The Future of Subway Art (2nd Avenue Line)


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Public art is in many ways more interesting than art in the galleries and museums. A case in point is the new 2nd Avenue subway line (the Q line) opened in January of this month. It’s actually not much of line, extending only some two miles across three stations in its current phase I, but the art is all blue-chip contemporary, conceptualized and created by the kind of artists whom one expects to find in more protected, rarified spaces. There’s Chuck Close, Vik Muniz, Jean Shin, and Sarah Sze, each at their own station up and down the Upper East Side. Is that part of the trick? You don’t expect to find them, do you, down and dirty here in the subway?! Is that how we’re supposed to react?

About the art itself, one could say more than I’ll offer here. The Close is what you come to expect. Did he phone it in? The focus is precious in that self-regarding way, celebrating as it does other high-octane fellow artists (portraits of Lou Reed, Chuck Close, Cindy Sherman, Kara Walker, Philip Glass, and others in the artist’s signature style). For it’s part, the Muniz is too cute. Shin and Sze seem to have put the most reflection into the project. The first three artists highlight the human form. These human figures populate the inside of their respective stations, returning your gaze or oblivious to it. In Sze’s case, the station has been transformed into an installation, a vortex of exploding figures held together in the centrifugal structure of an “assemblage.” I missed some of the pieces by Muniz, including the controversial image of the portly haredi Jew holding a globe in his arms. For more, including more pictures, there is this review here by Allison Meier at the always excellent Hyperallergic.

For right now now, it’s all in good fun. Mostly mosaic, all the works pop off white tiled walls. The true test for public art is the test of time. Right now they are objects that grab the viewer with their clear newness and sharp brightness. And then what? Sooner than later, they will lose their exhibition value. The figures will more simply join us in the station. But what kind of glancing visual force will they continue to exhibit in the subway station and in the subway system when they no longer grab our attention, as they begin slowly to form a more familiar part of the more everyday human environment, simply looked through but not stared at? How will the art itself stand up to years of accumulated grime and stress, as tiles get chipped and damaged, when they are not so intensely cared for and cared about. That is what remains to be seen as they city begins to enfold itself around the art.

There’s another set of questions, more political in nature, questions that might begin to irk the art? Will the art ever be anonymous? Will anyone stop to ask, why these artists in particular? Artists with names who already stand out? Why not artists who specialize in public art, in murals? Artists who have always based their practice on art outside the gallery space? Artists whose art is not on high-end private markets? Non-celebrities? Relatedly, will the stations going up East Harlem up to 125th ever be completed as part of Phase II? Will they  get their own high end, high concept art? That too remains to be seen.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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