Wikipedia– has it that the artist became so obsessed with the project that he created four times the amount of artwork he was commissioned to produce. As a result, you can see more than 100 pieces of bronze sculptures scattered across the subway station, and making great use of existing structures in the station.


Jasmine: The artwork was deemed too “cute” (which is why I suspect people love it so much), which undercut its critical edge about greed and the “impossibility of living in New York”, as some of the figures are seen holding money bags or being eaten up by alligators. Now, we were in a rush, so we didn’t get to explore all the more significant sculptures, but whatever we saw, we liked lots, like this one, which the theme of construction.


Jasmine: And another representation of life in New York, which we also thought mirrored us: the husband hurrying the wife along while the wife is distracted by yet another thing to see/ shop. Just mentally replace the drain cover that she’s holding with some shopping bags 😀 (Andrew: Wow – that interpretation is really a stretch. Though on some days the shopping bags did feel as heavy as a drain cover.)


Andrew: Another fun piece, which I thought would be fun for audiences of all ages. The cute figurines would be attractive to kids and just walking around trying to ‘spot’ the figurines was also fun! For us, it was interesting to think about what the figurines and their activities represented about construction in NYC.

What a brilliant way to bring arts to the masses and into everyday life. I applaud this effort and do hope that it is brought into Singapore someday, in a more extensive way.


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