Underground Art: Artworks of New York’s Subway

Life Underground, NYC

Tom Otterness’ whimsical “Life Underground,” brings an urban myth to life. Photo: Jeff Dobbins

New York’s City’s Subway system is an integral part of life for New Yorkers.  It is known to be convenient, fast, relatively efficient – but seldom visually appealing.  But did you know the subway is home to many fine works of art?  In fact, there are several treasures by famed contemporary artists hidden in plain sight.  A journey on the subway can be an aesthetic pleasure…if you know where to look.

The works were commissioned by the MTA’s Arts for Transit Program, which was created in the 1980’s when neglect and vandalism left the subway a grimy, decrepit mess.  The program is charged with making the subway a more pleasant experience for riders.  Today public art adorns many of the 468 subway stations.

Here are my top five hidden gems of NYC Subway Art:

Roy Lichtenstein, Times Square

Roy Lichtenstein Mural in the Time Square Station, a gift to NYC. Photo: Ruddy Harootian

Roy Lichtenstein – Times Square Mural
If you don’t look up while walking in the busy Times Square Station on 42nd Street you may miss the legendary artist’s mural. The 53-foot-long panel has imagery from past world fairs and uses color to pop like a comic book. Other Lichtenstein works have sold for over $50 million, so the value of this large work is astronomical.

tom otterness, Life Underground

One of many sculptures in Tom Otterness’ “Life Underground” series. Photo: Ruddy Harootian

Tom Otterness – Life Underground
The collection called Life Underground is definitely hard to miss. There are over 100 pieces all over the 14th street A/C/E train station. But I bet you don’t know about the controversy behind the artist. In 1977, while still an art student, Tom Otterness made a short film in which he shot a dog. The outcry was overwhelming and, though the artist has apologized and acknowledged it was a huge mistake, he has outraged many animal rights activists. Despite the drama, this collection of whimsical bronze sculptures brings a sense of fun to the subway station.

Vincent Smith – The Movers and the Shakers.
The famous Apollo Theater has it’s place in legend, and the world of mosaic art. Artist Vincent Smith depicted the landmark theater in his work which lives in the 116th Street station on the 2/3 line. The Movers and the Shakers also has imagery from important African American institutions and artists like Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Alvin Ailey, and the studio museum in Harlem.

vincent smith

Vincent Smith’s colorful celebration of Harlem culture. Photo: Ruddy Harootian

Liliana Porter  – Alice: The Way out
The characters from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland are some of the most familiar in the history of storytelling. But not everyone knows you can find them in the NYC subway system. Liliana Porter used the 50th street 1 train station as a way to reflect on the engaging wonderland of Broadway theaters just above the station. It’s great to take kids there!

Liliana Porter, subway

Alice’s Adventures Underground by Lilian Porter Photo: Ruddy Harootian

Elizabeth Murray – Blooming

This may be one of the most hidden art pieces in all of the subway system. I assure you that finding it is completely magical. Walking into Elizabeth Murray’s piece Blooming in the Lexington Ave. (59th Street) station will leave you breathless. The scale of the work wraps around the entire perimeter of the space. The piece is meant to “wake you up” on your way to work. I think it’s definitely effective.

If you haven’t checked out these works of art, hop on the train and start an adventure all your own.  All you need is a Metrocard and a camera!

This is a guest post by Ruddy Harootian. Ruddy is a Spain travel expert by day, photographer and trendsetter at night, based in NYC.  More of Ruddy’s work can be found on his website: Ruddy Was Here.

Elizabeth Murray Blooming

The subway is “Blooming” thanks to Elizabeth Murray’s colorful work. Photo: Ruddy Harootian

What’s your favorite work of subway art?  Tell us in the comments below.

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  • isabel

    Loved this post! We are always in such a rush that we miss out on half the art in the subway. I agree that the Elizabeth Murray piece is amazing when you come into it. Totally unexpected!

    • Thanks, Isabel. Ruddy really knows his way around public art, particularly in the subway. There’s lots of unique works in the subway system to explore.

  • SusanS

    I had the opportunity to spend a wonderful Saturday morning with Ruddy as we ventured into the world of subway art. Seeing it through his eyes was amazing. His knowlege of the art works and the his presentation made every moment interesting and the time flew by!
    I will definitely join him in the near future for another art crawl.

    • Susan, I too was lucky to explore NYC subway art with Ruddy, and enjoyed it thoroughly. His passion for this art is infectious.