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Coney Island Comes Alive in Art Show

Steeplechase-Funny-Face

The Wadsworth Atheneum’s ‘Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861-2008’ dives into the oceanfront playground’s role as a muse to artists.

Ellen Gamerman writes: New York’s Coney Island has long attracted a human merry-go-round of strivers, oddballs, hucksters, thrill-seekers, sun-worshippers—and some famous artists, too.

“The exhibition is about great art and a singular place in the American imagination.”

— Curator Robin Jaffee

With its new show, “Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861-2008,” the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Conn., dives into the oceanfront playground’s role as a muse to painters, photographers, filmmakers and other artists. The museum calls the show the first one dedicated solely to art about Coney Island and the largest museum exhibition to focus entirely on the entertainment mecca in Brooklyn, N.Y. It opens Jan. 31 before starting a three-city U.S. tour.

Daze | ‘Coney Island Pier’ | 1995 COLLECTION OF THE ARTIST

Daze | ‘Coney Island Pier’ | 1995 COLLECTION OF THE ARTIST

“There has been nothing that takes people through the ages literally from Coney Island’s beginnings,” said curator Robin Jaffee Frank, who has been working on the show for the past five years. “The exhibition is about great art and a singular place in the American imagination.”

“Such sexually suggestive forms of pleasure mixed voyeurism, exhibitionism and public humiliation into an addictive modern cocktail.”

— Curator Robin Jaffee, Frank, in a catalog essay

Ms. Frank, a Brooklyn native who visited Coney Island often as a child, vividly recalls being terrified by sights like the Cyclops head that hung at the Spook-A-Rama, a 1950s thrill ride that took passengers under a blood-red waterfall and past horror figures.

Marie Roberts | ‘A Congress of Curious Peoples’  - COLLECTION OF LIZ AND MARC HARTZMAN

Marie Roberts | ‘A Congress of Curious Peoples’ – COLLECTION OF LIZ AND MARC HARTZMAN

She grew increasingly fascinated by art about the landmark over her more than two decades at the Yale University Art Gallery, where she became senior associate curator of American paintings and sculpture in 2006. She brought her research for the show with her when the Wadsworth Atheneum hired her as chief curator in 2011. The Yale University Art Gallery is the exhibit’s biggest lender.

The show will be the first in newly renovated galleries at the museum. The institution is undergoing a $33 million project to restore the building’s historic features and increase display space by nearly a third. The five-year renovation is slated to be complete by September.

Some 140 paintings, photographs, banners, carousel animals, movies and more fill the exhibit—starting with Coney Island’s days as a tourist destination during the Civil War, running through boom times and busts, and ending with the demise of the space-age amusement park Astroland seven years ago.

Coney Island’s incarnations here range from a dreamy beach-scape in an 1866 painting by Hudson River School artist Sanford Robinson Gifford to a creepy 1961 photograph of a horror ride by Diane Arbus to a 1977 film clip of the house rattling under the roller coaster in Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall.”

The exhibition portrays the strip of sand and boardwalk as an agent of change, extending leisure time into the evening…(read more)

WSJ

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