Occasionally that’s the wrong tack to take, however. Along with the musical performers who dot the system (and who, I confess, usually annoy me because when I’m traveling by subway, I’m not looking for a concert), there’s some interesting art in the stations here and there. There are mosaics on the walls of many recently renovated stations like the performing arts images at Lincoln Center on the 7th Avenue line (Artemis, Acrobats, Divas and Dancers by Nancy Spero) and the Alice in Wonderland figures at 50th Street on the same route (Alice: The Way Out by Liliana Porter). There are larger pieces, some by significant American artists, around the system, too, like the Jacob Lawrence glass mosaic (New York in Transit, his last commission before his death) and the Roy Lichtenstein panels (Times Square Mural) in Times Square, the Maya Lin sculpture (Eclipsed Time) in Penn Station, the Sam Gilliam sculpture (Jamaica Center Station Riders, Blue) at Jamaica Center-Parsons-Archer in Queens, and the Romare Bearden glass triptych (City of Light) at Westchester Square-East Tremont Avenue in the Bronx. They’re large and smack you in the eye when you spot them—they’re hard to miss, even if you don’t recognize the artists. All of those are big and colorful. But on a different scale, and with a whole different kind of vibe, there’s a little surprise, a lagniappe, downtown in the IND and BMT stations at 14th Street and 8th Avenue on the border between Chelsea and Greenwich Village.
Scattered in corners, on banisters, in the crooks of I-beams, and on ledges all over the corridors, stairways, and platforms of the two lines are tiny bronze sculptures by Tom Otterness, a 58-year-old transplant from Wichita, Kansas. Otterness, whose studio is in the Gowanus neighborhood of Brooklyn, has pieces all over the city (Battery Park City, Hell’s Kitchen) and elsewhere in the U.S. (L.A.; Fulton, Mississippi) and even abroad (Seoul, South Korea; Scheveningen, Holland)—he has a reputation as a public artist—but his most whimsical and probably best known (though, I suspect, often overlooked) work is in that 14th Street-8th Avenue station. More than 30,000 transit passengers pass by the sculptures every day; I wonder how many even notice them or bother to give them more than a passing glance. The series is called Life Underground and it comprises 140 (or more—the total seems uncertain) cast bronze statues most of which are no more than 8-10 inches tall. Even if you’re not looking for them, you’re bound to see two or three, but unless you make a point of searching them out in their various hiding places overhead and underfoot, like an Easter egg hunt, you’ll miss most of them, including some of the most humorous and intriguing. I hereby recommend giving yourself a self-guided tour of the station, taking a break from your to-and-fro rush or even making a detour to 8th and 14th just to enjoy Otterness’s sometimes dark-humored joke.
Life Underground seems to have begun in the late 1990s, but it was first unveiled in 2000 when the initial installation of 25 figures was completed. (Some of the sculptures were displayed preliminarily in Central Park in 1996 and Battery Park City in ’97 to attract public comment.) The project was completed in stages as Otterness added new figures and the artist is said to have ultimately contributed more than four times the number of pieces that his commission called for—he apparently got carried away with the idea. (He’s said it took him ten years to complete the series from commissioning to final installation.) “It was such an ideal stage for my work,” declared the sculptor, “that I could hardly control myself.” Maybe that’s bad business, I don’t know, but good on him! The whole thing is so wonderful that having 100 and more little figures to seek out under stairways and in nooks and crannies all over the station—if no other time, you can look for them along each platform as you wait for a train—is . . . well, the closest thing I can come up with is looking for the “Ninas” in Al Hirschfeld’s theater drawings. It’s a real kick, and I still do it whenever I pass through 14th and 8th even though I’ve seen the bronzes dozens of times now. (Last year, when my mother was visiting from Washington, I made a detour through 14th and 8th just to show the sculptures to her and we tromped all over the station looking for the hidden statues.)
The series was commissioned by the MTA’s Arts for Transit program which places art of various kinds in the transit system, including poetry on the cars and busses themselves. (The Poetry in Motion series has now come to an end.) Unsurprisingly, Life Underground is one of the most popular projects the program has commissioned. The installation’s a group of humorous bronze cartoon-like figures of people and animals in diverse poses and vignettes that often tell little stories, plus occasional abstract pieces. Otterness characterized the placement of the sculptures as “scattered in little surprises.” Many of the tubby little figures have moneybag heads and others are carrying huge coins or subway tokens (still in use when the artist started the work); some depict wide-eyed tourists, subway fare-evaders crawling under (actual) gates, sleeping homeless people, and transit workers using huge tools to do their maintenance and construction. Art critic Olympia Lambert wrote on ArtCat Zine that "the lovable bronze characters . . . are joined together by a common theme of implied criminality mixed with an undercurrent of social anarchy.” (She also complained that “his works are too cute.”) Otterness evinces an anti-establishment and even socialist streak when he speaks, and Vince Carducci of Sculpture magazine asserted that his “aesthetic is best seen as a riff on capitalist realism,” which the writer defines as “representations of advertising and the media.” “Otterness’s work is a contemporary form of social (as opposed to socialist) realism,” continued the critic, “. . . an expression of anxiety in the face of global capital unbound.” The sculptor, who said in the New York Times that his point was "the impossibility of understanding life in New York," asserts that he was inspired by 19th-century political cartoonist Thomas Nast's caricatures of William M. "Boss” Tweed and the depiction of the corruption of Tammany Hall that infected the original construction of the subway a century ago. “None of it seems to have changed all that much,” quipped the artist.
