UNDERGROUND ART, 1925-1950:
A Centennial Celebration of
the New York City Subway

Friday, Oct. 1 through Thursday, Nov. 4, 2004

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In celebration of the city-wide centennial of the New York subway in October 2004, the Sidney Mishkin Gallery will showcase Underground Art, 1925-1950: A Centennial Celebration of the New York City Subway. More than a mode of transportation, the subway dramatically changed the pace and quality of life in New York City. It altered perceptions of time and space in the urban environment and shifted the boundaries between people of varying ethnicities, races and classes.


Underground Art, 1925-1950 will include 35 paintings, prints and photographs by artists ranging from John Sloan to Mark Rothko to Jacob Lawrence. The exhibition will be on view at the Mishkin Gallery from Oct. 1 through Nov. 4, 2004. Opening reception on Thursday, Sept. 30, 6 to 8 pm.

Anticipated with excitement and anxiety, the subway teased the imagination and shifted public perception of what constituted functional urban space. Was the underground the right solution to the city’s transit woes? Would one really be able to travel “from City Hall to Harlem in Fifteen Minutes,” as one slogan proclaimed? Might one be electrocuted or asphyxiated along the way? Once in use, rumbling and careening beneath the city, it was prized and admired, feared and despised.
By the mid-1920s, the subway was more crowded than ever before, dubbed “the most awful ride in the world” by Laurence Bell in the American Mercury in 1938. At the same time, the subway emerged as a popular subject among artists. A key theme was the integrating effect of the subway on the city. Subway expansion, completed between the mid-1920s and 1940s, created New York’s “subway suburbs.” Connecting these racial, religious and ethnic communities, the subway was one of the most densely and diversely populated spaces in the world. The subway was the melting pot.

This exhibition features a broad range of artists and images. Among the earliest subway scenes, John Sloan’s etching Subway Stairs of 1926 features a compositional component favored by many artists, the staircase. Slightly mischievous in intent, Sloan wrote: “In modern times incoming trains cause updrafts in the subway entrances. Getting on an omnibus in the hoopskirt was exciting in grandmother’s day.” Mark Rothko produced several images of the subway between 1935 and 1941, prior to his conversion to abstract expressionism. Included in this exhibition is one of his earliest, Subway (1935). This painting has not been seen since it was shown in the first exhibition of “The Ten” at the Montross Gallery in 1935. In his modernist interpretation of the subject, Subway, (1938), Jacob Lawrence uses an unusual asymmetrical composition, flattening and framing three African-American figures within a vibrant, brightly colored subway car.

Depictions of the subway between 1925 and 1950 reveal dualities between public and private space, freedom and restraint, and the machine and the body. These contrasts, and the tensions they display, are timeless, as relevant today as they were a century ago.

This exhibition was curated by Tracy Schpero Fitzpatrick. The catalogue was supported in part by the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts. Additional funding was provided by the Baruch College Fund.
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The Sidney Mishkin Gallery regularly presents small, museum-quality exhibitions that highlight innovative scholarship, significant artists and multicultural perspectives. Gallery hours are Monday-Friday, Noon to 5 pm; Thursday, Noon to 7 pm. All shows at the Mishkin Gallery are free and open to the public.

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