Home Arts for Transit Color amidst Columbus Circle construction

Color amidst Columbus Circle construction

by Benjamin Kabak

MTA Arts for Transit, Permanent Art Program

The Sol LeWitt installation at 59th St./Columbus Circle. (Photo courtesy of Metropolitan Transportation Authority/Rob Wilson. Click to enlarge.)

Taking a walk through the Columbus Circle station right now is one of the least pleasant experiences in the subway. Undergoing a complete rehab that is behind schedule, the station is hot and dusty. Platforms are cut off; walls are exposed; staircases are closed.

Eventually, the station will be completely transformed, but for now, it is in a perpetual state of construction. On Wednesday, a glimpse of color appeared amidst the construction as the Sol LeWitt Arts for Transit installation opened on a double-wide wall on a mezzanine in between the A/B/C/D and 1 train platforms.

The piece, shown above and again at the bottom of the post, was commissioned in 2004, and LeWitt, who passed away two years ago, selected the site himself. The work is 53 feet wide by 11 feet tall and is made of 250 porcelain tiles of six varying colors. It is called “Whirls and twirls (MTA)” and is one of the more vibrantly-colored entries in the Arts for Transit program.

“LeWitt’s genius comes through in this artwork, which is a major work of precision with its curves and bands in vibrant color that completely fills the space,” MTA Chairman H. Dale Hemmerdinger said. “It will become a landmark and is a great tribute to one of our major artists.”

Sadly, LeWitt is no longer with us to see the piece’s grand unveiling. He died in April 2007, but the artist is enjoying much posthumous success. As his obituary says, LeWitt was known for “deceptively simple geometric sculptures and drawings and ecstatically colored and jazzy wall paintings.” An exhibit of his works, recently named one of the top art shows in the nation, is on display for 25 years at Mass MoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts, and LeWitt was very much looking forward to his collaboration with the MTA.

“When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art,” he said in an Arts for Transit interview a year before his death.

After LeWitt’s death, Sandra Bloodworth, director of Arts for Transit and Facilities Design, worked closely with the artist’s family to ensure that his vision would be realized. “This project,” she said, “was filled with challenges, as we prepared several samples of tile and glazes to meet with Mr. LeWitt’s approval and found a facility that could produce large tiles mandated by the design. Working with Arts for Transit, his family and colleagues helped bring the project to completion. It is a very special and unique creation because it is a permanent public installation of a wall drawing, executed in porcelain tile. Usually the wall drawings are executed in paint or pencil based on exacting instructions by the artist.”

While some may criticize Arts for Transit as a superfluous use of money in tight economic times, LeWitt’s piece brings some color and levity to our normally serious commutes. It lightens up a once-dull space and should be recognized and embraced as a leading example of underground art.

Click through for another view.

MTA Arts for Transit, Permanent Art Program

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Jason September 10, 2009 - 7:27 am

All this renovation and they still didn’t block off those stairs to the unused central platform? Maybe they are planning on using it to help alleviate the crowding on the other two.

FR February 9, 2010 - 6:14 am

Correct. Plus the center platform was designed to be a “transfer passageway” from the 58th street entrance to the trump entrance – roughly. Thus lessening confusion in travel path for the riders.

skunky September 10, 2009 - 7:40 am

Columbus Circle is an absolute clusterf*ck of a station. How many times do I sit on a N/B D or B at 7th Avenue during rush hour waiting for signals to change? That renovation has been going on for at least five years. I’m pretty sure it didn’t take five years to build the thing in the first place.

This is the kind of thing that gets me peeved about the way the MTA goes about things, especially capital projects like this.

Tony September 10, 2009 - 8:12 am

That renovation has been going on for more than 5 years. I used to use that station everyday in 95-96 and it was a mess back then with “renovations”.

Benjamin Kabak September 10, 2009 - 8:23 am

It hasn’t taken the MTA 14 years to work on this station. This renovation started in late 2006 or early 2007. In the mid-1990s, they were doing other work on the station, but considering that Dattner didn’t put together the plans for the station until three years ago, there’s no way work has been going on for longer than that.

Tony September 10, 2009 - 8:42 am

That other work you mention from the 90’s led into the current work with no gap of time wherre the station wasn’t a mess. This to me means that the work has been going on for the entire time. It doesn’t matter that it was 2 different projects the station has been under constant construction for over 15 years now.

Benjamin Kabak September 10, 2009 - 12:55 pm

I’m pretty certain that you’re conflated a few projects here. On the one hand was the above-ground construction for the Trump Tower, the Time Warner Center and the Columbus Circle renovations. Some of that work involved reengineering subway entrances. There was a gap of two years or so when the station was not under any construction. This new project is of a different nature.

FR February 9, 2010 - 6:20 am

I agree with Benjamin. The interim project above ground affected subway operations. However, this said project was not of the MTA but DOT.

petey September 10, 2009 - 8:22 am

i love the arts for transit program. but that thing is just too intense. things are loud enough as they are.

Scott E September 10, 2009 - 8:24 am

How ironic. Last week we learned that different colors are too difficult to maintain, and now this.

In short order, I’m sure, the TA will realize that damaged and vandalized tiles are too costly and time-consuming to color-match and replace, and over time the whole thing will gradually change to a uniform pale blue.

Streetsblog New York City » Today’s Headlines September 10, 2009 - 9:18 am

[…] Columbus Circle Station Gets a Lot More Color (City Room, 2nd Ave Sagas) […]

Wayne's World September 10, 2009 - 4:06 pm

The Sol Lewitt exhibit at MASS Moca is totally cool. Worth going out your way for. We saw it this summer and look forward to repeat viewings over the next quarter century. It is singular.

Christopher September 10, 2009 - 4:53 pm

I love the Art for Transit program – I still take out-of-towners to the Natural History Museum stop on the C, as well as the 14th Street/8th Avenue stop for the Tom Otterness sculptures. But this? It reminds me of the decorations for a progressive kindergarten circa 1974. Bright and cheery, to be sure, but art? Really? I dread to think what a premium they paid for a brand-name artist rather than simply having an interior decorator pick some colorful tiles.

Today’s Headlines | NYC No Fee Apartment Rentals September 11, 2009 - 9:46 pm

[…] Columbus Circle Station Gets a Lot More Color (City Room, 2nd Ave Sagas) […]

paintbyaj October 16, 2009 - 1:30 am

I just saw this today for the first time, and I am so JEALOUS, but inspired!! I want to do similar work, but use the flat ground surface so that children can walk through it as they get in touch with their inner-voices. Visit Changemakers.com/YOUTH MIND if you are interested.

This is great art, I don’t care about all of the other MTA issues, I have lived here for 30 years, and I think the MTA has done an OUTSTANDING job of integrating art and culture into what used to be, very plain and boring spaces!!

Where we hate to go underground :: Second Ave. Sagas April 5, 2010 - 1:04 am

[…] approaching. I’ve come to love Grand Army Plaza for its wide platforms and ample seating. The Sol LeWitt installation at the renovated 59th St./Columbus Circle stop adds a bright bit of color to the otherwise drab […]

Photo of the Day: Video ads take over Columbus Circle :: Second Ave. Sagas November 3, 2011 - 12:02 am

[…] though, the MTA has been putting some of the station on display. Sol Lewitt’s work adorns the station, and straphangers can once again use the middle platform on the IND platform. Still, it seems as […]


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