Wonder and menace, dreams and nightmares: Visions of Coney Island

Robin Jaffee Frank

Robin Jaffee Frank Exhibitions

Fig. 1. Steeplechase Funny Face, n.d. Painted metal; diameter 23 inches. Collection of Ken Harck.

An extraordinary array of artists have perceived Coney Island as a prism through which to view the American experience. Their visions have imagined the future and recalled the past; they have conveyed shifting ideas about leisure, and explored issues of race, ethnicity, and class. What artists saw at Coney Island, known as America’s Playground, from 1861 to 2008, and how they chose to depict it has varied widely in style and mood, mirroring the aspirations and disappointments of their times. Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861–2008 is the first exhibition to look at the site’s enduring status as inspiration for artists, from its rise in popularity as a seaside resort in the Civil War era through the closing of its space-age amusement park, Astroland, in 2008, after decades of urban decline.

Charles Fremont’s nineteenth-century song “Down at Coney Isle” described New York City’s sandy backyard as a place to meet people from different neighborhoods in a setting that promised romance: “There’s the Bow’ry boys with Nellie, and the East Side girls in style./The girls from up in Harlem, too, and Johnny with his smile.” Samuel S. Carr’s Beach Scene (Fig. 3) painted in the aftermath of the Civil War celebrates the democratic spirit and the growth of commercial entertainment at Coney Island, with singles, couples, and families enjoying donkey rides, posing for a tintype photographer, and watching a puppet show. An elegant African-American couple is both part of and distanced from the group of spectators gathered before the puppet show, documenting the crowd’s diversity but also its divisions.

William Merritt Chase’s impressionist Landscape, near Coney Island of about 1886 appears to depict two people in a remote refuge, but the silhouette of a colossal elephant on the horizon reveals that they are near Coney Island (Fig. 4). The 122-foot-high Elephant Hotel, which opened in 1884, presaged the fantastic architecture of Coney Island’s soon-to-be-built amusement parks. What Chase does not show is that the Elephant Hotel, a popular family tourist destination, also attracted prostitutes and their clients, contributing to Coney Island’s reputation as an illicit “Sodom by the Sea.” Such were the contradictions of the resort from its very beginnings.

Fig. 2. Pip and Flip by Reginald Marsh (1898–1954), 1932. Tempera on paper mounted on canvas, 48 ¼ inches square. Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago, Daniel J. Terra Collection; Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago/Art Resource, New York © 2013 Estate of Reginald Marsh/Art Students League, New York/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

At the turn of the twentieth century extravagant amusement parks—Steeplechase, Luna, and the aptly named Dreamland—transformed Coney Island into the “World’s Greatest Playground.” Each park charged an admission fee and competed for visitors with thrill rides, innovative architecture, and other attractions. By transporting people to a fantasy land of foreign cultures, throwing strangers together on high-speed rides, and extending leisure far into the night with its blaze of electricity, Coney Island revolutionized the way people played. In 1909 one writer proclaimed it a manmade symbol of America: “It is blatant, it is cheap, it is the apotheosis of the ridiculous. But it is something more: it is like Niagara Falls, or the Grand Canyon, or Yellowstone Park; it is a national playground; and not to have seen it is not to have seen your own country.”1

  • Fig. 3. Beach Scene by Samuel S. Carr (1837–1908), c. 1879. Signed “S. S. Carr” at lower right. Oil on canvas, 12 by 20 inches. Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton, Massachusetts, bequest of Annie Swan Coburn (Mrs. Lewis Larned Coburn).
  • Fig. 4. Landscape, near Coney Island by William Merritt Chase (1849–1916), c. 1886. Signed “Wm M. Chase” at lower left. Oil on panel, 8 ⅛ by 12 ⅝ inches. Hyde Collection, Glens Falls, New York, gift of Mary H. Beeman to the Pruyn Family Collection.
  • Fig. 5. Battle of Lights, Coney Island, Mardi Gras by Joseph Stella (1877–1946), 1913–1914. Oil on canvas, 77 by 84 ¾ inches. Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut, gift of Collection Société Anonyme.
  • Fig. 6. Untitled by Bruce Davidson (1933–), July 4, 1962. Gelatin silver print, 11 by 14 inches. Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York © Bruce Davidson and Magnum Photos.
  • Fig. 7. The Barker’s Booth by Henry Koerner (1915–1991), 1948–1949. Signed “Koerner” at lower left. Oil on Masonite, 26 by 40 ½ inches. Collection of Alice A. Grossman.

