Artists have long used the NYC subway system as a wellspring of ideas, using their experiences to express themselves by way of the written word, visually on film, in oils on canvas, pen to paper, prints and sculpture. Sometimes the artwork is officially sanctioned and sometimes it is not.
When I moved to New York the 1982 the subway system was like a traveling road show of urban expression. Graffiti covered the walls inside and out, where there was a space to make a mark a mark was made. It was a cacophony of visual noise, much of which I could not understand.
It was big, bold and brash, loud and lovely. The graffiti in the interior of the subway cars was mostly black and seemed to be signatures. However on the outside of the subway cars, the colors were vibrant, expansive and the voices unique. The artistic strokes that jacketed the cars were energetic and beautiful. The work was detailed, precise and great care was put into these displays. These were serious artists even if at the time their art was not considered serious but more of a nuisance. A visual revolution was taking place and much of it seemed inspired by the New York City subway system.
Early on, the New York City subway system commissioned artists and artisans to create beautiful designs to decorate the subway walls.
It was utilitarianism taken to its highest level, all for our pleasure. Grand decorative pieces of terracotta announce the station name and each station’s motif is different. Rich and varied colors accent the old crazed white subway tile. Interestingly the colors vary from station to station. In other stations not as grand but clearly as beautiful, wonderfully brilliant mosaics, made up of tiny squares imbedded into the walls create large rectangular plaques that display the station name. In one station the mosaics are made up of varying colors of matte finished squares and in another station the mosaics are of rich jewel tones and yet even another station’s mosaic could be of shimmery iridescent colors. These designs, though purposeful and formal are not in the least bit bland despite their context. On the contrary, they are lively, expressive and display a distinct individualism that is still refreshing a hundred years later.
In the early part of the 20th century, the mechanical wonder of the subway system was a catalyst for visual expression by some artists of the Futurist movement. The speed and power of moving trains lent itself nicely to the overall theme of this group which emabraced the energetic and accelerated pace of the world beginning at the 20th century. Paintings of the Futurists broke down motion in fractured slivers of color, like Max Weber’s 1915 painting Rush Hour, which is a visual display of the New York City rush hour commute done in kinetic geometric planes.
It is not unusual while riding the train to witness an artist sketching the passengers on the trains. In a number of quick fluid strokes, these artists capture the emotions of the people on the train. The sketches may be used later as a reference tool or may exist simply as lovely discreet items. Artists such as Marvin Franklin who as longtime subway worker used his first hand knowledge to create beautifully rendered paintings of the people who ride the trains. Elbow Toe is a street artist whose sketches of subways riders in lines of red ink are expressive and energetic.
Every morning thousands of people descend into the subway stations across the city, hundreds more wait on platforms for their trains to take them to their destination points. The train enters the station, doors open, people crowd into the cars, some sit, some stand, some read, some think and some look about, eventually the train moves, bumping along the tracks as it courses its way through the tunnels. It’s a scene repeated day in and day out, every month and every year for a hundred years. To the daily commuter it is simply a ride; to an artist it is a vast and endless opportunity.
Please join Tracy Fitzpatrick as she discusses her book Art and the Subway: New York Underground on Monday, Sept 14, at the Mid-Manhattan Library @ 6:30 PM
I have also included a link to javier hernandez-miyares blog featuring film clip of posterboy's art, an anonymous New York City based street artist whose only utensil is a razor. He is known for satiric college-like works created by cutting out sections of the self-adhesive advertisement posters in the platforms of New York City subway stations, and pasting them back in different positions.