2016-12-19 15:46:21
Art Underground: A First Look at the Second Avenue Subway

When a city has been waiting for a badly needed new subway line since 1929, public art is probably far down the list of expectations, well behind accommodations like a) working trains, b) lights and c) some means of entrance and egress.

But when commuters descend into the new Second Avenue subway’s four stations, at 96th, 86th, 72nd and 63rd Streets, now set for New Year’s Day — or perhaps a little later if things don’t go as planned — they will find one of the most ambitious contemporary art projects in tile work that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has ever undertaken. The agency’s art department, M.T.A. Arts & Design, founded and first funded in 1985, is rarely — in a salmagundi system 112 years old — presented with a brand-new, blank canvas. But lately, with the opening of the new superstation at Fulton Street downtown and the extension of the No. 7 line to a new terminus on 34th Street, the subway’s art thinkers have been able to participate almost from the beginning in incorporating installations by leading artists into stations’ designs. If the effort doesn’t always result in stations that look like artworks themselves — as some of the best stations in Europe and Asia do — it has nonetheless put the aesthetic front and center again in a way that evokes the ambition of the city’s very first subway stations in 1904, with their mosaic, faience and amethyst-glass skylights.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who has taken an unusually personal role in the Second Avenue subway’s final push toward opening, casts the art in historical terms, as a clarion call for government to once again be a builder of inspiring public amenities and infrastructure. “At some point government adopted an attitude that its job was to build things that were functional but unattractive and unappealing,” Mr. Cuomo said in a statement to The New York Times. “But that’s not how it has always been, and it’s not how it should be. With every public works project, I believe there is an opportunity to elevate the everyday, to build a public space where community can gather and where culture and shared civic values are celebrated.”

What follows is the first subterranean tour by a reporter of the new subway’s art, created at a cost to the M.T.A. of $4.5 million out of an overall budget of $4.45 billion. Four artists were chosen beginning in 2009, from a pool of more than 300 high-profile applicants, to treat the stations as their very own and make them into individual installations.

Sarah Sze, who represented the United States at the Venice Biennale in 2013 and who draws from the great modernist-magpie tradition of recycling that stretches from Kurt Schwitters through Robert Rauschenberg and Isa Genzken, decided to use the standard-size porcelain tiles that cover the walls throughout the new stations, rather than mosaic.

For “Blueprint for a Landscape,” accomplished with the help of tile masters in Spain who applied color and line to the plain porcelain, she transformed the station into what looks like a deep-blue immersive drawing that unfolds down the escalators and through the concourse level. Fragmented images of scaffolding, birds, chairs and leaves, digitally collaged, seem as if caught in a great wind caused by a hurtling train.

And on the concourse level, in a nod to Katsushika Hokusai’s famous depiction of travelers battling a gust, Ms. Sze (pronounced Zee) has used blue and white in an almost minimalist fashion to adorn the walls with images of blowing paper — dense at the station’s north end and sparser moving south, as a directional aid.

“I wanted to use tile as if it were one large piece of paper,” Ms. Sze said. In a sense, she said, her piece is about “the mind-boggling pace we’re all moving at now,” but her imagery pushes back poetically against the overload. There’s a lot of information,” she said of her installation, “but it has a kind of rhythm to it that you can navigate.”

The participation of the renowned painter and photographer Chuck Close in the new stations was a kind of coup, widely reported when he was chosen in 2012. He has created 12 large-scale (almost nine feet high), densely intricate mosaic portraits that play at least two roles.

One is as a poignant rendezvous of some of the New York artists who have formed Mr. Close’s very wide circle — Philip Glass, in a well-known image of a wild-haired young composer, who will watch protectively over commuters as they descend an escalator; Lou Reed and Cindy Sherman, along with the painter Cecily Brown, the artist Kara Walker (above) and the painter Alex Katz, who is going strong at 89.

The second effect, complemented by the inclusion of younger subjects, including the artists Zhang Huan, Sienna Shields and Pozsi B. Kolor, is a collective portrait of a proudly polyglot city and subway ridership. Mr. Close has placed two self-portraits (one seen above) in the station; the squiggly individual tiles that make up the hairs of his gray beard are alone worth missing a train to inspect at close range.

“The richness of the city is all the various cultures coming together,” Mr. Close said when he began conceiving the suite of portraits, “and the richness of my art will be to simultaneously let people in on how many ways there are to build an image.”

Vik Muniz, the Brazilian artist, has worked between New York and Rio de Janeiro his entire career and said he has “known the subway sometimes better than I wanted to.” He has become highly regarded for pieces based on materials antithetical to permanence and, seemingly, to seriousness: chocolate, spaghetti sauce, thread, trash.

“Perfect Strangers,” a series of three dozen life-size portraits that seem to be waiting for a train along the concourse and entrances to the station, is based on staged photographs of people Mr. Muniz knows, many of them playing slightly off-kilter characters he cooked up, like a sunglasses-wearing police officer holding a Popsicle.

“I wanted them to be normal people,” he said. “I know lots of normal people. I kept thinking: Who would make the perfect stranger?”

Of course, some of the subjects don’t quite qualify as normal or strangers, because they’re well known: the restaurateur Daniel Boulud, holding a bag with a fish tail sticking out; the designer, actor and man-about-town Waris Ahluwalia.

Mr. Muniz himself makes an appearance, in a Rockwell-esque scene of him tripping, spilling papers from his briefcase. And he convinced his 26-year-old son, Gaspar, to dress up in a tiger suit, like a Times Square mascot on lunch break.

“In the subway you really don’t end up remembering anything but the people,” Mr. Muniz said. “You remember the characters, and you make up stories about them.”

Jean Shin, perhaps the least known of the artists chosen, often makes pieces from castoff objects that she accumulates and puts together until they achieve a kind of melancholy monumentality and civic weight.

For her installation, “Elevated,” she dived into the past – specifically the past that was supposed to bequeath New York the Second Avenue subway generations ago, and that led her to the idea of illustrating the demolition of the Second Avenue and Third Avenue elevated lines in the 1940s and 1950s.

She dug through archives at the New York City Transit Museum in Brooklyn and at the New-York Historical Society and used photographs she found to create what feel like deeply resonant historical-museum dioramas in mosaic and glass, based on images of everyday riders and pedestrians from the 1920s through the 1940s, along with geometric shots of elevated girders being dismantled.

“We’re such a youth culture,” said Ms. Shin, who works in New York. “I think it’s nice to have people of the past among us.” She added: “I was also imagining New Yorkers way back then feeling: ‘Hey, we’re finally going to get the Second Avenue subway!’”