In 1905 the English author Richard Le Gallienne wondered whether “Coney Island is the most human thing that God ever made, or permitted the devil to make?” The diabolical Steeplechase Funny Face (see Fig. 1) appeared on signs and tickets at Steeplechase Park from 1897 to 1966. The stretched and smiling mouth echoes the grimaces of barkers shouting out attractions to passersby. The hair, parted in the middle and rising to two points suggests horns, implying that Steeplechase is presided over by a mischievous devil intent on subverting rules of proper conduct.

No painting captures Coney Island’s modernity more powerfully than Joseph Stella’s monumental Battle of Lights, Coney Island, Mardi Gras, 1913–1914 (Fig. 5). Soaring at its center is Luna Park’s two-hundred-foot-high Kaleidoscopic Tower, which emitted beams at night, broadcasting America’s technological and commercial power. An Italian immigrant, Stella viewed Luna’s 250,000 lights as a symbol of America’s dazzling possibilities. He married an Italian cubo-futurist style to an American spectacle in an ambitious painting that embodies the frenzied energy of the crowd, the lure of the lights, and the promise of the American Dream.

But Stella’s awe was tinged with ambivalence. He called Luna’s Mardi Gras “the new bacchanal” and spoke of the “violent and dangerous pleasures” generated by “the surging crowd and the revolving machines.” To the right of center, somersaulting circular forms mimic the simulated terror of being propelled through the twenty-five-foot vertical loop on Luna’s famous Loop-the-Loop.

By contrast with Stella’s painting, Walker Evans’s photograph Couple at Coney Island presents the landscape of Luna Park as far more human in scale. The couple gazes up at the heart on Luna’s Kaleidoscopic Tower as if it were the moon. The man’s jacket draped over his arm, his rolled-up shirt sleeves, and the woman’s dress—with its then risqué plunging back—evoke the heat of summer and the license for public intimacy encouraged by the resort. Who are these two icons of modern romance? In a recently published semi-autobiographical novel, We’ll Go to Coney Island…, Barbara Scheiber identifies them as her father Harry and his secretary, and mistress, Harriet.

Several artists were attracted to the carnival spirit of Coney Island sideshows. Edward J. Kelty photographed the Harlem Black Birds, an African-American musical revue assembled for a sideshow at Coney Island. Legendary tap dancer King Rastus Brown wearing a derby and smoking a cigar dominates the central group standing on bleachers. Two blackface comics stand atop booths announcing the “HIGH CLASS COLORED REVUE.” While such acts involved demeaning stereotypes, they also introduced audiences to jazz and the blues.

In the wake of the stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuing Depression, Coney Island became known as the Nickel Empire. For five cents, day-trippers could get there by subway, enjoy the beach, the longest boardwalk in the world, the rides, and eat Nathan’s Famous hot dogs (at an additional nickel each).

Reginald Marsh’s paintings of sideshow entertainment explore the complex and changing relationships between audiences and performers. In Pip and Flip of 1932 (Fig. 2), a boisterous crowd, drawn from the crossroads of American life, packs the street, but relatively few buy a ticket, reflecting hard times. An immense banner at left advertises the scantily clad “Pip & Flip Twins from Peru.” Although the microcephalic sisters, Elvira and Jenny Lee Snow, were in fact born in Georgia, promotional hype made them seem exotic by associating their developmental disability (they were called “pinheads” in the sideshow parlance of the day) with a foreign land. At the center, Marsh depicts Jenny Lee Snow in a way that underscores the discrepancy between the sideshow’s antic hype and the vulnerable performer.

During the Depression a reporter for the New York Times invited readers to spend a Sunday at Coney Island, where “the Depression is reduced to the status of a ghost… having no part in the brilliant drama of the melting pot at play.” The “melting pot” appears in beach scenes painted in 1934 by Marsh and Paul Cadmus who both feature bathing beauties and musclemen, a human pyramid, and bits of newsprint that refer to world events. Marsh placed Yiddish newspapers in the sand at a time when German Jews were widely reported to have been banned from Wannsee, Berlin’s version of Coney Island. In Cadmus’s painting, the paper held by a beachgoer bears the headline “Hitler,” Germany’s new chancellor, casting the shadow of impending war over the beach.

