Life Underground

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Life Underground
Life Underground Alligator.jpg
Some of the "Life Underground" bronze sculpture elements, including the sewer alligator
ArtistTom Otterness
Dimensions30 cm (12 in)
Location14th Street – Eighth Avenue
New York City Subway station
(A, ​C, ​E​, and L trains), New York City

Life Underground (2001) is a permanent public artwork created by American sculptor Tom Otterness for the New York City Subway's 14th Street/Eighth Avenue station on the A, ​C, ​E​, and L trains. It was commissioned by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's Arts for Transit program for US$200,000 — one percent of the station's reconstruction budget.[1] This program has commissioned more than 170 permanent works of art for public transportation facilities the MTA owns and operates.[2] This work is one of the most popular artworks in the subway system.[3]

Description and history[edit]

The installation is a series of whimsical miniature bronze sculptures depicting cartoon like characters showing people and animals[4] in various situations, and additional abstract sculptures, which are dispersed throughout the station platforms and passageways. Otterness said the subject of the work is "the impossibility of understanding life in New York"[1] and describes the arrangement of the individual pieces as being “scattered in little surprises.”[5] Art critic Olympia Lambert wrote that "the lovable bronze characters installed there are joined together by a common theme of implied criminality mixed with an undercurrent of social anarchy," but labeled them as "too cute", saying that this "undercuts the work's more critical edge."[6] Many of the figures have moneybag heads, and Otterness credits 19th century political cartoonist Thomas Nast's depiction of Boss Tweed and the corruption of Tammany Hall that was ongoing at the time of the subway's initial construction as his inspiration for these.[7][8]

One of the larger pieces depicts a sewer alligator, as described by reporter Michael Rundle: "There is a bronze alligator on the Eighth Avenue and 14th Street subway platform, wearing a suit and tie. A 10-inch (250 mm)-high bronze man — also wearing a suit and tie — is struggling to escape his powerful jaws. Watching the scene, aside from throngs of L train riders, is another 10-inch (250 mm) figure. He stands beside his stricken friend, hands clasped behind his back, as if to say: 'I told you not to get so close'.”[9] Otterness' sculpture has been praised for its appeal to all ages.[10] The New York Times published a 2003 account describing the interaction of a 4-year old boy with the sewer alligator. After jumping on the alligator's head and trying to wrestle the little man from his bronze jaws, the observer notes that the boy, "about to give up, he kicked the alligator, his foot connecting solidly with the bronze head. Surprise spread across his face as he ran away, crying, 'Mom, it tried to bite me!'."[11]

Otterness became so obsessed with this project, that he delivered more than four times the amount of artwork he was originally commissioned to produce.[9] His wife finally made him end expansion of the collection by imploring him to stop "giving away our daughter's whole inheritance".[7] The complete series encompasses more than 100 individual pieces.[12] Some of the individual pieces were put on public display in 1996 on the southeast corner of Central Park at Grand Army Plaza,[13] and then in Battery Park City in Lower Manhattan in 1997,[14] to get public reaction prior to its installation originally scheduled for 1998. Approximately 25 of the pieces were finally installed at the end of 2000.[15][16] with the balance installed in the following years. The entire project took 10 years from commissioning to the final completion of the installation.[17]

Partial list of item descriptions[edit]

A portly figure of a well dressed man sitting on a platform level bench holding a moneybag as a train passes through the station. The bronze surface is polished by the hands of passersby.
  • an alligator coming out of a manhole cover, biting the behind of a person with a moneybag head[7]
  • a sleeping homeless person being watched over by a police officer[7]
  • a couple walking arm and arm[7]
  • workers sweeping up subway tokens[7]
  • a couple of fare beaters sneaking under a barrier and a cop ready to catch them on the other side[5]
  • a little man with a big money bag sitting quietly on a bench[2] perpetually waiting for a train[5]
  • workers carrying oversize versions of the tools used to build the subways[18]
  • people sweeping up piles of pennies[18]
  • colossal feet[18] cut off flat at the ankles[19]
  • a totem-like sculpture whose human features are formed into the shape of a telephone[18]
  • a flummoxed woman standing with arms up in the air, holding onto her head which she has just popped off her neck[18]
  • two figures holding a crosscut saw, going after an I-beam[19]
  • little people sitting atop bulging bags of money[8]


