Exhibition Celebrates the Subways in Music Iconography


Album cover art is one of the most iconic visual representations of twentieth century pop culture, and musicians time and again have chosen the subway to craft their image. Album Tracks: Subway Record Covers, an exhibition at the New York Transit Museum showcasing album artwork featuring the New York City subway and elevated system.

From the 1950s to the 1980s, 12” LPs showcased contemporary artists and designers and captivated the music-buying public. While records were originally sold in plain paper wrappers, they came to be valued not only for the music they played, but as physical objects in themselves. In 1938, Columbia Records hired Alex Steinweiss as its first art director, and his exciting cover art caused sales to skyrocket and led other companies to emulate the eye-catching packaging. In 1948, the 12” record became standard, and for the next four decades, on these square canvasses, artists created the most interesting visual merchandising the world has ever seen.

Frequently, bands chose the subway as the setting for this cover art, some hoping to convey a “street” persona and others asserting their New York roots. Rather than simply a way to get around, the subways served as a symbol for the city itself. Many influential artists through the years have ventured into the tunnels to create a certain “look.” For the cover of their debut album, Wednesday Morning, 3AM, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel posed at the 5th Avenue-53rd Street station platform as two tired musicians waiting for the late night train. For the cover of the 1981 album Straphangin, the high-powered Brecker Brothers funk duo appear as a blur in the Old City Hall IRT station, the grand “jewel in the crown” terminus of the city’s first subway line. After spending several years recording in Los Angeles, Billy Joel marked his return to New York with Turnstiles, posing on the album cover with a motley crew of subway riders at the Astor Place station. The recurrence of the subway system in album art illustrates its vital role in New York City life and lore. This exhibition will feature dozens of album covers, from Broadway musicals to early hip hop, which feature our transit system.

The exhibition is open through January 12, 2014, Tuesdays through Fridays from 10 am to 4 pm and Saturdays and Sundays from 11 am to 5 pm. Admission to the Museum is $7 for adults and $5 for children and seniors. Located at the corner of Boerum Place and Schermerhorn Street in Downtown Brooklyn, the Transit Museum is housed in a decommissioned 1936 subway station and strives to share the rich cultural, social, and technological history of public transportation with local, regional, and international audiences.