One of the most recognizable—and darkest—scenes, positioned under a staircase leading up from the IND platform, shows an alligator emerging from under a manhole cover and chomping down on an unwary pedestrian with a moneybag head. The evocation of the persistent urban legend that ‘gators live in New York’s sewers is here brought to life—but this beast is wearing a suit and tie (as is his prey) and has anthropomorphic hands! Observing the struggle is a 10-inch bronze man, his hands clasped behind him. In its “Metropolitan Diary” feature, the New York Times recounted the interplay between a small child and the sewer ‘gator, as observed by a passerby:
Recently, I watched as a 4-year-old struggled mightily to free the figurine from the nasty alligator. He began by jumping on the alligator's head, and when that failed, he tried to wrestle the figurine free. About to give up, he kicked the alligator, his foot connecting solidly with the bronze head.
Surprise spread across his face as he ran away, crying, ''Mom, it tried to bite me!''
Elsewhere there are a bronze donkey in a bowler and elephant in a top hat (above the stairs to the IND platform), policemen in early-20th-century uniforms watch over the fare-beaters and the sleeping homeless, and a snake is coiled in a corner as if about to strike. (Alligators in the sewers, maybe . . . but snakes in the subway?) There is also a subtly subversive scene of two workers each with one handle of a two-man saw, standing on opposite sides of a pillar which helps hold up the station as if they were in the process of bringing down the very structure in which they work. Among some of the less explicable images are a pair of bronze feet cut off at the ankles on the BMT platform or the single ears about five feet off the ground in the nooks of the girders that hold up the ceilings of the platforms. The ears seem to be saying, “Watch out—we’re listing!”—a kind of “the walls have ears” message. The feet, which only have nine toes between them because the pair have the innermost toe in common, are there just to attract curious attention from viewers, says Otterness. There’s also an enigmatic sculpture of human body parts assembled into a pay phone, a puzzled look on its “face.” “Sometimes New York doesn’t make any sense at all,” the sculptor explains, “so that gives me room to play.”
Other figurines, some of which are duplicated elsewhere in the station, in the collection include:
- a pair of tourists holding hands and carrying an immense token
- subway workers sweeping up mounds of coins
- people sitting on top of bags stuffed with money
- a woman pinned under a piece of machinery
- a bare-breasted woman grasping a (real) metal pole
- a woman holding her detached head high above her empty shoulders
- a woman reading a book seated on top of a man lying on a heap of pennies
- construction workers on a large, red I-beam (suspended in the stairway to the L platform)
- a man arm in arm with a woman holding a massive hammer
- a well-dressed couple (he’s wearing a topper) tippling on a ledge above a staircase
- a man in a top hat standing on a pile of pennies while an even tinier woman hands him more
Otterness, the first artist who ever designed a balloon for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade—a tumbling, upside-down Humpty Dumpty—isn’t often recognized despite the large number of his pieces around the city and their popularity and can still go anonymously into the subway to “hang out” with his sculptures. He eavesdrops on the comments of the MTA riders—“It’s like research,” he says. The simplicity of his artistic language makes interaction between the public and his creations easier, he feels. The cartoon quality of the images means that spectators don’t need an art education to appreciate them. People instinctively get the joke or understand the meaning, Otterness says.
Because they seldom know he’s the artist, people “tell me what they really think” about his work. He can get into sometimes heated discussions about the works when he visits them. He says he deliberately takes his creations from the studio out into the public as his form of “research and development.” That’s how he learns “how [the] work is being read once it’s out there.” “I think I’m making something that means one thing,” the artists explains, “and when I put it out in public, I find out maybe it means something else. What it means in public is what it means.”
Sometimes it’s very eccentric and personal. Sometimes it’s political, sexual, racial or social. That’s part of the reason it’s successful. Those are all subjects that people like to talk about. It’s the idea of the town square. I think public art in general, when it’s successful, functions that way.
