15 artists create posters for tube 150th

15 leading artists have created posters to celebrate London Underground’s 150th anniversary. The 15 for 150 posters will appear on the network from June. But while there are some big names involved, do they really work as posters?

Lawrence Weiner, UNDER GROUND, 2013. Commissioned by Art on the Underground for 15 for 150

15 leading artists have created posters to celebrate London Underground’s 150th anniversary. The 15 for 150 posters will appear on the network from June. But while there are some big names involved, do they really work as posters?


Goshka Macuga, I came by Tube, 2013

It’s all somewhat reminiscent of the 2012 Olympic artist poster project. As with that initiative, fine artists have been commissioned to produce images for posters around a theme – the 150th anniversary of the tube. The commissions are under the auspices of Art on the Underground, the organisation whose mission is to provide “a world-class programme of contemporary art that enriches the Tube environment and customers’ journey experience”.


Robert Orchardson, Fountainhead, 2013

The Olympics posters provoked howls of protest from the design community at its exclusion from the list of those invited to take part, but that was to misunderstand the project’s context and purpose. Similarly with the 15 for 150 initiative, these are not posters in the sense that the design or advertising community understands them. The images released for the press are just that – images without even the ‘lock-up’ of associated branding which will presumably appear on the final works.

And here’s where things get difficult. The accompanying press material states that “these new commissions follow in a long tradition of artists’ involvement in the Tube” and cites the likes of Man Ray and Edward McKnight Kauffer “all of whom have designed specially commissioned posters for the network”. But while it is absolutely true that the tube has a fine history of commissioning great posters, we are really comparing apples with pears here. When McKnight Kauffer was producing posters for Frank Pick, he was doing so very much as a designer rather than an artist. He was responding to specific briefs with work that tackled communications issues – encouraging Londoners to use the network to go sales shopping, for example. In other words, he was producing posters in the sense that designers and art directors understand them.


Haegue Yang, Convex Flesh and Concave Stone in Tune, 2013

15 for 150 is very different. The functions of ‘art’ and ‘design’ are now dealt with separately by London Underground. There are no longer vast numbers of poster sites ready to be filled with self-promotional posters on the network as there were in the 30s – ad sites are now dealt with by an external contractor with LU left with a relatively small number of positions to put out a limited range of its own messages about safety and so on while Art on the Underground does the ‘arty’ stuff. It’s a completely different world from the one in which McKnight Kauffer operated so successfully.

The 15 for 150 press material reveals that “each artist will create a special numbered and signed edition of prints, which will go on sale in June. As well as marking this important anniversary in the history of the London Underground, revenues from the sales of the prints will help support Art on the Underground’s programme in the future”. So not only is this a promotional exercise, it is also a revenue-generating one. Which is another of the reasons that graphic designers have not been asked to take part, there being a far greater potential market for a Sarah Lucas limited edition print than for one by a contemporary graphic designer.


Sarah Lucas, NUD, 2013


Perhaps they are better understood as ‘prints’ than as posters? Certainly, as the latter, there are few that have the necessary impact or clarity. Looking through the eight that have been released from the series so far, none have any of the verve of Kauffer’s best. Even the usually-reliable Lawrence Weiner has produced a peculiarly insipid effort, while Sarah Lucas and Wolfgang Tillmans appear to have merely sent in images from pre-existing projects, which is mystifying.


Wolfgang Tillmans, Freischwimmer TfL 150, 2013


The best posters are usually produced in response to tight briefs. Vague briefs produce, as here, vague responses. This can be true of graphic design every bit as much as it is of art – when designers are invited to produce works without a tight brief and without curatorial control, the results are always decidedly mixed.

But given a brief to produce specifically a poster to celebrate the tube’s 150th, we might hope that the design community could have produced responses that would have more about them than this collection. So this is the issue: those who are best-equipped to create responses in the medium of the poster are not invited to contribute to projects of this nature, while those that are invited appear either disinterested or ill-equipped to do so. There is much to admire about the contemporary art scene in the UK, but, as this project and the Olympics posters series illustrate, when it comes to posters, their ideas are often lost in translation.


Martha Rosler, Go Underground, 2013


Corin Sworn, Waiting for a Train, 2013


The full list of participating artists is as follows: Pablo Bronstein, Melissa Gordon, Runa Islam, Idris Khan, Sarah Lucas, Goshka Macuga, Robert Orchardson, Martha Rosler, Nedko Solakov, Frances Stark, Corin Sworn, Wolfgang Tillmans, Gillian Wearing, Lawrence Weiner and Haegue Yang.

The posters will go up in June on prominent sites at four central Londonstations: Gloucester Road, Southwark, St. James’s Park and London Bridge.


