Inside the busiest train station in America, taking a moment to slow down can feel unnatural. But new artwork inside Penn Station combats that feeling by bringing the natural world inside.
As part of the Art at Amtrak program, Brooklyn-based artist Derrick Adams created oversized installations throughout the train station featuring leafy trees, lush landscapes and mosaic-style images of the New Yorkers. Taking over pillars, walls and ceiling panels, it’s impossible not to look and feel a sense of awe.
With roots in Baltimore, Adams often travels between the two cities using Amtrak, so he’s deeply familiar with experiencing Penn Station as a commuter. Noticing the train station’s gray and blue palette, he wanted to bring some earthy tones into the space with brown and green hues.
He knows the artwork has just a second to make an impression as commuters rush to their next destination, so he wanted to make an impression quickly, trying to simplify complex ideas into attention-grabbing art.
“It’s the outside of the city reflected indoors,” Adams tells Time Out. “I’m thinking about that in a whimsical way that is really more about my interpretation of how I see the city.”
While he says it’s not a photorealistic depiction of the city, he wanted the piece to evoke the complementary energies of motivation and seclusion. An ardent fan of parks as non-transactional spaces—places where you don’t have to buy anything to just ‘be’—Adams’ work evokes the city’s vast network of parks and green spaces. A few of his favorite parks include Bella Abzug Park, Washington Square Park, Fort Greene Park, Marcus Garvey Park and the tiny pocket parks around town.
“I created these images to remind travelers when on a gray day, indoors or outside, to always look for green to uplift you,” the artist says in an audio accompaniment to the installation.
Faces in the artwork feature a variety of colors, a nod to acknowledging the differences and complexities of New Yorkers, he said. Plus, he chose to position the faces all looking directly at one another, staring straight ahead and making eye contact.
Art at Amtrak curator Debra Simon hopes the artwork will tear commuters’ eyes away from their phone screens.
“I consider it a victory if somebody looks up from their phone,” she says.
So far, so good because the artwork just debuted today, and commuters were already seen gazing up at it and taking videos.
I consider it a victory if somebody looks up from their phone.
“Art is part of infrastructure, and it really is the jewelry of the room,” Simon says. “It brings life and animates the space.”
Adams’ artwork, titled “The City Is My Refuge,” is the latest in the Art at Amtrak series, which showcases contemporary art from around the region through temporary rotating exhibitions. Before this, the space was home to Dennis RedMoon Darkeem’s vibrant artwork depicting totems and other Indigenous symbols, along with sunny pieces by Ghost of a Dream (Lauren Was and Adam Eckstrom).
The program has turned Penn Station into one of the busiest galleries in NYC—and it’s completely free.
“The City Is My Refuge” will be on view until July. If you want to see more of Adams’ artwork, his solo exhibition “I Can Show You Better Than I Can Tell You” is now open at The FLAG Art Foundation.
Ex-Brit turned Manhattan resident since 2008.