A Preview of the MTA's Ultra-Contemporary Public Art for New York's Second Avenue Subway Line

A digital rendering of the second avenue subway's 96th street station, commissioned by MTA Arts for Transit and Urban Design
(© Sarah Sze)

The Second Avenue subway in New York, sometimes referred to as “The Line That Time Forgot,” has been in the works for more than 75 years. (Take a moment to note that this means the city realized the need for a subway line below Second Avenue not long after WWI.) The first phase, which runs from 96th to 63rd Streets, is finally slated for completion in December 2016. Meanwhile, Arts for Transit, the MTA agency that commissions public art in subway and commuter rail stations across the five boroughs, is already making plans for its own contribution to the line. The agency's panel of arts professionals has selected sculptor Sarah Sze and artist Jean Shin to create massive site-specific installations for two forthcoming stations, and two other artist commissions are currently in the works.

Because most stations on the line are entirely new and much larger than most existing stations, Arts for Transit wanted the installations to feel truly contemporary. “We ground every project we do in thinking about where it is located, who is using this space, and who the audience is,” Sandra Bloodworth, director of Arts for Transit, told ARTINFO. Still, there are limitations: because the agency has a low maintenance budget, materials must require very little upkeep. 

Enter Sze and Shin. Both artists have experience in public art commissions — Sze created a kind of avian metropolis in the form of a futuristic bird feeder for New York's High Line Park, while Shin is currently at work on a participatory public art project for the Pratt Institute. For the MTA project, both artists created dynamic, wall-engulfing designs that are both durable and sleek.

Selecting Sze, whose signature delicate drawings don’t intuitively lend themselves to the walls of a noisy station, was “a big step for the panel,” said Arts for Transit’s Lester Burg. Sze’s design for the 96th Street stop consists of a series of drawings reproduced directly onto wall tiles through a digital printing process. The three entrances to the station each have a different palette — lavender, light blue, and deep blue — bursting with hundreds of different designs aimed to amuse. (Think oversize plants, floating ladders, and a lone office chair.) “Even if you get off at that stop every day for a year, you’ll still find something new,” said Burg.

Shin, known for her vast installations of cast-off objects like clothes and lottery tickets, took inspiration from the history of the subway station to create her installation at the 63rd Street stop. Her massive mosaic depicts the steel girders and beams used to create the original station on the East Side in the 1940s, with figures in period dress strolling below. As the rider descends, a blue sky pattern is poured into the outline of the elevated train. At the platform level, a glass partition separating the riders from the train is printed with a slightly reflective pattern resembling a cityscape. 

Installing public art in such a high-traffic location means constantly toeing the line between the accessible and the challenging. “I think our ridership gets that we think they're smart. And yet, it’s accessible to a multitude of riders," noted Bloodworth. "When the art resonates with the public, we know we have succeeded."