From 1 January 2021 at Penn Station's new Moynihan Train Hall, three ambitious site-specific permanent installations by artists Stan Douglas, artist duo Elmgreen & Dragset, and Kehinde Wiley go on permanent view. Public Art Fund was invited by Empire State Development to develop and direct a program of ambitious art installations for three prominent sites within the Train Hall. In keeping with the redesigned building’s architectural integration of old and new, the art program commissioned three of the world’s leading artists to create large-scale, site-specific artworks that reflect broadly on notions of past, present, and future.
Stan Douglas has mined the history of the original Penn Station, giving heroic pictorial life to narratives from different moments in time using today’s most advanced digital technologies.
From 1910 to 1963 the original Pennsylvania Station stood one block east of Moynihan Train Hall, on the footprint of today’s Madison Square Garden. The demolition of the grand, Beaux Arts building, designed by eminent American architects McKim, Mead & White, is now considered an incomparable loss to the history of Gilded Age architecture and to the urban landscape of New York. In the Ticketed Waiting Room at Moynihan Train Hall, artist Stan Douglas’s nine photographic panels, arranged in three pairs and one triptych, reconstruct significant but little-known moments spanning the Station’s half-century lifespan, standing as vivid evocations of the city’s forgotten history. In order to recreate both the demolished building and these moments, Douglas undertook extensive archival research. Extrapolating from photographs, newspaper articles, and architectural plans, he restaged historical events by posing and photographing live performers in period costume. Douglas stitched together dozens of exposures to create each tableau, which he then set within exactingly rendered CGI (computer-generated imagery) backgrounds that faithfully reproduce the soaring ceilings and stately concourses of the original Station. Douglas selected events that chronicle the breadth of collective experience for which Penn Station served as a stage. With a cinematic quality, each scene revives history in uncanny detail, revealing this architectural landmark as a grand theater for the millions of human dramas that animate civic spaces and endow them with meaning.
Since the late 1980s, Stan Douglas has used photography, film, and theater to reconsider history and the means of its documentation, which define its shape in our collective memory. Born of exhaustive historical research, Douglas’s artworks bring new focus to overlooked events specific to a particular location. He frequently hones in on intimate, localized moments of spectacle and poignancy that speak to broader societal shifts. In restaging these events, Douglas consciously references the technologies he employs to bring them to life. In Penn Station’s Half Century, depictions of vaudeville performers, Hollywood set designs, and photo mural ad campaigns echo Douglas’s own artistic process, suggesting that photographic documentation has the potential to be a medium of fantasy as much as one of verisimilitude.
Speaking to The New York Times, Douglas said, ‘This is complete fantasy – we don’t know what it looked like. We found out who was doing shows on the Eastern Seaboard and incorporated them. We found acrobatic troupes of the era and reference images for costuming and their acts.’
Conceived specifically for the series of four architectural niches that anchor the rear wall of the Ticketed Waiting Room, the nine individual scenes are connected by multiple narrative threads and introduce subtle details that reveal themselves upon close examination. Penn Station’s Half Century is the artist’s first permanent public commission in the United States.