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.

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