Sculpture in the subways? Is there a better place for it?
When sculptor Mags Harries agreed to produce a workof art for a new Boston subway station, her initial idea was tree roots. They would be bronze, protruding from the station's subterranean walls. But the architects were unenthusiastic.
"The whole philosophy of subway stations, it turnsout, is to make them seem as un-underground as possible,' says Harries, in the intonations of her native Welsh coal-mining region, where going underground spooks no one.
She was flirting with the notion of turnstiles in the form of a flock of sheep when a blizzard struck Boston. As the snow slowly melted from the streets, she saw lost gloves pop up everywhere. "They were wet, compacted, squashed--really beautiful!' she says. Gloves, she decided, would be her theme. Lost gloves.
That was in 1978, when Boston was just beginningthe country's first systematic installation of fine art in subways. The MBTA (Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority) was extending its Red Line 3.2 miles northwest from Harvard Square, in Boston's neighboring Cambridge. Harvard station would be rebuilt, three new stations would be added, and fine art would go into all four. Mags Harries' bronze gloves would go in the new Porter Square station, the MBTA's deepest, with escalators descending 120 feet from a street-level glass solarium to the platform.
"The architects worried that the escalator mightfrighten people, it's so deep, but I realized the experience of riding the escalator was too powerful for art to mitigate.' Harries installed life-size bronze gloves on the metal divider between the station's escalators. "One glove is just a glove, but 54 gloves become a life form, and it would have so much variety you could have fun with it,' she said. The Red Line extension's 30,000 daily riders now find the gloves gesturing evocatively, starting with a big glove giving birth to a little glove. Some gloves have two thumbs, or only three fingers. One large glove extends a finger toward a smaller glove, like a caricature of Michelangelo's Jehovah transmitting life to Adam on the Sistine ceiling.
Arnie Berman, a bearded and jovial MBTA inspector,originally a skeptic, is now an enthusiast. "You'd be surprised how many people still have to touch those gloves, after two years,' he recently announced, pointing as evidence to gloves touched so often the bronze is rubbed shiny.
Mags Harries' Glove Cycle is just one of 20 artworksin Boston's four new subway stations, with more to come as the MBTA rebuilds old stations system-wide. Works already installed, produced by artists from around the country, range from Sam Gilliam's huge painted-aluminum abstract sculpture mounted above the outbound trains at the Davis Square station (one MBTA worker says "It looks like two trains running into each other') to Susumu Shingu's 46-foot-high red windmill outside the Porter station and Joyce Kozloff's 80-foot ceramic tile mural at Harvard station, incorporating such New England folk-art motifs as tombstone reliefs and weather vanes.
Subway art is already familiar in Europe, whereMoscow's subway is famous for its cathedral-like stations with ornate marble walls, mosaics and chandeliers. Soviet officials recently admitted that the 126-station system--about one-third the size of New York's, but carrying twice as many passengers--is strained. Newer European subways often are more efficient, and just as nice to look …