  1. ^ a b Fisher, Ian (May 11, 1996). "New York Writ Small;Sassy Sculpture Casts Whimsical Cityscape in Bronze". New York Times. Retrieved October 22, 2007. The display is part of a much larger work of nearly 130 pieces that will be displayed all over the 14th Street subway station when its $20 million reconstruction is complete. The whole work was commissioned by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's Arts for Transit Project for $200,000. Like other art projects in reconstructed stations, this one has a budget of 1 percent of the total cost of the reconstruction.
  2. ^ a b Dunlap, David W. (January 24, 2007). "Admiring art while waiting for the next train". International Herald Tribune. Retrieved October 22, 2007. ...the dozens of delightful bronze figures by Tom Otterness [are] an ensemble called "Life Underground." ... one of about 170 works of permanent public art commissioned since 1986 by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority for its subway and commuter rail stations, typically using 0.5 to 1 percent of a station's rehabilitation budget.
  3. ^ Chan, Sewell (June 30, 2005). "Access to Art With a MetroCard Swipe". New York Times. Retrieved October 22, 2007. ...Tom Otterness's Life Underground, a playful array of creatures, including an alligator emerging from a manhole cover. The work, installed in 2001 on the stairwells and platforms at 14th Street and Eighth Avenue, has become one of the most popular in the subway system.
  4. ^ Wolfe, Gerard R. (2003). New York, 15 walking tours: an architectural guide to the metropolis. New York: McGraw-Hill. p. 315. ISBN 0-07-141185-2. in the Eighth Avenue 14th Street subway station (A, C, E, L lines), a series of bronze sculptures of people and animals called Life Underground, representing the sculptor's perspective of the subway system as an underground world of its own.
  5. ^ a b c Fredman, Catherine (January 2005). "Underground Treasures: New York City's Subway Art" (PDF). 360 e-zine. Steelcase. Archived from the original (PDF) on December 31, 2006. Retrieved October 24, 2007. The range is stunning. There’s Life Underground by Tom Otterness, 140 humorous bronze sculptures “scattered in little surprises,” as Otterness says, throughout the 14th Street IND station. They include a couple of fare beaters sneaking under a barrier and a cop ready to catch them on the other side, someone sitting on a bench perpetually waiting for a train, and – in a nod to another enduring urban legend – a grinning alligator emerging from a sewer to snag an unwary rider.
  6. ^ Lambert, Olympia (October 23, 2007). "Tom Otterness at Marlborough Gallery". ArtCal Zine. Retrieved October 26, 2007. Countless smiley faces on whimsical cartoon creatures span across both the partners in crime and their law-and-order counterparts. And herein lies the main problem with Otterness: his works are too cute.
  7. ^ a b c d e f Rosenstock, Bonnie (October 17, 2007). "Artist figures it's all about engaging the public". The Villager. Retrieved October 22, 2007. His most popular Big Apple work is viewed by thousands of harried New Yorkers every day. “Life Underground,” installed in 2002, is a series of roughly 180 1-foot-high figures scattered throughout the serpentine subway station at 14th St. and Eighth Ave. It’s a veritable treasure trove of whimsy (an alligator coming out of a manhole cover, biting the behind of a person with a moneybag head); social commentary (a sleeping homeless person being watched over by a police officer); and everyday life (a couple walking arm and arm, workers sweeping up subway tokens).
  8. ^ a b Cueto, Cathleen, II (June 7, 2005). "The Art Underground". Tracts. Not For Tourists. Retrieved October 27, 2007. Entitled Life Underground, the roly-poly creatures were inspired by Thomas Nast’s political cartoons and portray a wide range of quirky characters from the patrolling policemen to the sleeping homeless to the more prosperous little people sitting atop their bulging bags of moneyCS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  9. ^ a b Rundle, Michael (October 22, 2007). "For public artist, 'life is good' : Tom Otterness can be seen at new gallery show, or in the subway system". Metro New York. Archived from the original on October 25, 2007. Retrieved October 22, 2007. His commitment to the subway piece, (Life Underground, 2004) — for which he delivered five times as much work as he was commissioned to do — bordered on obsession.
