Life is a Circus

New York City Underground Art

In New York City, some of the best art is literally underground.

Artist Thomas McKean’s choice of medium may seem odd. For more than 20 years, he’s been making collages from discarded subway passes called MetroCards. But in light of the long-standing relationship between New York’s subway system and art of all kinds – particularly “underground” or avant-garde art – his choice is entirely organic.

The New York subway has long been home to works by major modern artists, from Chuck Close and Yoko Ono to William Wegman and Faith Ringgold. Indeed, there’s so much art to see in the transit system that you could think of it as a giant underground gallery.

In the mid-1990s, New Orleans artist Willie Birch created Harlem Timeline in the 135th Street station. It’s an expansive glass mosaic, celebrating local African-American luminaries, from Langston Hughes, to Charlie Parker, to the Harlem Globetrotters. In 2017, at the Lexington Ave.-63rd Street station, Jean Shin created Elevated, an homage to New York City’s old elevated trains, made of ceramic tiles, glass mosaic, and stained glass. At Jamaica Center-Parsons/Archer, riders can enjoy an abstract aluminum wall sculpture created by the avant-garde artist Sam Gilliam. The list goes on.

The relationship between the New York subway and art goes back to the system’s very beginnings. William Barclay Parsons, the civil engineer who designed the system, included a clause in the construction contract specifying that all public structures should be designed and maintained with an eye toward beauty. Parsons was influenced by the City Beautiful Movement, which promoted the idea that grand and beautiful structures would promote social order and improve quality of life.

Today, there are a number of guidebooks helping subway riders find the art in New York City’s 472 stations. And until very recently, they would have needed a MetroCard to get there.

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