Dogs aren't that unusual of a sight in the bowels of the New York City subway system.
There are service dogs and law enforcement dogs; dogs being transported in tote bags, baskets, backpacks and baby carriages; dogs swaddled beneath heavy winter jackets; very small dogs that come scurrying from the darkest corners of the platform towards … oh wait.
What you don't see beneath the streets of New York are dogs depicted in public art. This has all changed with the unveiling of "Stationary Figures," a collection of 11 glass mosaic pooch portraits now on permanent display at the 23rd Street station on the IND Sixth Avenue Line in Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood.
No doubt a number of straphangers passing through 23rd Street station, which services the F and M trains and was closed for several months earlier this year while undergoing a major revamping, will find that the pooches in question look familiar — maybe a bit like the average New York commuter: stoic, alert, borderline restless. But it's mostly because the mosaics, fabricated in stunning detail by Mayer of Munich, are based on images created by none other than Mr. Weimaraner himself, William Wegman.
Although Wegman's subjects have varied over his lauded career as a photographer, painter and video artist, he's best known for whimsical compositions that depict his beloved pet Weimaraners in humanlike poses (and sometimes donning wigs and costumes). It all began in the 1970s with Wegman's first true four-legged muse, the leggy and camera-loving Man Ray. It wasn't until the mid-1980s, however, that Wegman's second Weimaraner, Fay Ray, achieved true art world stardom. Fay's descendants — they include Battina, Crooky, Chundo, Chip, Bobbin, Candy and Penny — have all also modeled for their human.
Wegman's pet Weimaraners — a German hunting breed dating back to the early 19th century — have the distinction of appearing in the permanent collections of numerous top art museums and being a regular feature on "Sesame Street." That's no small feat for an extended family of very good boys and girls.
The dogs depicted in "Stationary Figures" are Flo and her brother, Topper — Wegman's ninth and 10th Weimaraners, respectively. As the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), which commissioned the portraits as part of its MTA Arts & Design program, explains: "The portraits highlight Wegman's deadpan humor by juxtaposing Flo and Topper in poses that suggest the way customers group themselves with waiting for a train at the platform. In some portraits, they're dressed in human clothes and others they're in their natural state."
In addition to showcasing the work of a world-renowned artist (and local Chelsea resident) in an unexpected venue, "Stationary Figures" is meant to bring joy to — and lower the blood pressure of — harried commuters passing through 23rd Street station, which ranks amongst the 50th busiest in the Big Apple. After all, who wouldn't crack a smile when chancing across a mosaic portrait of a handsome pooch, especially when said handsome pooch is gussied up in a bright red rain slicker and matching cap?
As Mark Byrnes points out for CityLab, this isn't the first time Wegman's dogs have brightened up an American subway station. In 2005, two Weimaraners, both outfitted in NASA spacesuits, became permanent fixtures as circular murals above exits at L'Enfant Plaza Metro station in Washington, D.C.
Very good dogs, very poor service
It goes without saying that New York City subway stations, while teeming with various forms of microbial life, have never exactly been known as hotbeds of contemporary art and design.
That, however, began to change with the long-anticipated January 2017 opening of the first phase of the Second Avenue subway line, which features eye-catching new works by Chuck Close, Vik Muniz, Sarah Sze and Jean Shin spread out across four different stations on Manhattan's Upper East Side. Gov. Andrew Cuomo heralded the Second Avenue line's secondary function as subterranean contemporary gallery (price tag: $4.5 million) as the "the largest permanent public art installation in New York history."
And this is all fine and good — great in fact. The more public art in the subways, the better — especially when it involves local artists of international renown, dapper-looking dogs and an ample dose of wit. Flo and Topper are the best thing to hit the 23rd Station since, well, forever.
Critics, however, have been left wondering as to when significant, tangible improvements to the MTA's declining service will finally be instituted. And this is especially true with new fare hikes on the horizon.
As is the case with the 23rd Street station, which also received new benches, lighting, tile work, countdown clocks and digital screens as part of its extensive overhaul, what does it matter if the platforms and other public areas look fantastic but the trains aren't running efficiently? (Byrnes points out that accessibility, or a lack thereof, also remains a major issue at 23rd Street station.)
The MTA needs to do more than outfit stations with delightful distractions to keep straphangers — who mainly just want to get from point A to point B in a minimal amount of time with minimal headache — happy. While mosaics, murals and the like do act as a sort of soothing balm and improve the user experience, public art is ultimately best enjoyed while also not on the verges of tears because three completely packed F trains have gone by and you're running 30 minutes late.
As for Wegman, described by the New York Post as a "frequent subway commuter," he doesn't offer any specific thoughts as to how the MTA can also improve its service.
"I really like what they're doing as far as making it look better," he tells the Post. "But how to make them run better, that's out of my area."