Decoding subway art.
By Siri Storstein
A cup half-filled with paint lies in my left hand and a brush sits in my right. An image of The Giving Tree is slowly forming on the wall in front of me. You can tell by the light fog that it’s early in the morning, but in a couple of hours the scorching Southern California sun will make its presence known. I take a hurried gulp of coffee and quicken my pace.
Throughout high school I spent many Saturday mornings like this: painting murals in low-income public school libraries around Los Angeles. A seemingly noble task, I still find myself questioning the importance of the work. In schools with overcrowded classroom, filled with kids that aren’t ensured three meals a day, a picture from a children’s book on one of their walls seems like a sorry Band-Aid.
Years later, I found myself standing at the 167th Street subway station in the Bronx. It was late summer, and the heat and humidity had made my once-flowy shirt cling to my back. A man had just sneezed on me and Google Maps was refusing to cooperate. As I looked around to orient myself, frustration mounting, I caught a glimpse of the mural next to me: Maya Angelou sitting peacefully with her hands folded in her lap, colored lines radiating outwards from her figure. The contrast between her serenity and my disarray made me laugh.
I later looked up the mural. Along with the seven murals around it, it constitutes Rico Gatson’s series Beacons which was created for the station. The project honors eight leading cultural and historical figures with connections to the Bronx, including James Baldwin, Audre Lorde, and Gil Scott-Heron, among others.
After my meeting with Ms. Angelou, I began paying closer attention to murals throughout the city’s subway system. The other day I got off the train at the Bedford Avenue station in Brooklyn and a mural caught my eye. It’s a lively piece with the sun and the moon framed centrally as ballet dancers in blue suits with white polka dots dance around them. It’s part of the series No Less Than Everything Comes Together by Marcel Dzama.
But this time I also observed the scene around the mural. Above it, pieces of the ceiling, coming loose and drooping down. Across from it, a houseless man lying, sleeping. The conflicted sentiment from L.A. returned to me, unresolved.
Since 1985, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Arts and Design Program has curated and overseen all permanent art installations in subway and commuter rail stations. In 2017, the MTA allotted $4.5 million (of its $4.45 billion budget) to populate stations on the new Second Avenue line with art. Four artists were chosen, each given one of the new stations to turn into an art installation of their own.
One of the chosen artists was Sarah Sze, a visual arts professor at Columbia. Her Blueprint for a Landscape installation now graces the 96th Street station. The walls of the station are deep blue with white blueprint-like drawings on them. There’s an energy in the installation; in some tiles, pieces of paper have gone flying as if flustered by a train hurtling through the station. To the New York Times, Sze said that her piece is about “the mind-boggling pace we’re all moving at now.” But even with a lot going on, the piece still presents a navigable rhythm.
Sze, lacking experience with mosaics and large porcelain tiles, was assisted by tile masters in Spain, though many subway artists rely on New York–based master craftsman Stephen Miotto to help translate their vision into a physical manifestation. Whereas visual art often ends up being a solo endeavor, these installations are collaborative efforts.
Beatriz Valls, the leading artist at the L.A. organization I painted murals with, spoke to the importance of the communal aspect of public art. “It’s not about my name on it or someone else’s name. This is about everybody that’s participated and that contribution is very special.” Valls practices what she calls social creativity, a mindset in which the process of creation is as important as the creation itself. “I’m a big believer that the change is not with the ending result. The change is within you when you are involved in something,” she told me.
The community that has stakes in a work expands when one considers its mode of consumption. In the case of New York subway stations, the scale of the audience is significant. The “accessible nature of the space” is largely what excited Sze about the commission in the first place. In an interview with Art21, she explained that the combination of a local and international audience makes “a subway station one of the most democratic locations one can find.” Despite literally coming to the art from different places and perspectives, everyone experiences it in the same way.
Taken down from a high pedestal and placed somewhere as loud and chaotic as a station, the idea that art is something fragile, carefully curated, and best observed from afar is destroyed. As a result, the very sharing of the work—the decision to democratize it and bring it to a wider audience—carries its significance. “Hi, I made this and now I’m showing it to you,” the artist seems to say through the piece, “so that we can experience it together.”
In the subway, the seamlessness of this exchange belies its oddities. Exiting the train on a mundane afternoon, one might be confronted by profound works of art. For Sze, the result is an intrusion into one’s consciousness “in a way only art experienced in the fabric of daily life can do.” I recalled my encounter with Maya Angelou on that hot summer afternoon: I came to the station after having visited The Bronx Museum of the Arts, but ironically, I can no longer remember the exhibition I saw there. Instead it is Gatson’s series Beacons that I carry with me everywhere I go.
The punishing West Coast heat is now in full effect. I step away from the wall: The Giving Tree is complete. Children begin to filter into the schoolyard and as they see the finished product, their faces beam with excitement. In that moment, I’m not sure I will ever fully experience something akin to that wordless joy. But as I get off the C train at Cathedral Parkway on a rainy day in a city that can feel as isolating as they get, I stop to examine Christopher Wynter’s Migrations. And I do believe I am filled with a similar kind of joy. I cannot help but smile and think to myself: “Somebody thought I should have something beautiful to look at today.”