Coney Island: The Cyclone! The Hot Dogs! The Art!

Coney Island: The Cyclone! The Hot Dogs! The Art!

“An amazing array of painters, writers, filmmakers and photographers saw Coney Island as a place to capture the American experience,” said Robin Jaffee Frank, the curator of the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, which presented the show last winter before it arrived in Brooklyn, where it will run through March 13. “Like nowhere else, Coney occupies a singular niche in our imagination.”

To map the boundaries of that niche, Ms. Frank selected 140 objects — modern paintings, vintage photos, sideshow posters, an original wooden carousel horse — that testify to the interest in Coney Island’s blend of grotesquerie and glamour. The list of artists she included — Joseph Stella, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Red Grooms, Milton Avery, Diane Arbus — is a further testament to the island’s inexhaustible raw material.

Photo
Harold Feinstein’s “Coney Island Teenagers” (1949). CreditHarold Feinstein/Panopticon Gallery, Boston

What connects these creators is a shared enchantment with Coney’s densely layered personality. The park has always been a schizophrenic place that appears on its surface to concern itself with pleasure — with Ferris wheels, fortune tellers, swim suits, hot dogs and Venetian gondoliers. But woven through these amusements are strands of social history. Like Times Square or Bourbon Street, the island has a secret serious side: Beneath the bacchanal, it tells a sober tale.

That tale starts with the advent of industrialization in the wake of the Civil War. Despite the glaring hazards of the factory, many people saw their wages increase and their work hours decrease as the 19th century came to an end.

Photo
Reginald Marsh’s “Human Pool Tables” (1938).Credit2015 Estate of Reginald Marsh/Art Students League, New York, via Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Online Support

You did not use the site, Click here to remain logged. Timeout: 60 second