N.Y. Subway Painter Renders Scenes From the Underground

FOR many people, New York City subway platforms are inhospitable places - dirty, dark, and sometimes dangerous.

But for painter Daniel Greene, they are an inspiration.

``There are so many things in the subway that I find extremely beautiful,'' Mr. Greene says in a phone interview. He mentions dark tunnels, the contrasts of light and dark on the platforms, the colorful mosaics, and reflections on the walls. ``They are all visual fodder.''

Greene's latest underground series, ``Subway Series II - Rapid Transit Riders,'' focuses on the people who take the subway. An exhibition of his paintings and pastels opens Dec. 2 at the Gallery Henoch in New York.

Greene is perhaps better known as a portrait painter; more than 400 of his works are in private and public collections, including New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Last May, he presented Hillary Rodham Clinton with a portrait of Eleanor Roosevelt, whom the First Lady regards as a role model.)

The idea of a subway series began in 1953, when Greene moved from Cincinnati to New York to study at the Art Students League.

Back then, he rode the subway for 15 cents, and he noted that the underground might provide good subject matter.

Later, while traveling in Europe, he was particularly attracted to mosaics in the Vatican and those from the Hellenistic period at Pompeii in Italy, among other places. ``I wanted to find that subject in New York,'' he recalls. Then he remembered the subway platforms.

``To my astonishment, there was such a wealth of material in the subway,'' Greene says.

In 1992, the artist presented his first subway series, also at the Gallery Henoch. The works concentrated on the colorful mosaics and intricately tiled walls that decorate and identify underground stops.

Adding people to that atmosphere in the current series marks a melding of Greene's career as a portraitist and a subway-scene painter.

``Generally, when people pose for me, they're on their best behavior,'' he says. ``In the subway, however, I have complete license to choose whatever mood I wish to bring out.''

Greene admits that he hasn't begun to exhaust the possibilities: He has painted only about 20 out of a possible 400 subway stations. Add people to each subway platform and you have hundreds of thousands, if not millions of options.

Some of his subjects are seen up close, sometimes in fleeting glimpses, as through the window of a train.

``I liken the pictorial aspects to Dante's `Inferno' in which one adds people to it,'' he says.

One drawback is that Greene can't exactly maintain a studio next to the turnstiles. So he has to transport ideas, sketches, and photos from the subway to his studio in a North Salem, N. Y., barn. There, he works under more peaceful conditions (no roar of the trains, no curious onlookers) and appreciates the consistent light.Greene acknowledges that New Yorkers love to complain about the subway, which has become a magnet for - and a symbol of - the city's problems of homelessness and crime. ``however, there's also a side one can discover if one is open to it. As an artist, that's what attracted me to the subway.''

The original purpose for decorative walls was to uplift riders traveling through unappealing tunnels as well as inform them of the stops, Greene says, adding, ``I wanted to rediscover the original sense of beauty, and focus on the other things that I find poetic.''

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