  10. ^ Murg, Stephanie. "Marlborough Gallery makes room for Otterness-size shows". Chelsea Now. Community Media. Archived from the original on August 21, 2008. Retrieved October 27, 2007. Otterness’s success in devising a universally appealing visual language is apparent from how viewers of all ages relate to his work. Subway riders pausing on the 14th St. platform are made to feel like temporary citizens in the underground world of the bronze creatures and are somehow comforted that it will continue to bubble with productivity once the train doors close.
  11. ^ Passoni, Tara (May 12, 2003). Rogers, Joe (ed.). "Metropolitan Diary". The New York Times. Retrieved October 27, 2007.
  12. ^ Johnston, Lauren (October 4, 2007). "Otterness: Private studio of the very public artist". AM New York. Retrieved October 22, 2007. Otterness is one of the city's most prolific creators of public art and more than 100 of his small bronze sculptures depicting city life with a certain satiric flair have taken up permanent residence at this Manhattan subway hub.
  13. ^ Cotter, Holland (August 9, 1996). "Sculpture That Basks in Summer". New York Times. Retrieved October 22, 2007. It is in Manhattan, though, that Mr. Otterness is seen at his expansive best, in a sprawling, multi-part work titled Life Underground at Doris C. Freedman Plaza, on the southeast corner of Central Park at Fifth Avenue. The piece, commissioned by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority for the 14th Street station of the IND subway line (where it will be installed in 1998), vaguely suggests a construction site as well as a subway station.
  14. ^ "Tom Otterness (American), 1952: Featured artist works, exhibitions and biography from Vered Gallery". Retrieved October 26, 2007.
  15. ^ Fox, Margalit; Robinson, George (August 31, 2003). "F.Y.I." The New York Times. Retrieved October 26, 2007. Just before Christmas 2000, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority installed 25 of the small sculptures, by the artist Tom Otterness. Eventually 30 more of these delightful little creatures – everything from workers about a foot in height to an alligator emerging from a sewer to chomp a tiny pedestrian – were added to complete the pageant, which is scattered all over the station.
  16. ^ Vogel, Carol (March 2, 2001). "Inside Art". The New York Times. Retrieved October 26, 2007. Before Christmas, about 25 of Tom Otterness's lovable bronze creatures were installed in the 14th Street subway station of the A, C, E and L lines, at Eighth Avenue, in a work called 'Art Underground.
  17. ^ "The AI Interview: Tom Otterness" (PDF). ARTINFO. September 27, 2006. Archived from the original (pdf) on July 24, 2011. Retrieved October 24, 2007. It took 10 years from the first commission to the end. And I kept putting more and more work in until my wife finally said, 'That’s it! You’re giving away our daughter’s whole inheritance!'
  18. ^ a b c d e "NYCT Permanent Art : 14th Street/Eight Avenue, Tom Otterness, Life Underground, 2001". MTA – Arts for Transit. His small-scale sculptures invoke the subway and lore of the city and include an alligator rising out of a sewer to devour a man, workers carrying oversize versions of the tools used to build the subways, and people sneaking under fences to watch the construction or sweep up piles of pennies. There are also colossal feet and a totem-like sculpture whose human features are formed into the shape of a telphone [sic].
  19. ^ a b Carducci, Vince (April 2005). "Tom Otterness: Public Art and the Civic Ideal in the Postmodern Age". Retrieved October 26, 2007. There’s a fare jumper crawling under a metal gate and a homeless woman being rousted by the police ... a floor sculpture of two large feet cut off flat at the ankles, ... two figures holding a crosscut saw, going after an I-beam that holds up a stairway.

External links[edit]

External video
"Life Underground" by Tom Otterness, Metropolitan Transportation Authority; January 13, 2010; 2:34 YouTube video clip
Tom Otterness: Subway Installations, 2:45 The New York Times video clip