Stan Douglas, Elmgreen & Dragset, Kehinde Wiley
One could argue that the demolition of the original light-flooded Moynihan Train Hall in 1963 led to the launch of the national architectural preservation movement. It’s fitting, then, that its reopening also heralds a new era, a symbol of hope after a punishing pandemic year. “New Yorkers who’ve been starved of culture for months on end have revelled in the opportunity to see this extraordinary project come to fruition,” says Nicholas Baume, Director and Chief Curator of the Public Art Fund. They are thrilled, he said, “to see that art and artists continue to create at the highest level, and that NYC will continue to prize the innovative genius that has always been fundamental to our DNA.” Riffing on the Beaux-Arts James A. Farley postal building, designed by McKim, Mead & White in 1912, and its sister Penn Station building are three new site-specific permanent installations. Elmgreen & Dragset, Stan Douglas, and Kehinde Wiley have been commissioned by Empire State Development in partnership with Public Art Fund, and are installed in the newly opened Moynihan Train Hall.
At the Train Hall’s 31st Street exit, Elmgreen & Dragset present The Hive (2020), a mirrored cityscape. It buds from the ceiling like silvered stalactites, the visages of the travelers who enter becoming one with the work. It presents the very image of a dynamic city, at once familiar and futuristic: one building is rounded at the top like a blimp; another twists at the center as if in motion; others have footprints like plus signs and fidget spinners.
Wiley’s contribution, at the 33rd Street exit, is Go (2020) [pictured], a vivid stained-glass skylight. With gypsum molding it alludes not only to the yawning, 92-foot-high skylights of the new building and the wrought iron metalwork of the original Farley Building, but also to art history, specifically ceiling frescoes by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. The subject matter, however, is distinctly contemporary: Black figures, some hand-in-hand in a Matisse-like dance, float through the clouds alongside visibly startled pigeons, and a whizzing plane.
Installed in the Amtrak waiting room, Douglas imagines the window as a portal into another time in Penn Station’s Half Century (2020). Nine moments in the history of the train station are represented through staged photographs, digitally stitched and methodically altered. Among the characters depicted is the infamous robber and vigilante Celia Cooney, arraigned in 1924, and labor organizer and racial justice fighter Angelo Herndon’s arrival a decade later. Close inspection delights anew—a saxophone-toting band plays on the stairs, and a pair of men in stripes watch an acrobatic act.
Taken collectively, Elmgreen & Dragset, Wiley, and Douglas’s commissions, “Allow us to see ourselves—past, present, and future—in a truly civic space," says Baume. While Moynihan Train Hall opened amid a pandemic, at a time when travel came to a halt, it features the work of New York-based and internationally-based artists—ultimately a fitting symbol to project New York’s post-pandemic future: Penn Station is the travel hub of an international metropolis, in the city that never sleeps. —Lisa Yin Zhang
Kehinde Wiley, Go, 2020. © Kehinde Wiley. An original work of art commissioned by Empire State Development in partnership with Public Art Fund for Moynihan Train Hall. Photographer: Nicholas Knight. Image courtesy of the Artist, Sean Kelly, New York, Empire State Development and Public Art Fund, NY.