Wednesday, 14 April 2010

The City Beautiful: NYC’s Quest to Recapture an Old Movement

By Stephanie-Viktoria Schmitt

Talking of monuments, reservoirs, sculptures, mosaics and paintings when talking of a Metropolis like New York City is not new - but, did you ever realise you are passing by beautiful art bits and pieces on your way shopping on 5th Avenue? Or while hurrying downtown to work? Or taking the subway on a sunny weekend to Coney Island? If not, open your eyes to subway art culture in NYC.

Otterness, 2000: "Life underground", 14th & 8th Ave.
In September 2009 I was one of many travellers roaming the buzzing streets of New York City. As prelude to my visit, every acquaintance, friend or family member who had been to the Big Apple gave me just one advice: avoid the Metro and discover the city by wandering through its many streets. I took this suggestion very seriously but five days of joyfully walking through the various boroughs, narrow backstreets, backyards and parks from East to West and North to South Manhattan, I had had enough. My feet were screaming revenge – or rather ‘screw the fancy flats’ I was wearing. I gave in and finally turned into the subway station at 14th Street and 8th Avenue. On my way back uptown I stepped onto the platform to catch the A Train back. This was when I spotted the Life Underground metro installation: a sculpture by Tom Otterness, it depicted an alligator in suit, crawling out of a manhole cover, its jaws clamped around a tie-suited figurine with a moneybag head. It was intriguing enough to set me off on a quest of my own!

Vis-à-vis this particular piece, I later found an entry in the New York Times Metropolitan Diary by Joe Rogers in 2003. It describes a 4-year-old engaging with the vicious alligator to free the little moneybag-head figure. The toddler jumped on the head, and when no success was in sight he began to wrestle the figurine out of its deadly embrace. After minutes of struggle, he kicked the alligator, while his foot got stuck on something surprise struck his anxious little face. While running into his mother’s arms, he cried, “Mom, it tried to bite me!” This anecdote, perhaps best describes the life like nature of Otterness’ sculptures and the passion they can evoke.

Tom Otterness is an US-American sculptor, born in Wichita, Kansas in the early 1950ies. His works, best described as cartoonish but invariably containing a hint of sensible political punch, are sprayed all over NYC. Most famous are the figurines that have been watching over Rockefeller Park, Battery Park City since the early 1990ies or the ones that never fail to capture the viewer’s gaze at 14th Street/8th Avenue subway station. Tom Otterness’ metropolitan art is not meant solely for educated art lovers, but attracts and engages just about everyone. His Life Underground installation consists of more than 100 cast-bronze sculptures gracing the platforms and stairways of the A, C, E and L NYC Metro lines.

"For Want of A Nail" 81st (Museum of Natural History)
Otterness’ subway art is part of the program “Arts for Transit” being run by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. The aim is to revive the essence of The City Beautiful movement that first made its voice hear 106 years ago when the NYC subway was just being made. This nationwide movement, active from 1899 to the start of World War I, attempted to address metropolitan dilemmas by focussing on urban planning, architecture and beautification of cities all over the US. NPR correspondent Margot Adler, in one of her reports, says that the guiding principle behind the movement was the belief that beautiful structures could inspire civic virtue. Many of the architectural sculptures, murals and fountains on public plazas throughout NYC have their origin in this movement’s attempts to bring aesthetic value to urban life. All are inspired by the traditional European combination of architecture and art, but naturally, they also have a touch of American affability. One can literally feel the artists’ passion in creating art that interacts with the daily urban life of the citizens.

"Oculus" Mosaic, Chamber Street/WTC Path
Tom Otterness is not the only artist whose works adorn the NYC subway system. For those interested, the subway web site offers a guide to all the artists involved in the project and the stations benefiting from their creativity. I came across many in the course of my wanderings, but did not realise until I engaged in research for Tom Otterness that some of the pictures I took with my camera, were part of something as big as this movement to enhance the value of metropolitan life. I for one will certainly return to the Big Apple and spare some time to travel the subway art-trail.

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