Tom Otterness and 25 Years of Subway Art

Daniel T. Allen |
Updated: October 26, 2011 at 12:15 PM

Tom Otterness' bronze creatures are tucked into corners all over the city. "Life Underground" is a permanent installation of about 25 pieces in the subway station at 14th Street and Eighth Avenue. Flickr/Kevin H

Twenty-five years ago the Metropolitan Transit Authority started their Arts for Transit program in an attempt to lighten up everyone’s commute with both beautiful and whimsical artwork placed throughout the city’s subway stations.

WNET’s SundayArts recently took a look at some of the subway system’s most celebrated works and the artists behind them, including the humanoid creations of Tom Otterness.

Otterness, who first gained infamy 34 years ago for shooting a dog as part of an art project, tucked his cartoon-like bronze sculptures away in corners and crevices, waiting to be discovered by alert (read: well-caffeinated) New Yorkers.

Visitors to the subway station at 14th Street and Eighth Avenue in Manhattan may already be familiar with “Life Underground,” a series of approximately 25 separate sculptures installed by Otterness over the past decade. His bronze, beady-eyed creations live a rich life mirroring their human counterparts — lovers canoodle on the platform, subway workers sweep up yet another mess and police officers enforce the rules of the rails, catching turnstile jumpers in the act.

“I love being able to pitch to this hardcore New York audience,” Otterness told SundayArts of creating pieces for harried New York commuters.

Otterness drew inspiration for his characters from New York’s Tammany Hall era, when powerful political bosses ruled the city. He also looked to the work of famous caricaturist Thomas Nast.

Before installing the sculptures, Otterness built a full-scale model of the 14th Street subway station steps in his studio. But he said that once he moved the pieces into the actual station, he had to adjust his plans. Now that his creatures inhabit the subway full-time, he likes to pay them an occassional visit.

“When I’m depressed I take a detour over to 14th street and there’s always someone there doing something with the work. I think, what’s my problem? Everything’s okay. It’s one of the big pay-offs of doing public work — just getting to see that all the time,” said Otterness.


An interview with artist Tom Otterness, whose bronze works adorn various public places around the city, including the 14th Street subway station at Eighth Avenue. Video courtesy of SundayArts.

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