The pioneering subway art of Herald Square has seen better times

Christopher Janney's REACH. (Dana Rubinstein)
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The Metropolitan Transit Authority is so proud of its 200-piece art collection that in March it launched a new smartphone app that guides straphangers through its underground displays.

Looking at these works can be an elevating experience in the context of a jostling, dimly lit subway trip, except when, as in the case of the the 34th Street station, the art has fallen out of what the M.T.A would call a state of good repair.

As you're taking the escalator down to the north end of the Queens-bound F platform, look left, and you'll catch a glimpse of David Provan’s "Yab-Yum" (1992), a Calder-esque series of two-headed aluminum paddles, each 12 feet in length, suspended in space. They’re red, much like the color of the I-beams that support them, and, according to the app, they’re designed to “spin and flutter in the wind generated by approaching and departing trains.”

At the moment, they are covered in grime, and they don't spin, or move much at all. On a recent visit, the gusts from a departing M train lifted a couple of paddles upward, just slightly, hinting at the work's former dynamism. 

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The Herald Square line connects the F train to the N/R, and that platform also has a lovely piece of art: Christopher Janney’s "REACH" (1996). The piece, which the artist describes as one of his "urban musical instruments," consists of two green metal tubes, one each on the uptown and downtown platforms.

"As passersby reach up and wave their hands in front of one of the eight 'eyes' a beam of light will be interrupted," reads Janney's website. "This activates REACH, which emits a range of sounds—from melodic instruments (marimba, flute) to environmental 'sound images' (Everglades, rain forest). ...Since the beams of light are designed to shine across the tracks, riders can play REACH with other passengers."

On a recent vist, Lucas Cantor, a bearded 31-year-old composer for film and TV, dropped his belongings so that he could make the instrument sing.

"I love it, and I play it every time I’m down in the 34th Street station, which is not often” he told me.

But he couldn't play all of it. 

Each tube had at least one broken eye.

The Herald Square subway station is home to two other artworks: Michele Oka Doner's Radiant Site (1991), essentally a wall of gold-colored tiles that looks to be in fine shape, and Nicholas Pearson's Halo, a series of what the M.T.A. describes as "large, luminous orbs that seem to hover in space." They are made from coiled aluminum rods, and while they may once have been luminous, they're now mostly just grimy. 

Aaron Donovan, a spokesman for the M.T.A., said the maintenance of the works less a function of the authority's limited means and more a question of the artists having used materials in their works that have turned out to be difficult to keep clean.

"In general, our works of art are maintained by New York City Transit personnel as part of their routine maintenance and cleaning of the entire stations," he said. "But the art at Herald Square is very much an anomaly. It was put in place after a competition held in 1988 that taught us a great deal about how we select art. Now, and going back about 20 years, when we commission art for the subway, we make sure it is made of durable materials such as mosaics, terra-cotta, bronze, glass, and metals. These are materials that hold up very well and can be maintained by MTA personnel as part of their routine maintenance and cleaning efforts. That was not the case back in 1988 when these early works were commissioned, and the works of art there by Nicholas Pearson and David Provan have proven more challenging to maintain."