Subterranean Gallery: A Look Back at the Best Art in the New York Subway System

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When your headphones are broken and you left your book at home and your thumbs are exhausted from playing too much Temple Run, sometimes the only thing that makes a claustrophobic subway ride bearable is staring at the MTA-commissioned art decorating the train cars. For thirty years, MTA Arts & Design has commissioned hundreds of artists and designers, including Milton Glaser, Peter Sis, and Sophie Blackall, to create posters, mosaics, and sculptures to liven up commutes and provide a nice counterbalance to all the Dr. Zizmor ads. New York View: MTA Arts & Design Illustrates the City, now showing Society of Illustrators, highlights the best art of the city underground, from Peter Sis’ painting of the island of Manhattan reimagined as a giant whale to George Bates’ psychedelic stained glass.

If you’re an artist or designer, an MTA commission is one of the best you can hope for: It means your work will reach the 2.6 billion commuters who ride the subway system every year. It’s a selective program, with only five or six illustrators commissioned a year. We caught up with Amy Hausmann, Deputy Director of MTA Arts & Design, about what goes into commissioning artists, and how she’s helping transform the subway from rat-infested hellhole into the world’s best $2.25 moving art gallery.

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How does MTA Art & Design’s commissioning process work?

For the MTA graphic poster program, artists are selected through a curatorial process. We’re constantly looking at exhibits, books, annuals, newspapers, social media, and talking to groups to let them know about the program. We collect images of work by artists and illustrators for consideration, and each year we review and select five to six illustrators to be commissioned for the next year.

In our initial conversation with the illustrators, we give direction to create work that connects to the transportation system in some way. Often, we’ll discuss a concept or idea. Illustrators create a few sketches based on that concept; we review and discuss them and then decide on a direction for the final design.

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In 2012, for example, we focused our attention on the idea of New York as a green city.  Megan Berkheiser and Mike Caldwell created “Smarter, Greener, Better,” which celebrated the difference that mass transit makes when 8.5 million riders use it every day; Jonathan Bartlett celebrated lazy summer days in Central Park in “Rendezvous;” and Jennifer Judd McGee’s “Botanical” alludes to the incredible botanical gardens that can be reached by a short subway ride. In 2013, we celebrated the Centennial of Grand Central (Marcos Chin “Catwalk,” Lothar Osterburg’s “Zeppelins in Grand Central,” Pop Chart Lab’s “Constellations” and Olive Ayhens’ “Reflection”). Sometimes we ask artists to think about the places the subway can take you, as in Victo Ngai’s “The Cloisters.”

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This year, we focused on the people — our customers — with work including Olimpia Zagnoli’s “New York View,” Marcos Chin’s “Fulton Center, Beneath the Beautiful Blue,” and car cards by Frank Viva’s “Sightseeing New York,” Kim Rosen’s “Noticing People Notice” and Peter Sis’ “Submarine.”

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Together, what do these MTA-commissioned works reveal about the character of New York City and about its artists?
Our artists are inspired by the neighborhoods where they live or their childhoods in New York City, and they convey the beauty of those inspirations and memories into these pieces that now go on to inspire other people who see the art cards or the permanent station art during their commute. For example, William Low is an illustrator who teaches at F.I.T. and he created a poster, “Greeting the Dawn” for us in 2007. In 2011, he was selected to create work for the Parkchester station on the 6 Line in the Bronx. That piece, called “A Day in Parkchester,” is based on his memories from his childhood growing up in that neighborhood. It features day and night scenes of the neighborhood, and it is fabricated into 40 faceted glass panels and installed in 11-feet-high windows located in the two stairwells leading from the mezzanine to the platform.

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Another artist, Andrea Dezsö, was selected for two permanent projects that stemmed from her work as an illustrator. Dezsö designed a car card, “Garden Dwellers” (2009), that was displayed in subway cars, and has done work with cut paper. That paper work was the basis for “Nature Rail,” a laser-jet cut stainless steel sculptural piece that was installed in the railings of the transfer areas connecting the D and N Lines at the 62 St station in Brooklyn. Her other station art piece is “Community Garden” (2006), which is a glass mosaic work  based on an illustrated view of a lush, verdant garden that customers see as they enter the Bedford Park Blvd-Lehman College 4 station in the Bronx.

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What are some of the most striking designs in MTA collection, and how were they commissioned and created?
There are so many gems in the MTA collection, and this is the first time that so many originals have been seen exhibited together. There is a range of incredible work, from Whitfield Lovell’s work celebrating the Bronx Zoo and NY Botanical Garden (1991), Takayo Noda’s paper sculpture with her rendition of Lincoln Center (1998), William Low’s digital painting “Greeting the Dawn” depicting the 7 train in Queens at sunrise, the original watercolor of Sophie Blackall’s beloved “Missed Connections” (2011) and Susan Farringtons’ charming paper collage “Robots” (2014).

Each artist is inspired by the people and places of the city, and that love and appreciation is apparent in each of the works displayed here.

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New York View: MTA Arts & Design Illustrates the City is on view at the Society of Illustrators until August 15th. All photos courtesy MTA Arts & Design. 

Follow Carey Dunne on Twitter @CareyDunne

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