Appreciation: New York Subway and Rail Art

The most basic goal of transit is to transport bodies from point A to point B in a safe and punctual fashion. So it’s no wonder that when we New York City commuters are prompted to a familiar halt in the middle of our subway ride, nerves wrench, tensions flare, and a melody of muttered fucks begins its descent upon ears both virgin and kinky.

It’s in those moments, we begin to look around, really look around, our train cars, at all the uniquely alike startup ads, at the rainbow of people dozing off next to poles, at the coffee puddles trickling ever closer to our feet, and, occasionally, a poem on the wall or a colorful drawing of personalities parading through the Grand Central catwalk. What’s this doing here? We may wonder.

In the 1980s, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority created an Arts & Design department charged with selecting artists and installing permanent works in commuter cars and stations. From there emerged projects like Poetry in Motion, Music Under New York, and a steady flow of art pieces popping up all over the city.

At the Court Square station in Long Island City, Queens, you’ll find Elizabeth Murray’s Stream, a mosaic that mirrors the motion of straphangers emerging from the passageway; at the Westchester Square station in the Bronx, an intricate triptych of stained glass by Romane Bearden, City of Light, greets travelers as they exit the Six Train.

The southern tip of Brooklyn, Coney Island-Stillwell Avenue, is home to Robert Wilson’s My Coney Island Baby, a glass-brick wall with silk-screened images of amusement. And, in the passages of the Q Train’s newly extended Upper East Side line, there’s a stunning series of pointillist portraits by Chuck Close, including one of Lou Reed, done in mosaic. Those are just a few of the notable works now proliferating our murky underground transit system.

With the very real, very visceral frustration we experience as we ride the subway everyday, it may be difficult to appreciate, or even notice, the work that goes into beautifying this public space. But maybe, as we travel between neighborhoods visiting friends or embark on a leisurely train ride to the park, to the beach, to places of worship across the city, we can take a moment to experience the art curated around us.

The city drags itself awake on subway straps, Maya Angelou points out in “Awaking in New York.” And, when put like that, doesn’t the morning commute sound a little more lovely?