The photographer Morris Engel, who lived in Coney Island as a teenager, understood its romantic allure. In Coney Island Embrace, 1938, a soldier and his girl are physically intertwined while the Pepsi bottle planted in the sand beside them functions as a commercial flag declaring this beach to be America (Fig. 8). The likelihood that the man would soon leave to fight for his country adds poignancy to the moment preserved by Engel, who joined the Navy in 1941.

  • Fig. 8. Coney Island Embrace, New York City by Morris Engel (1918–2005), 1938. Gelatin silver print, 10 ½ by 11 ½ inches. Orkin/Engel Film and Photo Archive © Morris Engel.
  • Fig. 9. Coney Island (Couple on Beach) by Homer Page (1918–1985), c. 1949. Gelatin silver print, 8 ⅝ by 13 inches. Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri, gift of Hallmark Cards, Inc.; photograph by John Lamberton © Homer Page.
  • Fig. 10. Film still of Joey walking under the Coney Island boardwalk from Little Fugitive by Engel. Photograph courtesy of Joseph Burstyn/Photofest; © Joseph Burstyn, Inc.; © Morris Engel.
  • 11. Anomie 1991: Winged Victory by Arnold Mesches (1923–), 1991. Acrylic on canvas, 92 inches by 11 feet 3 inches. San Diego Museum of Art, purchase with partial funding from the Richard Florsheim Art Fund © 2013 Arnold Mesches.
  • Fig. 12. Coney Island Pier by Daze (Chris Ellis; 1962–), 1995. Oil on canvas, 60 by 80 inches. Collection of the artist.
  • Fig. 13. Weegee 1940 by Red Grooms (1937–), 1998–1999. Signed and dated “ ’98–’99/Red Grooms [vertically]” at lower right. Layered acrylic on paper; height 56, width 62, depth 3 ½ inches. Private collection; image courtesy of Marlborough Gallery, New York © 2013 Red Grooms/(ARS).

The solace of love on a crowded beach is a theme of several photographs, particularly Homer Page’s Coney Island (Couple on Beach) of about 1949 showing an attractive young couple reclining on the sand (Fig. 9). Their bent arms mirror one another, while the undulating sand echoes the young woman’s curvaceous body. The man’s face is hidden, but his partner’s closed eyes and parted lips suggest a state of erotic reverie.

The predominantly working-class children portrayed in photographs and films set in Coney Island do not conform to sentimental ideas about childhood innocence. Engel’s film Little Fugitive tells the story of Joey (Richie Andrusco), a seven-year-old who runs away to Coney Island after being tricked into thinking he killed his brother. Thanks to Engel’s hand-held camera and improvisational script, viewers see Coney Island through a child’s eyes as Joey wanders on the beach and among the amusements. A production still captures him walking with slumped shoulders under the Coney Island boardwalk (Fig. 10). The shimmering pattern created by shadows and light falling through the slats onto the sand suggests Joey’s isolation. The soul of the film is the emotional landscape of childhood and the enchanted setting of Coney Island, where a child’s sense of wonder eventually triumphs over fear.

A witness to the traumas of history, Henry Koerner, a native of Vienna, lost his parents and brother in the Holocaust. He came to the United States in 1933, served in the Army during the war, and then worked as a courtroom artist in Germany during the Nuremberg trials. He created The Barker’s Booth (Fig. 7) soon after he returned to America. When viewing the painting, we stand before the distorting mirrors cladding the barker’s booth and imagine ourselves, “normal” spectators, turned into “freaks.” Koerner suggests our identities are fluid and subject to distortion as in Nazi Germany and McCarthy-era America, where yesterday’s citizens could be declared today’s pariahs. Like Koerner and other artists and writers in the postwar period, the beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti adopted America’s play ground as a cultural metaphor for the deep conflicts in the collective soul of a nation in his hallucinogenic collection, A Coney Island of the Mind.

