The New York City subway system is messy, crowded, unreliable, full of musicians, and generally teeming with folks who will bowl you over if you’re not careful. It’s also full of art. Graffiti and advertisements, yes, but that’s not the kind of art we’re talking about. The stations themselves were built with art. The tiles may be crumbling, but the artisanship of the terracotta mosaics, the friezes, and the embellishments of the subway entryways, nameplates, and other details are art from another time. Philip Asforth Coppola is the champion of this art, and he’s made art out of that art since 1978, and we love it!
Coppola’s drawings are what Hyperallergic calls “the most encyclopedic history of the art and architecture of the New York City subway system.” Along with Coppola’s intricate ink drawings are anecdotes he assembled through painstaking research involving hundreds of hours poring through microfilms to discover the names behind the artisanship of what is rightly called New York’s largest collection of public artwork—that found in its legendary subway system.
“I realized, to my horror, that we’re losing part of our subway to renovations,” Coppola is quoted saying. “I thought, I’d better get a record made now, before it all disappears.”
Coppola self-published six volumes – two thousand pages – called “Silver Connections.” It includes sketches and notes from one hundred and ten stations. He began drawing and researching subway stations in 1978, and has gained wide notoriety for his work and for “Silver Connections.” One Track Mind was recently the subject of an exhibition at the New York City Transit Museum. Coppola’s work is also part of the permanent collections at The Museum of Modern Art, the National Arts Club, the S.I.B. branch of the NY Public Library, and many other spots.
Coppola has no plans to stop until he’s completed all 472 stations. There’s still much to be done, and pacing is a concern. “But,” he’s quoted, “the joy is to go there and see things and be able to talk about it. People haven’t looked at the stations like I have.”
A selection of that work is what comprises “One-Track Mind.” The book was a collaboration with Ezra Bookstein and Jeremy Workman. Ezra Bookstein is a filmmaker, producer, and sculptor living in Brooklyn, and author of The Smith Tapes: Lost Interviews with Rock Stars & Icons, 1969–1972. Jeremy Workman, a New York-based filmmaker, directed “One Track Mind,” a documentary about Coppola’s work – watch the trailer for that award-winning short film here. The film has been featured in multiple news outlets, including NHK World (Tokyo), WNBC, NY1, and on the BBC in conjunction with the 100th anniversary of the New York City subway system. Their collaboration and Coppola’s work together have worked to preserve a crumbling part of our city, and to highlight the art that New York possesses even in the most everyday sites of transit. Next time you’re in the subway, check out the art! And if you’ve got One Track Mind with you, learn about the pigments, flourishes, details, and more!