HARTFORD — Have you ever been to Coney Island? Me, neither. Not that it much matters. To see the name is to pay a sort of visit: the beach, the rides, fun en masse. That’s why Frank Stella could give the name “Coney Island” to one of his abstract stripe canvases, from 1958. The painting trades in glorious ka-pow, unblinking vigor, democratic splendor. Yup, that’s Coney Island.
It’s one of those places — like Hollywood, like Versailles — that exists in a location beholden even more to imagination than geography. In fact, there’s a famous Lawrence Ferlinghetti poem “A Coney Island of the Mind.” The
poem gives a name to a section of
“Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861-2008,” which runs at the Wadsworth Atheneum through May 31.
Granted, it’s only February, but this year is unlikely to see a museum show as varied and vibrant. How varied? Among the nearly 150 items in the show are paintings (including the Stella), prints, photographs, film clips, posters, tickets, comic strips, a New Yorker cover, carousel animals, and three ring-toss targets (from the collection of Harvey Fierstein, no less). There are artists you might expect — Reginald Marsh, Weegee, Red Grooms — and others you might well not: Stella, Milton Avery, Rem Koolhaas (from his “Delirious New York” phase). Most surprising of all, perhaps, is the presence of works by William Merritt Chase and John Henry Twachtman.
Finding a pair of American Impressionists indicates how comprehensive (and canny) “Coney Island” is. Before Coney Island was an amusement park, it was an attractive seaside location for visitors seeking sun and fresh air as surcease from an expanding Brooklyn and Manhattan. Notice, though, that the background of Chase’s “Landscape, near Coney Island,” from the mid-1880s, includes a seven-story hotel in the shape of an elephant. Listen closely and you can already hear the faintest whisper of Richard Rodgers’s “Manhattan,” with Lorenz Hart’s deathless line “We’ll go to Coney / And eat baloney / On a roll.”
Chase’s painting, with its view of city/country and nature/society, represents two of the dichotomies that define the show. Others are art/commerce, high/low, innovation/nostalgia, sun/fun. Not that sun and fun are necessarily opposed, but they can be — as a still from Morris Engel’s classic 1953 film, “Little Fugitive,” bears out. The small boy who’s the title character stands under the Coney Island boardwalk, a visual prisoner of the shadows it casts. One dichotomy that doesn’t pertain is mass/class. Class? Part of the wonder of Coney Island, even at the height of its popularity, was that it never put on airs.
The wondrousness of that wonder can be seen in a 43-second clip from a 1905 silent film, “Coney Island at Night.” Edwin S. Porter, of “The Great Train Robbery” fame, shot it. Even to CGI-surfeited eyes, the sight of so many artfully arranged incandescent bulbs arrayed at Luna Park remains ravishing. The scene looks across the Atlantic to contemporary Paris, the City of Light — and ahead in time to Las Vegas.
A different sort of wondrousness is evident in Walker Evans’s 1928 photograph of a couple, their backs to the camera, sweetly savoring the pleasure of their excursion. A more typical view of Coney, especially during the Depression and war years, comes courtesy of Reginald Marsh. Tawdriness and gusto are a not-uncommon combination, as his various renderings of sideshows and barkers and gawking crowds makes plain. It’s there, too, in Lisette Model’s cheerfully grotesque image of a formidably zaftig bather.
Coney Island’s heyday was behind it by mid-century. The washed-out spookiness of George Tooker’s painting “Coney Island” hints at this. In their very different way, so do several Robert Frank photographs, showing a place of mist and shadow and uneasy romance. By 1960, Coney Island is flirting with Diane Arbus status — and, yes, the show has a couple of her photographs.
Flirtation doesn’t always lead to consummation. Various works from the ’90s and ’00s testify to how Coney Island endures. Now more relic than destination (or destination for the wrong reasons), it offers a sense of variety, unpredictability, and, for lack of a better term, human patination not exactly on display at a Disneyland, Disney World, or Six Flags over You Name It.
For 40 years, the Atheneum has mounted its “Matrix” series of small exhibitions devoted to the work of a single contemporary artist. Michael C. McMillen’s “Matrix 171 / Sideshow” makes for an ideal pendant to “Coney Island.” Magical and occasionally eerie, its nine mixed-media works are like an exploded Joseph Cornell box. McMillen variously employs painting, sculpture, installation, and video to evoke carnivals and sideshows and even planetariums. The result is tacky and bogus and altogether enchanting. It’s like Coney Island that way. Again Rodgers and Hart come to mind. