Art Interrupts Grit and Grime In N.Y. Subways

An exhibition offers a preview of aesthetic improvements in store for the transit system

IN the Bronx, the worn stairway landing of a subway station is a mini-museum.

Passengers entering the Westchester Square station are greeted suddenly by a multitude of colors from a Romare Bearden stained-glass portrait. The image is crowded and chaotic, the fabricated buildings seem almost to swim into one another. A small black train threads its way from tenements to skyscrapers.

The Bearden stained glass is part of an ongoing effort by the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) to bring art, architecture, and poetry to its underground world. Founded in 1985, Arts for Transit commissions permanent art, runs temporary station exhibitions, and includes the popular ``Music Under New York,'' which pays musicians to perform underground.

The MTA's collection has been on display in ``Art en Route'' at Manhattan's PaineWebber Art Gallery. It will be shown on Long Island, N.Y., in mid-October.

In addition to the 50-plus permanent artworks already installed, the exhibition features works-in-progress that will grace subways, commuter trains, and New York's bridges and tunnels over the next five years. The exhibit also highlights artistic and architectural elements of the original subway stations, dating from 1904.

In fact, the concept of art in the transit system is not new. The subway's architects integrated ornate mosaics, plaques, and other ornamental features into the original designs to try to make the system aesthetically appealing.

``I wanted to show that what we're doing today in many ways is being done in the very same spirit in which the original subway was built,'' says Sandra Bloodworth, curator of the exhibition and deputy director of Arts for Transit. ``The first subway line was built under the philosophy of the City Beautiful movement, which was that if you created beautiful spaces, they would bring out people's better impulses, their higher nature.''

Diversity at heart of show

The artwork in the exhibition is organized by medium, ranging from ceramic tiles and mosaics to stainless steel railings and grilles. ``The whole point of the show is diversity,'' says Bloodworth, ``in materials, in level of artist, from very accessible works that have a large decorative component to the highly conceptual works. All you have to do is take a rush-hour train to see how diverse our ridership is, in almost every way.''

The art is also part of the MTA's larger goal of increasing ridership. The art can make the ride more pleasant. ``It's important that art is not just in museums,'' says Wendy Feuer, the director of Arts for Transit. ``We've had people say that they haven't ridden the subway for five years, but now they're going to.''

Selecting artwork is not always easy. It must be durable - in some cases functional - and fit practically and aesthetically into subway stations that are sometimes a century old. The artist-selection process varies with each project. Usually a professional panel reviews and selects artists' proposals.

``We ask the artist not to ignore the context they're working in, but to really respond to it,'' Feuer says.

Artist Laura Bradley was originally chosen to create a mosaic for the 96th Street station on the Lexington Avenue line. But she found that the station had more problems than artwork could solve.

The biggest challenge was the iron bars. Bradley persuaded the MTA to replace railings with her grille design as the city installs its new automated-fare system. They will soon be in every station.

Workshops with area residents

Bradley tried to create barriers that did not convey a feeling of enclosure. ``Good design moves you, inspires you, shows you the right way to go. There's a sense of people being less fearful when they're around good design,'' she says.

Another artist, Jimmy James Greene, is taking a different approach while working on the Utica Avenue subway station in Brooklyn. He conducts art workshops with children from community centers, and he plans to convert their images into mosaics. He has also asked neighborhood pastors and politicians to suggest themes.

``It's got to engage the people,'' Greene explains. ``If you are going to put it up in somebody's face where they have to walk past it 10 times a week, more if they go out on the weekends, I think there's a little bit of accountability that has to go with that.''

Greene considers the presence of art in the subways important since it ``keeps people's eyes open, takes away some of the grit and grime.'' There are similar programs in other cities such as Seattle, Miami, St. Louis, and Los Angeles. Feuer credits Boston with starting the concept. But, Feuer thinks the art is critical in New York because so many people rely on mass transportation. ``Our subway system is so closely identified with our image of ourselves as a city.''

Bloodworth believes that putting art in the transit system conveys hope. She reasons, ``If you can turn around the subway, you can do anything, right?''

* ``Art en Route'' continues at the PaineWebber Art Gallery through today. It can be seen at Museums at Stony Brook on the campus of the State University of New York at Stony Brook, on Long Island, Oct. 15 to Feb. 5, 1995.

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