Red Grooms’s painting “Weegee 1940.” Credit 2013 Red Grooms/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, via Marlborough Gallery, New York
In the days when Coney Island was in ruins, there was a carny at the broken-down game arcade who would, to draw a crowd, sometimes have his schnauzer smoke a cigarette. This was in the 1980s, when a pet dog with a Pall Mall was probably not the strangest thing you could find at the park. Coney back then was a derelict dystopia of burned-out lights and empty rides and sea gulls lying dead beneath the boardwalk — a place of which the smoking dog’s owner once explained, “It’s an interesting kind of crazy.”
I thought about that man when I heard about a new show at the Brooklyn Museum, “Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861-2008”the first full-fledged exhibition to gather works of art inspired by the celebrated park. The show looks at Coney Island through its stylish rise, slow decline and eventual revival. In so doing, it asks a lasting question: Why is it that for 150 years this narrow coastal island has persistently provided “an interesting kind of crazy” to so many artists from so many eras, working in a variety of media and in vastly different styles?
Harold Feinstein’s “Coney Island Teenagers” (1949). Credit Harold 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.
Reginald Marsh’s “Human Pool Tables” (1938). Credit 2015 Estate of Reginald Marsh/Art Students League, New York, via Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Coney Island emerged as a populist carnival where the masses could dispose of that surplus time and money. Unlike world’s fairs, which were largely meant to educate and elevate, the early parks at Coney — Luna, Steeplechase and Dreamland — were accessible attractions. Instead of installations on the progress of technology, there were dancing dwarves and deep-fried clams.
This democratic spirit — bursting at the seams with sugar, salt and sex — is neatly captured in Joseph Stella’s futurist painting “Battle of Lights, Coney Island, Mardi Gras,” which was the first work Ms. Frank chose for the show. The catalog quotes Stella saying that he wanted his canvas to “convey in a hectic mood the surging crowd and the revolving machines generating for the first time, not anguish and pain, but violent dangerous pleasures.”