Self-Taught Genius spotlight: Subway Riders

By | May 23, 2016
Ralph Fasanella (1914–1997); Subway Riders, New York City, 1950; oil on canvas 28 x 60 inches; Collection American Folk Art Museum, New York, Gift of Ralph and Eva Fasanella, 1995.8.1; photo by Adam Reich

Ralph Fasanella (1914–1997); Subway Riders, New York City, 1950; oil on canvas 28 x 60 inches; Collection American Folk Art Museum, New York, Gift of Ralph and Eva Fasanella, 1995.8.1; photo by Adam Reich

Ralph Fasanella has spoken eloquently about Subway Riders, painted from sketches he had made from life: “I’d ride the subway every day, back and forth to my machine shop job. I’d ride and ride and sketch and sketch. I love the subway. It pulls the city together, pulls people together in a magic way. Here I show the subway riders at night after a hard day’s work. Everyone is separate, alone, but very much together. It’s noisy with the creaks and squeals, but peaceful, too, because we move to a rhythm and cadence that gets inside us; that’s comforting, like the noise of the city itself. The subway makes the city work, makes the city great.” Subway Riders is on loan from its permanent display in the Fifth Avenue/Fifty-Third Street subway station in New York; its installation in that highly visible location sustains the artist’s ambition to reach out to the masses and show his paintings in public areas. “I didn’t paint my paintings to hang in some rich guy’s living room. They are about people and they should be seen by people—not hidden away.” Highly politicized, Fasanella was concerned about social justice and the inequities seen in the first half of the twentieth century, at one time having a career as a union organizer. His paintings, insightful and articulate, communicate the struggles of working-class life and his passion for the lives of people, depicting outdoor scenes without omitting details related to the intimacy of a personal world. His son, Marc, remarks that he “had an incredibly active mind, incessantly absorbing new information and forming a theoretical and visual collage of ideas from the events of his daily life.”