In 1959 Bruce Davidson took a series of photographs of the Jokers, a teenage gang at Coney Island whose boredom and propensity for violence epitomized postwar alienation. In one image Cathy and her boyfriend create a dance of arms in motion as Junior rolls up his sleeve, while Cathy adjusts her hair. In a sobering interview, a former Joker recalled “Beautiful Cathy.” She “was always sad, always fixing her hair,” and “always with her honey, Junior.” Cathy eventually “put a shotgun in her mouth and blew her head off.” Davidson recalled having penetrated the protected turf of the Jokers to uncover their “fear, depression, and anger.”

By contrast, Davidson’s inspiring photograph taken on Independence Day in 1962 shows African-American couples embracing and gazing up at fireworks (Fig. 6). The brightest lights are those of the ethereal Wonder Wheel, and wonder animates nearly every face. This stirring image is included in Davidson’s book Time of Change…, a collection of photographs documenting the civil rights movement.

In 1961 President John F. Kennedy promised to put an American on the moon by the decade’s end. The spirit of patriotic optimism inspired the construction of Astroland Park, a Coney Island space-age extravaganza, created during a period of urban decline and captured by a number of artists. But only two years after Astroland opened, the longest running park, Steeplechase, closed. Coney Island fell victim to civic neglect, destructive urban renewal projects, and rising crime. The legendary national playground became a contradictory place where utopia and the inferno collide in Arnold Mesches’s apocalyptic Anomie 1991: Winged Victory (Fig. 11). The artist layered the painting with childhood memories of the demolished Luna Park, the enduring Cyclone and Wonder Wheel, and the tribulations of history. Wartime references include the Winged Victory of Samothrace (created in the second century bc to honor a sea battle), and helicopter gunships from the 1991 Gulf War. At left, the one-eyed god of war is a towering incarnation of the Cyclops that functioned as a gargoyle above Coney Island’s dark Spook-A-Rama ride in the 1950s.

An abiding interest in the nature of time and memory infuses Red Grooms’s homage to Weegee’s famous 1940 photograph of a phenomenally jammed crowd on the beach, Afternoon Crowd at Coney Island, Brooklyn. In the late 1990s Grooms transformed the photograph into an expansive, colorful, pop art painting (Fig. 13). He layered his relief to bring the vibrancy of Coney Island’s past forward into our space with figures selectively elevated to spell out “Weegee 1940.” Bodies interlock like flat puzzle pieces, forming a joyful unity—the great assembled public of a pluralistic democracy, recording a time when attendance was at its highest at America’s Playground. Comparing these works by Weegee and Grooms invites people to consider what the exuberant landscape of Coney Island meant at different moments in the nation’s history.

The Parachute Jump, Wonder Wheel, and Cyclone—icons of Coney Island’s past grandeur as the World’s Greatest Playground—have become potent emblems of vulnerability, endurance, and hope for the future in images by artists and filmmakers. Having withstood decades of deterioration, these rides have been preserved, both as physical landmarks and through their immortalization in art. Yet artists continue to be inspired by America’s Playground, marveling at what the Brooklyn-born, Bronx-based graffiti artist Daze calls its “great leveling effect.” Like Spike Lee in the aspirational coming-of-age film He Got Game (1998), Daze engages Coney Island’s multiracial environment, perceiving it as a site of urban decay but also of unrelenting reinvention. In the two paintings by him in the exhibition, a teenager’s body magically comes into being, as if in transition from childhood to adulthood. Daze has explained that “young people are undergoing states of perpetual change, as is Coney Island itself.” In Coney Island Pier, teenagers remain transfixed by a cruciform-shaped diver (Fig. 12). Luminously dusted with white spray paint, he soars from the pier toward the sky. This Christ-like ascension—what the artist called a “leap of faith”—appears both promising and terrifying.

The art in this exhibition brings to life the allure and excitement of Coney Island, which occupies not only a strip of sand in Brooklyn, but also a singular place in the American imagination. Taken together, these tableaux of wonder and menace, hope and despair, dreams and nightmares become metaphors for the collective soul of a nation.

ROBIN JAFFEE FRANK, the curator of the ConeyIsland exhibition, is the chief curator and Krieble Curator of American Painting and Sculpture at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art.

Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861–2008 is on view at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut, until May 31. It will travel to the San Diego Museum of Art (July 11–October 13), the Brooklyn Museum (November 20, 2015–March 13, 2016), and the McNay Art Museum (May 11–September 11, 2016).