New York’s Largest Permanent Public Art Installation is Under the Upper East Side

'Blooming' by Elizabeth Murray in the East 59th St.-Lexington Ave. Station/Upper East Site
'Blooming' by Elizabeth Murray in the East 59th St.-Lexington Ave. Station/Upper East Site

MANHATTAN – You won’t find them hanging on Museum Mile or inside the posh galleries lining Madison Avenue, because the largest permanent public art installation in New York is under our very own feet here on the Upper East Side. 

They may have faded into the background of your commute— but the Second Avenue subway, which opened to the public in 2016 and carries tens of thousands of New Yorkers Each day, hosts an impressive, vivid collection of glass, porcelain and ceramic tile mosaics.

Commissioned by MTA Arts and Design and created by renowned contemporary artists, the subway art is featured inside the East 72nd, East 86th and East 96th Street stations, as well as the East 63rd Street station where the Q line connects.

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Here’s where and why you should stop for a moment in your busy day to admire in one of the dozens of mesmerizing, museum-quality artwork included with every Metrocard swipe on the Second Avenue line:

East 63rd Street-Second Avenue (F)(Q)

For this installation dubbed ‘Elevated’, New York-based artist Jean Shin used archival photos of the long-gone Second and Third Avenue elevated train system to create images on the walls of the station from ceramic tile, glass mosaic and laminated glass. 

‘Elevated’ by Jean Shin at the East 63rd St.-Lexington Ave. Subway Station
‘Elevated’ by Jean Shin at the East 63rd St.-Lexington Ave. Station/Metropolitan Transportation Authority

Even the station’s escalator is adorned with tile imagery depicting the dismantling of the El’s steel skeleton in the 1940s.

‘Elevated’ by Jean Shin at the East 63rd St.-Lexington Ave. Subway Station/Metropolitan Transportation Authority
‘Elevated’ by Jean Shin at the East 63rd St.-Lexington Ave. Station/Metropolitan Transportation Authority
‘Elevated’ by Jean Shin at the East 63rd St.-Lexington Ave. Subway Station/Metropolitan Transportation Authority
‘Elevated’ by Jean Shin at the East 63rd St.-Lexington Ave. Station/Metropolitan Transportation Authority

East 72nd Street-Second Avenue (Q)

‘Perfect Strangers’ by Brazilian-born, New York-based artist Vik Muniz showcases the people a New Yorker might encounter during a typical trip on the subway. 

‘Perfect Strangers’ by Vik Muniz at the East 72nd St.-Second Ave. Subway Station/Upper East Site
‘Perfect Strangers’ by Vik Muniz at the East 72nd St.-Second Ave. Subway Station/Upper East Site

The photos of quirky and unique people are recreated in mosaic and laminated glass throughout the station entrance and mezzanine— giving it the feeling of a station constantly bustling with those New Yorkers that make our city so special. 

‘Perfect Strangers’ by Vik Muniz at the East 72nd St.-Second Ave. Subway Station/Upper East Site
‘Perfect Strangers’ by Vik Muniz at the East 72nd St.-Second Ave. Subway Station/Upper East Site

At street level, a laminated glass canopy showcases a flock of birds, bringing a hint of nature to the concrete city.

‘Perfect Strangers’ by Vik Muniz at the East 72nd St.-Second Ave. Subway Station/Upper East Site
‘Perfect Strangers’ by Vik Muniz at the East 72nd St.-Second Ave. Subway Station/Upper East Site

East 86th Street-Second Avenue (Q)

For ‘Subway Portraits,’ internationally acclaimed painter and printmaker Chuck Close created twelve giant installations derived from his own portrait-paintings and made of mosaic and ceramic tile— most of which are nine feet tall— that feature the faces of uniquely amazing people that travel the subway every day.

'Subway Portraits' by Chuck Close inside the East 86th St.-Second Ave. Subway Station/Upper East Site
‘Subway Portraits’ by Chuck Close inside the East 86th St.-Second Ave. Subway Station/Upper East Site

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The portraits include two of Close himself, as well as composer Philip Glass, musician Lou Reed and fellow artists Zhang Huan, Kara Walker, Alex Katz, Cecily Brown and Cindy Sherman.

'Subway Portraits' by Chuck Close inside the East 86th St.-Second Ave. Subway Station/Upper East Site
‘Subway Portraits’ by Chuck Close inside the East 86th St.-Second Ave. Subway Station/Upper East Site

East 96th Street-Second Avenue (Q)

At the East 96th Street station, New York-based artist Sarah Sze spent years working on the installation titled ‘Blueprint for a Landscape’ that features 4,300 unique porcelain tiles and span 14,000 square feet.

‘Blueprint for a Landscape’ by Sarah Sze inside the East 96th St.-Second Ave. Subway Station/Upper East Site
‘Blueprint for a Landscape’ by Sarah Sze inside the East 96th St.-Second Ave. Station/Upper East Site

The blueprint-style design of the work features sharp vector lines and a different shade at each entrance— inside common things like sheets of paper, birds, trees and scaffolding are caught up in a whirlwind that intensifies as it tells a story of energy fields and wind patterns integrated throughout the station.

‘Blueprint for a Landscape’ by Sarah Sze inside the East 96th St.-Second Ave. Subway Station/Upper East Site
‘Blueprint for a Landscape’ by Sarah Sze inside the East 96th St.-Second Ave. Station/Upper East Site

More UES Subway Art

Not part of the Second Avenue subway art installation, but still magnificent in it’s own right are the glass mosaic murals inside the East 59th Street-Lexington Avenue (4)(5)(6)(N)(R)(W) subway station.

'Blooming' by Elizabeth Murray in the East 59th St.-Lexington Ave. Station/Upper East Site
‘Blooming’ by Elizabeth Murray in the East 59th St.-Lexington Ave. Station/Upper East Site

Drawing it’s name from the iconic Bloomingdale’s store that sits above the station, ‘Blooming’ by Elizabeth Murray is a 25-year-old ‘dreamy’ glass mosaic installation featuring a large yellow coffee mug, red shoes and a variety of shapes creating a pattern that covers the mezzanine walls— wrapping around corners, down steps and through doorways to create an immersive experience for subway riders. 

'Blooming' by Elizabeth Murray in the East 59th St.-Lexington Ave. Station/Upper East Site
‘Blooming’ by Elizabeth Murray in the East 59th St.-Lexington Ave. Station/Upper East Site

Speaking about the mosaic, Murray said she “added the stepping shoes and steaming coffee cups, part of the ritual of every morning or evening subway trip” in hopes they “stimulate thoughts about passage”

'Blooming' by Elizabeth Murray in the East 59th St.-Lexington Ave. Station/Upper East Site
‘Blooming’ by Elizabeth Murray in the East 59th St.-Lexington Ave. Station/Upper East Site

So next time you’re racing to work or some other event in your busy life, take a moment and pause to enjoy the works created to brighten your commute.

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