Underground Art: A Show Celebrates Subway Posters

Good morning. Today we’ll look at an exhibition of posters that were originally on the walls of subway stations. For the next two months, they’ll be on the walls of an art gallery. We’ll also find out about birds that are passing through New York on the way south.

Credit…SVA Galleries

Starting today, what Francis Di Tommaso calls “underground art” will be exhibited above ground, in an art gallery on the 15th floor of a storied building in Chelsea, complete with a recreated subway platform.

The images at the SVA Chelsea Gallery at 601 West 25th Street are subway posters by 93 graphic artists that were created as advertisements for the School of Visual Arts. “They became public art,” said Di Tommaso, the school’s director of galleries, who maintains that the posters have become one of the subway system’s most enduring advertising campaigns.

The school began commissioning posters from faculty members soon after it opened in 1947 as the Cartoonists & Illustrators School. The name change was announced in a poster in 1956 by the graphic designer George Tscherny, who later redesigned the school’s logo.

Some posters reflected memorable moments in New York. In 2001, Milton Glaser, whose original “I ♥ NY” logo was a spirit-booster in the aftermath of the city’s fiscal crisis in the 1970s, did a poster for S.V.A. after the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001 that said “I ♥ NY More Than Ever.”

The following year, Kevin O’Callaghan, a department chairman at S.V.A., created a poster showing two potted shrubs. They had been trimmed to look like the twin towers and placed in front of a window in Dumbo, Brooklyn, that the original World Trade Center would have been seen from. At the top of the poster were the words “Art Is … Healing.”

From the beginning, the posters were meant to be eye-catching and thought-provoking. Di Tommaso said that the idea came from school’s founder, Silas Rhodes, who had taken a trip to France in the 1940s or early 1950s and had seen posters in the Paris Metro. “France has a longstanding tradition of posters, and he said ‘Wow,’” Di Tommaso said, adding that Rhodes realized that posters were “a way for a fledgling school — the Cartoonists & Illustrators’ school — to say we exist. Otherwise, how’s anybody going to know?”

At the time, he said, “it was this tiny school, three dozen ex-G.I.s on the G.I. Bill who were learning cartooning to go out and get what were then called commercial art jobs.”

“The school got noticed,” thanks in part to the posters, Di Tommaso said, and S.V.A. now has 41,000 alumni. He said he remained surprised that the concept had not been copied. “Nobody picked up on this art in the subway thing,” he said. “It’s not like there’s one college in New York. Not even one art college.”

The exhibition, which runs through Oct. 14, comes as the school is wrapping up a yearlong celebration of its 75th anniversary. It’s not the first showing of a collection of posters: Di Tommaso said there was an exhibition at the Cooper Hewitt Museum (now known as the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum). In the last 17 years, the school has sent traveling exhibitions of posters to cities nationwide and to more than 10 countries.

He said that 830 subway posters are printed for each run. “I don’t know how many stations there are,” he said.

So how often does he take the subway?

“I would say daily,” he said, “except I try to ride my bike whenever the weather is decent.”


Prepare for a cloudy day with a chance of rain. Temperatures will reach the mid-70s. At night, expect showers and possible thunderstorms, with temps dipping slightly.


In effect until Sept. 4 (Labor Day).

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Birds in transit

Credit…Zsolt Czegledi/Mti, via Associated Press

It’s late August, the time of year when traffic is heavy on the Atlantic Flyway — southbound traffic. This is when birds begin the trip along a migration route that stretches from Greenland to Patagonia.

It runs right over New York City, but birders have noticed that fewer birds are passing through New York. Marshall Iliff, the project leader for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s eBird project, said the wildfires in Canada had sent many birds south earlier than expected. He said that raised the question of whether birds can adapt to changing environments: As the forests dry out and fires increase, birds that are expected to be seen passing through Central Park in spring could become “these really rare, rare events.”

Still, some birds that were once rare in New York City have been putting in more frequent appearances. For bird-watchers, the excitement is dampened by an awareness that the population expansion is being driven by warmer ocean temperatures and melting snowpacks, along with wildfires.

Sharp-eyed birders might spot brown boobies, a tropical species with brown plumage and a white belly that was once rare even in Southern states. But since 2010 or so, that bird has been seen “all up and down the East Coast, multiple times per year,” Iliff said. One was spotted on Coney Island on June 27.

It’s unclear whether the species will become a regular in the North. Scientists say it has ventured this far from its usual haunts as ocean temperatures have risen. Brown boobies have also been seen inland, in lakes in western Massachusetts, which puzzles birders because brown boobies are generally saltwater birds.

Heather Wolf, a birder and application programmer with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, suggested looking for brown boobies around New York Harbor or the Hudson River. Taking the NYC Ferry might also increase the chances of a sighting because “you’re going to see things that you couldn’t see just walking around the parks,” she said.


Lost mandolin

Dear Diary:

In winter 2008, I was an aspiring musician living in Inwood after graduating from college, cutting my teeth in the New York City music scene.

One night after a late gig in the East Village, I splurged on a cab ride home with my violin and mandolin in tow.

Contrary to my usual habit, I pocketed the taxi receipt while exiting the cab and then promptly stumbled into bed.

Panic set in the next morning when I realized my mandolin had not made it out of the cab. Frantic, I called 311.

“I left my mandolin in a cab, and I don’t know how to get it back,” I told the nice woman who took my call.

“Sure,” she said. “I can help you with that, but what’s a mandolin?”

Stunned by the question, I explained that it was like a small version of a guitar but with eight strings.

Because I had saved the receipt with the taxi’s medallion number, the woman was able to find the cab company’s telephone number. I called immediately.

“Last night I left mandolin in one of your cabs,” I said. “Can you help me?”

“Maybe, but what’s a mandolin?” the person on the other end of the line asked.

Shocked to hear this question again, I repeated my abbreviated description of the centuries-old instrument. I was transferred to a supervisor, who asked the same question: “What’s a mandolin?”

Eventually, I was given the cabby’s personal cellphone. This time, I was ready with a revised introduction when I reached him.

“I left an instrument in your cab last night,” I explained, “It’s like a small guitar, only with eight strings, and is in a soft black case.”

“Yes, yes,” the cabby said. “I have your mandolin right here. If you give me an address, I will drive her over to you.”

— Daniella Fischetti

Illustrated by Agnes Lee. Send submissions here and read more Metropolitan Diary here.

Glad we could get together here. I’m going to take the next few days off, returning after Labor Day. See you then. — J.B.

P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword and Spelling Bee. You can find all our puzzles here.

Bernard Mokam, Lola Fadulu and Ed Shanahan contributed to New York Today. You can reach the team at [email protected].


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