If you’ve lived in New York long enough, you know many of its brightest gems require a little searching—but are also both public and free.
Tucked under subway grates, squirreled up on rooftops, or hidden in plain sight, the city’s numerous public art projects offer even the most jaded city slickers a chance to experience the wide-eyed tourist treatment.
First stop: a defunct handball court on 127th Street and Second Avenue where, in 1986, Keith Haring tagged the hazard-orange mural Crack is Wack. With its drug demon and piles of dead cartoon bodies, it’s a deeply personal response to the addiction that consumed his studio assistant and a protest against the government’s ineffectual response to the crack epidemic.
Next, stroll along the East River down Bobby Wagner Walk; at 116th Street, check out Kenny Scharf’s recently-installed TotemOh: a tripped-out column of comic-book faces in DayGlo colors that harken back to the scrappy street ethos of the 1980s.
Hop on a CitiBike and ride to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Tucked into a side chapel, you’ll find Haring’s last work, The Life of Christ, a gold altarpiece featuring the artist’s signature Radiant Baby, cradled lovingly by the Virgin Mother. Transubstantiating the suffering of AIDS victims into the passion of the Christ, the piece was completed weeks before Haring himself succumbed to the disease.
Before you head out, see sculptor Tom Otterness’ Life and Death. Nestled in the nave’s column niches are mini humanoids carrying Jesus fish and mini skeletons clutching bags of cash—a sly biblical indictment of capitalism.
For more tiny masterpieces, head to the Met Breuer on 73rd Street and Madison Avenue. On the landing between the second and third floors, huddled in a small nook above a window, is one of Charles Simonds’ Dwellings: miniature clay encampments for an imagined tribe the artist calls “Little People,” whose adobe complexes, first hand-crafted in the 1960s, fantasized a different world.
Among midtown’s office towers are also some of the city’s most imaginative corporate art pieces. Enter the lobby of 666 Fifth Avenue and experience the womblike atmosphere of Isamu Noguchi’s Ceiling and Waterfall. A rippling steel screen flows the length of the arcade and overhead a wavy ceiling evokes rolling clouds.
Visit 505 Fifth Avenue to immerse yourself in light-and-space master James Turrell’s mesmerizing neon environment, Plain Dress. The neon seeps from green to blue to purple, intensifying as you move away from the daylight and towards the elevator banks. (Turrell also has a second secret installation, Three Saros, in a different corporate midtown lobby.)
Trade celestial fluorescence for commercial neon and cut over to Max Neuhaus’ Times Square, a 1977 sound installation hidden in the subway grate at the north end of the pedestrian island on Broadway and 46th Street. Intentionally unmarked, the artist wanted his work to be lost in the urban pulse until it surfaced in a private epiphany.
Head to Penn Station to visit Maya Lin’s Eclipsed Time. Above the Long Island Railroad concourse, the installation consists of an aluminum disk that glides slowly across the frosted glass like a futuristic sundial, framing the quotidian with grace. It looks nothing like a clock and everything like a portal to another dimension.
Home to the city’s biggest unofficial art gallery, The High Line’s past commissions have included Kerry James Marshall, Spencer Finch, and Barbara Kruger. This spring also brings the close of textile artist Sheila Hicks’ enormous Hop, Skip, Jump, and Fly, a ballet of rainbow-colored, fiber-covered tubes inspired by the choreography of the cranes building nearby Hudson Yards, and chess: relatives, Darren Bader’s human chessboard-cum-social experiment.
Hop off outside the Chelsea art galleries on 22nd Street and Tenth Avenue, for Fluxus shaman Joseph Beuys’ 7,000 Oaks: 23 ginko, linden, and oak trees paired with stone columns stand sentry against threats to the environment—part of a worldwide urban reforestation project Beuys (also co-founder of Germany’s Green Party) launched in 1982.
Continuing southeast, make a pit stop at the LGBTQ Community Center at 208 West 13th Street, where Keith Haring painted the very NSFW mural Once Upon a Time in a second-floor bathroom.