Otterness, the New York Times declared, “may be the world's best public sculptor.” The paper equivocated some on its praise of the sculptor, lamenting the current state of public art in this country. “Nevertheless,” the Times continued, “Mr. Otterness can animate public spaces with amusing pudgy bronze cartoon characters acting out parables of modern life without pandering to either sophisticates or ordinary folks.” The artist arrived in New York City in 1970, when he was still a teenager. A budding Abstract Expressionist in the vein of Rothko and Diebenkorn, he’d been studying art in Wichita with his friend David Salle, a painter, since the age of 13 and his work in high school won him a scholarship to the Art Students League to study painting. He stayed a year, because that’s as long as his scholarship lasted, and returned to Wichita to make money to come back. A year or so later, he was enrolled in the Independent Study Program of the Whitney Museum of American Art, graduating in 1973. In 1983, Otterness went to Pietrasanta, Italy, to study an ancient technique of bronze casting used there since the Renaissance. “Bronze,” he explained, “allows for a different kind of animation, and I’d been looking at a lot of animation and did a lot of drawings. . . . I had these little figures that I could twist and literally animate . . . .”
Even as a young artist, Otterness became involved with art groups which focused on politically charged work. At the same time, he began his career in public art, which he says is intended to generate controversy and public debate. “Public art substitutes for the town square,” Otterness affirmed, “the area where we’re supposed to have our communal debates and discussions and exchange ideas.” He further asserts, “At best the public work initiates some conversation . . . among people who normally wouldn’t be talking to each other.” The MTA commission in 1996 was his big break.
Part of the delight of Life Underground, which Otterness has said is his favorite public installation, is that it’s one of the few subway art projects that actually interacts with the transit system. The only other one with a similar relationship to its environment that I can think of is the Burma Shave-like poem, "Commuter's Lament, or A Close Shave" by Norman B. Colp, mounted on the ceiling of the corridor that connects the 7th Avenue station at Times Square with the 8th Avenue station and the bus terminal. Not only is it partly hidden among the ceiling beams until you actually come upon each line (and, of course, you have to be looking up to catch them), but the poem is about commuting. (The 1991 poem, a series of panels, reads: "Overslept / So tired / If late / Get fired. / Why bother? / Why the pain? / Just go home / Do it again.") Otterness’s sculptures are also situated in real spaces of the station—on banisters of the staircases we use to get to and from trains, on the beams that hold the structure together, and so on—but they, too, are about the system and those who use it or work in it. And even Colp’s poem doesn’t site its lines right on the subway property used by all of us—the benches, the stairs, the gates—the way Otterness has put his miniature people. While the other art in the New York subway system may or may not relate to the city and its life and some may even evoke the transit system, most don’t actually connect to us and the system directly and self-consciously the way Life Underground does.
Another difference from other subway art is that Otterness’s sculptures were made to be touched. (They’re apparently bolted to the floor with foot-long pins.) Otterness says he can tell which ones are the most popular by how shiny they are; the ones that get rubbed a lot have lost the brown patina that forms on bronze as it oxidizes, leaving a brass-like shine. “The emotional favorite of people will get polished," said the artist. One of these appears to be a stout, well-dressed little fellow sitting on a bench on a platform holding a bag money as trains pass him by. (Since the MTA wouldn’t let Otterness usurp any available seating for his art, an extra bench was added, above the number required on a platform, to seat Otterness’s little would-be rider.) The brown-patinated surface has been polished to a bright sheen by the hands of hundreds of fellow passengers. Arts for Transit’s mission is to create an art show for “the people who ride the system daily”; Tom Otterness’s contribution is an art show of the people who ride the subway. Somehow that’s just so New York.
[Otterness’s work hasn’t been without controversy. In 1977, the artists made a video called Shot Dog Film: he’d adopted a dog and then shot it in order to film its death throes. In April 2008, he told the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, "Thirty years ago when I was 25 years old, I made a film in which I shot a dog. It was an indefensible act that I am deeply sorry for.” Still, some people, especially bloggers, have refused to accept the artist’s apology. Whether Otterness’s act over 30 years ago makes him a reprehensible man today is a private decision; it doesn’t stop his subway installation from being a delightful curiosity—though it may give the work a darker edge than it might have on its own.
[Aside from his public art, Otterness’s work can be seen in museum collections and galleries. In New York City, his work is featured at the Whitney, MoMA, and the Brooklyn Museum. In February and March, Marlborough Gallery on 57th Street hosted a show of his art. There are several websites with photos of the figures in Life Underground, but one that has a large selection is www.nycsubway.org/perl/artwork_show?21, which has three pages of photos (that can each be enlarged for a closer look).]