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The Roy Lichtenstein Mural in Times Square Subway Station

When visiting a city, where do you go to look for art? How does an artist’s view of their home shift the narrative the place tells about itself? How many of the 500,000 commuters that pass through the Times Square Subway Station every day miss the opportunity to see a world-renowned artist’s original mural simply because they don’t know to look for it?

When you’re at Times Square-42nd Street transferring from the yellow line (N/Q/R/W) to the red line (1/2/3) look up; the 53-foot enamel-on-metal mural above your head was unveiled in September 2002, and is significant piece of public art in New York City History. See if you can pause in the fast-moving crowd of commuters to make some sense of the mural’s fragments.

The work was commissioned by the MTA Arts for Transit program for this exact location more than 20 years ago. The mural offers a vivid, futuristic portrait of the city blending historical references, science fiction, and a nod to the original subway aesthetic and architecture (the “42” in the center of the mural is a nod to Heins and LaFarge, the original subway architects who designed the signs at each station).

In contrast to its vibrant pop-art style, modern comic-like figures and futuristic spaceship-style trains, the artwork is a nostalgic look at transit themes/subway architecture in New York City from the century before. The piece is Roy Lichtenstein’s homage to his home city, and he completed it just 2 years before his death in 1997.

In the mural, Lichtenstein references innovations from 1939 and 1964 Worlds Fairs, both of which were hosted in New York City. Other images include a round mirror (symbolizing historical reflection and nostalgia, critics argue), a cartoon Buck Rodgers, the original City Hall Subway Station, and other pieces of Lichtenstein’s own work from decades before. This image of New York is specific, vivid, and overlooked by hundreds of thousands of people each day.

What story does this mural tell about New York City? How would your experience of it change if you encountered it in a museum, or if you were a Lichtenstein enthusiast traveling from far away to see this, vs. a clueless commuter? If more artists gifted large-scale public art to their home cities, would their contributions impact the stories told about–and by–the city?