Then, head to Earthworks evangelist Alan Sonfist’s magical, meditative Time Landscape. A 25’ by 40’ plot of land at the northeast corner of La Guardia Place and West Houston Street, it contains three stages of a pre-colonial forest: with the milkweed, sweetgum, and beech trees that once blanketed what’s now Greenwich Village.
Continue south to SoHo to see fellow Land Artist Walter de Maria’s New York Earth Room, a permanent Dia installation that fills the entire second floor of a loft at 141 Wooster Street. Its simple title doesn’t begin to describe the life-changing minimalism of its concept; the way the dense, peaty quiet envelops you, or how the shifting light on the empty walls lets you unburden your mind and fills you with joy.
Walk to 393 West Broadway for de Maria’s sister installation, Broken Kilometer, a thousand meters’ worth of meticulously spaced gold rods, the Earth Room’s opposite in every way but its hush.
Loop onto Spring Street for a tour of Minimalist icon Donald Judd’s house and studio, in an 1870 cast-iron building (book in advance). In this quasi-religious bento box—sparely fit with his exacting furniture and the art of friends like John Chamberlain and Frank Stella—he first developed the concept of “permanent installation” that reached its apogee in Marfa. Look out for Judd’s reading nook on the second floor, filled with works of philosophy and art, and an ecstatic red and blue Dan Flavin in the bedroom.
In the heart of Tribeca at 275 Church Street, you’ll find the ethereal Dream House by light artist Marian Zazeela and father of Minimalist music La Monte Young; a sort of disco-ashram on the third floor of a rickety walk-up. Young and Zazeela, who now live downstairs but used to live inside the installation, emptied the building, covered the windows in pink cellophane, and built a temple to Young’s pioneering drone music. A continuous but low-key electronic sound environment, it’s meant to be experienced over hours, days, or years, patterning listeners’ reality.
The MTA regularly invests in blockbuster contemporary art, some of the most viewed (but least seen) works in the city. The latest effort is Percent for the Art’s $4.5 million program for the brand-new Second Avenue subway line. Begin at the 86th street stop, marvel at the fine detail in Chuck Close’s Subway Portraits, intricate mosaics of New York icons like Lou Reed, Kara Walker—and, of course, Close himself, rendered with minute individual tiles.
Take the Q train to the next stop, 72nd Street, to check out Vik Muniz’s Perfect Strangers, dozens of life-sized portraits (mosaics again) of real commuters doing slightly unreal things. (Spot an aviator-clad cop wielding a popsicle or a Times Square Tony the Tiger toting a grocery bag.)
Get back on the Q, to Columbus Circle, for Sol Lewitt’s posthumous mural Whirls and Twirls, a vibrant matrix of looping, brightly colored subway tiles. Also check out his two grey and white compass-rose floors, one by the 58th Street entrance and the other at the bottom of the escalator to the Time Warner Center.
Switch to the 1 train and ride to 42nd Street, where Roy Lichtenstein installed a 53-foot-long retro-futuristic tribute to the subway's dynamism, Times Square Mural, in his signature comic book style.
Then hop the N, Q, or R to 34th Street-Herald Square, for Christopher Janney’s incredible audio installation, Reach. Two surplus-green structures unobtrusively suspended over the uptown and downtown platforms, they emit a range of sounds (marimba, raindrops, the croak of the American toad) when you wave your hands so you can create an urban symphony with fellow commuters.
Next, take the A, C, or E to the 14th Street stop and walk through Tom Otterness’ Life Underground, in which playful, sphere-headed bronze homunculi clutch bags of money or sleep on the platform, only to be awakened by mini policemen.
Next, hop the L to the 6 and stop at Bleecker Street for Leo Villarreal’s arcade-like Hive, a ceiling-mounted neon honeycomb that shifts from electric blue to acid yellow to magenta according to a complex algorithm by mathematician John Horton.
Finally, catch the B to the Dekalb Avenue station and switch to the northbound Q—but don't get off. Pass through the abandoned Myrtle Avenue station and look out the window for the lo-fi magic of Bill Brand’s kinetic Masstransiscope: As the train speeds through the tunnel, it turns a series of 228 abstract designs into a fanciful 20-second animation, like a life-sized flip-book.