New York

Tom Finkelpearl/Bolek Greczynski

New York Transit Museum

The city’s musty subterranean subway is something that all New Yorkers love to despise. The system’s imperiled condition, frequent breakdowns, and episodes of crime threaten a vast urban area’s vitality, diversity, and fragile moments of civic connection. There is no experience comparable in concentrated anticipation to the everyday passage from the subway up dingy, urine-saturated stairs to the light and air of the city street above.

With the support of the New York State Council on the Arts through the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, Tom Finkelpearl and Bolek Greczynski developed a subway project that was ambitious in terms of its geographic scope, the extent of research involved, and range of media employed. Installed on two levels of the Transit Museum, among displays of New York subway lore and history, the D-Train Project presented two related narratives based on many months of travel and observation along the D train’s 41 stops.

The Transit Museum is a transformed underground subway station frequented by school groups and subway buffs. Admission requires only a subway token. On the first level, Finkelpearl and Greczynski hung a series of collaged images suspended with heavy wires and turnbuckles in order to lend regularity to the visually complicated site. Each image depicted a particular stop, including the Cambodian community at Cortelyou Road, the Russian settlement at Brighton Beach, and the new commercial art scene at Broadway and Lafayette.

This graphic system conveyed the monotony of a subway ride, as well as the enormous diversity discovered aboveground at its many stops. On the museum’s lower level—the actual subway platform—the artists constructed three-dimensional installations that further explored the unique qualities of each neighborhood and district the train tunnels through. Place was not recorded in terms of strictly observable data; the project also conveyed a dense, evocative human passage embellished and abridged by memory. The Neck Road installation consisted of a scaled-down subway car the interior of which suggested a scrapbook of childhood artifacts and family relationships. Newkirk Avenue was represented by the Tower of Babel Newsstand, which documented in form and selected texts the cultural and linguistic diversity of the site.

The D train begins with the boisterous activities of Coney Island’s playland. Its long route ends at 205th Street in the Bronx, at the sedate 19th-century Woodlawn Cemetery. The installation that focused on this final stop consisted of a blue field scattered with 41 white monuments; one for each stop of the line.

The subway provided a spine for the artists to attach the nerve-endings of region, physical form, and humanity. This project is courageous for what it attempted and where it occurred; it reached out to viewers who infrequently seek art. Finkelpearl and Greczynski have reinforced an idea and application of public art that calls for esthetic and intellectual participation—that looks to a less antiseptic definition of public place. The artists analyzed site as a physical, social, transitional, and psychological condition and their thorough and sensitive study provides a model of esthetic production informed by social observation.

Patricia C. Phillips