Friday, March 26, 2010

The Incidental Masterpiece

Stopping to smell the roses – or look at art – is not the sort of thing that crosses your mind when you are hurrying through a busy subway station in midtown Manhattan. On my recent trip to New York, however, I couldn’t help making a pilgrimage to one very important and nostalgic spot: the Fifth Avenue and 53rd Street Station, where Ralph Fasanella’s magnificent 1950 painting “Subway Riders” sits encased behind glass.

I know this painting well from years of seeing it up close in Ralph’s studio in Ardsley. He painted it after several years of riding the subway at all hours and sketching people on pieces of newspaper. It summarizes the daily transience of the urban dweller, the temporary moment in every day when one retreats to a zone of solitude in one of the noisiest and most public spaces. The painting “Subway Riders” seems to embody the notion that people of all backgrounds and from all levels of society share these moments. The great paradox of the work is the aloneness of togetherness in the course of a working day.

In 1991, union organizer Ron Carver founded an initiative to bring Fasanella’s art to the public. His organization, called “Public Domain,” actively raised funds to purchase the artworks out of private collections and place them on permanent public view. Not in museums, necessarily, but in spaces frequented by working people. Hence the painting in a subway station, installed there in 1995. “Subway Riders” is actually owned by the American Folk Art Museum, which is right down 53rd Street near 6th Avenue, but on permanent loan to the MTA for display in the station.

Public art is a noble endeavor, but not without its challenges. On my recent visit, I noticed that although untold thousands of people must see this painting every day, very few probably actually look. My informal observation seemed to indicate that they are more interested in the subway map next to the painting case (art should be useful, right?) and in the horizontal shelf in front of the case, where they could put down their cell phone and write down a number or note to themselves. Sometimes I think that it’s better for a painting to be admired by hundreds than ignored by thousands.

But that is a facile and ultimately pointless perspective. Seeing Fasanella’s masterpiece costs nothing (it is outside the turnstiles) and is on view 24 hours a day. Besides, you don’t need to study a painting to take something from it. A thousand sidelong glances places this work in the minds of many, regardless of whether they absorb it in detail. I like to think that in some small way “Subway Riders” gets people to realize that no matter how absorbed in our daily lives, we are all connected.


  1. While I don't stop to study it every time I pass by I definitely appreciate having Subway Riders in the station and have looked closely at it. Although, I do wish the lighting was a little better.

  2. Thanks Paul for this post on Ralph and how this picture came out of his relationship to his father. Really moving


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