The New York City subway system isn’t known for being one of the world’s most beautiful public transit systems, but believe it or not, it is home to some world-class art. The MTA has been teaming up with museum-quality artists—think: Roy Lichtenstein, Chuck Close, Xenobia Bailey—since the launch of its Arts and Design program in 1985 to place their work throughout the subway system. The pieces are site-specific, so while a trip to the Guggenheim or Whitney may mean ogling timeless works, this map proves that acclaimed artists and their one-offs can be found in even the most mundane places.Read More
Mapping 10 works by famous artists in the NYC subway
You don’t have to go to the city’s museum to see museum-quality work
1. Westchester Sq–E Tremont Av: Romare Bearden
Though Romare Bearden was just a teen during the Harlem Renaissance, the period would go on to impact his work throughout the rest of his life. A social worker by trade and an artist by night, Bearden became the first art director of the Harlem Cultural Council and would help to establish the neighborhood’s Studio Museum. The artist’s lifelong relationship with New York is on display in “City of Light,” the stained glass triptych he created along with Benoit Gilsoul and Helmut Schardt for the Westchester Square-East Tremont Avenue station that was completed after Bearden’s death in 1988.
2. 161 Street–Yankee Stadium: Vito Acconci
Bronx, NY 10451
The late multi-hyphenate artist Vito Acconci designed the art within the Yankee Stadium subway stop, and the name, “Wall-Slide,” is a pretty accurate descriptor of how the piece looks. Acconci used subway tile in such a way to make it appear as if the wall is literally sliding into the ground, a fitting work for an artist considered one of the founders of the Performance Art movement, who later in his career moved on to building design.
3. 86 St: Chuck Close
Chuck Close is known for his photorealistic portraits of folks from all walks of life—from fellow artists to, well, himself—and his installation for the Second Avenue subway’s 86th Street station is no different. The large-scale portraits depict artists like Lou Reed and Kara Walker (and yes, there are a few self-portraits), along with less famous faces, like that of a small child. The huge pieces are also stunning examples of what can be achieved through good mosaic work; they hardly look like they’re made of tile at all.
4. 59 St–Columbus Circle: Sol LeWitt
Long Island City, NY 11101
There’s no mistaking the 53-foot by 11-foot tile mural at Columbus Circle for anything but the work of Sol LeWitt. The piece is in LeWitt’s style of bright, swirling colors—it’s appropriately called “Whirls and twirls (MTA)”—even though it was finished posthumously in 2009, five years after LeWitt’s death. The piece is an adaptation of one of LeWitt’s signature wall drawings, executed in porcelain tile.
5. Times Sq–42 St: Roy Lichtenstein, Jacob Lawrence
Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein is responsible for a colorful, 53-foot-long mural found near the 42nd Street entrance of the Times Square subway station. He created the kinetic collage in 1990, but it didn’t make its public debut until 2002, five years after he passed away. It has references to other subway ephemera, including a sign based on the tiles used by OG subway architect Heins & LaFarge. But he’s not the only artist with a huge mural in the station; Jacob Lawrence also created a piece, called “New York in Transit,” which was installed in the station’s mezzanine. The bright, dynamic mosaic was Lawrence’s last public work before his death in 2000.
6. 34th St–Hudson Yards: Xenobia Bailey
Fiber artist Xenobia Bailey originally rendered the design for “Funktional Vibrations” in crochet, then worked with Miotto Mosaic Art Studio to create the gloriously colored glass tiles that adorn the new Hudson Yards subway station. Bailey—who was born Sherilyn but changed her name in the 1980s to Xenobia, after the warrior queen of ancient Palmyra—says that the installation speaks to the universal idea of creation.
7. 14 St-8 Av: Tom Otterness
Tom Otterness’s “Life Underground,” installed in the 14th Street L station in 2001, is one of the best-known art installations within the subway system. The playful piece features small bronze characters—one carrying a bag of money, another being, um, eaten by an alligator—that are meant, according to the MTA, to “transform the transit environment into a place of joy and whimsy.” (Unless you’re the one being eaten by an alligator.)
8. Broadway-Lafayette St: Leo Villareal
New York, NY 10012
Light artist Leo Villareal, whose works can be found in institutions like the National Gallery of Art and MoMA, created a spectacular commission for the MTA in 2012. The piece, titled “Hive,” was installed at the connection point between the Broadway-Lafayette and Bleecker St. stations when that transfer opened in 2012. The piece features colorful LED lights arranged in the shape of a honeycomb, which change colors and move in distinct patterns (even if it doesn’t seem like it) over the course of the day.
9. Court Square-23 St: Elizabeth Murray
Just four years after moving to New York City in 1967, Elizabeth Murray was exhibiting in the Whitney Museum of American Art’s annual exhibition. The painter “reshaped Modernist abstraction into a high-spirited, cartoon-based, language of form whose subjects included domestic life, relationships and the nature of painting itself,” the New York Times wrote in her 2007 obituary. Her work in the Court Square subway station, called “Stream,” was installed in 2001.
10. Coney Island-Stillwell Av: Robert Wilson
Robert Wilson’s artistic output is vast, spanning the mediums of dance, movement, lighting, sculpture, music and text. Wilson may be better known for his contributions to the theater—he co-wrote Einstein on the Beach with Philip Glass—but his accolades include nods at the Venice Biennale and German Academy of the Arts. Wilson’s “My Coney Island Baby” was installed in 2004, and true to Wilson’s legacy, changes its look with the time of day as the light that emanates through the silk-screened glass bricks shines and sets.