Out now, the May 2013 issue of Creative Review is our biggest ever. Features over 100 pages of the year’s best work in the Creative Review Annual 2013 (in association with iStockphoto), plus profiles on Morag Myerscough, Part of a Bigger Plan and Human After All as well as analysis, comment, reviews and opinion

You can buy Creative Review direct from us here. Better yet, subscribe, save money and have CR delivered direct to your door every month. If you subscribe before May 3, you will get the Annual issue thrown in for free. The offer also applies to anyone renewing their subscription. Details here

CR for the iPad

Read in-depth features and analysis plus exclusive iPad-only content in the Creative Review iPad App. Longer, more in-depth features than we run on the blog, portfolios of great, full-screen images and hi-res video. If the blog is about news, comment and debate, the iPad is about inspiration, viewing and reading. As well as providing exclusive, iPad-only content, the app will also update with new content throughout each month

  • Sam A

    Wow, famous-artist designed tube posters never fail to disappoint.

  • Love them all! Just a general query, but why have them only at 4 stations? We could use one at Elephant and Castle! Crazy idea but how about encouraging local commissions to produce work in a designated local station, with sponsorship from local companies/charities.

  • What is the Sarah Lucas poster supposed to be?

    I think @Jason’s idea is valid – ‘how about encouraging local commissions to produce work in a designated local station, with sponsorship from local companies/charities.’

  • @bluepigcreative it’s supposed to be ‘art’ … fortunately for artists when challenged on their work they always have that to pull out the bag. Apples and Pears is a great analogy – the design community only really objects when we’re sold apples labelled as pears. The word poster has come to infer communication (yet it’s dictionary definition is ‘A large printed picture used for decoration’) but these would be better labelled ‘art prints’.

  • @Luke … it’s supposed to be ‘art’ …

    but what is it and what does it communicate? Is it a sculpture (if so made of what) or is it a digitally manipulated image, or a photograph (of what)… and is it a suitable poster fit for its purpose?

  • Giles

    Really, is that it? Not hugely inspiring visually are they?

  • @Jason Great idea! Why not start it up yourself if local companies are slow at coming forward. The London design community would certainly come together for such a valid initiative. In fact it could be pitched to every studio UK wide!

  • Abdul-Aziz

    While design / art directors will naturally scoff at these ethereal beastly works of “fine art” – the true test is how the general public respond to them, especially given your highlighted quote of these works being intended to enrich a passenger’s ‘journey experience.’

    Taking off my designer hat, they’re all very drab and emotionally quite cold, it’s hard to make any immediate connection with any of the pieces. And consider the fact that London Underground is littered with advertisements, many of which employ fantastic illustrations, photographs and typography which will naturally be vying for the attention of the public over this collection – and make immediate impact on commuters, even if for a few seconds or minutes while in transit.

    Such a shame that big names remain so disconnected and elitist in their aesthetic tone – a very unmemorable body of work for such a historic occasion. “Missed opportunity” fails to even characterise the whimper with which this anniversary will be heralded in the legacy of art on the underground.

  • Gavin Day

    I’m surprised nobody has gone for an extremely detailed execution.

    Tube posters never seem to exploit the fact the audience is bored on the platform.

    Why not fill it with insane levels of detail, dragging the viewer in? Might even convince a few people to skip a train to take in the whole thing.

    (Having said that – as an image, Weiner wins this round for me)

  • Chris Marshall

    Don’t get me fucking started…

  • K-S-T

    Can you see these in the London Transport Museum in 50 years alongside some of the beauty that already exists inside there. I think not…. Great underground artists will be turning in the grave the fact they earn little than a few tuppence in comparison to what these artists will be getting paid for these in the 21st Century… Just an opinion.

  • Michael

    The creators of these posters have no understanding of the medium of a poster…they lack communicative and aesthetic power. Why is this project not being briefed to graphic design undergraduates?

  • Shouldn’t these have at least some relevance to the underground?

  • jeffrey

    These are not pieces of graphic design, and should not be valued as such, but, I am disappointed by most:
    Lawrence Weiner: he certainly produced much more poetic and interesting work, but this seems like a doodle… Goshka Macuga–this should be funny, right?…

    Then again there are some nice one I think: I like the works by Robert Orchardson and Haegue Yang because the have a stillness and poetic sensibility that I can imagine to be quite beautiful in contrast to the underground station. I am also quite intrigued by the piece of Sarah Lucas, certainly draws one in and makes one to ask questions (as seen in the comments section)

    I guess it is always a risk to commission artists, but it can certainly be surpising in some cases.

  • Fraser

    Abdul-Aziz is spot on.

    A brief glance is all these prints will get, or indeed any of the posters on the underground.

    An opportunity to do something more than just a print would have been great here.

    How about some interactive work? Lights or projections – something to grab some attention!

    Just a though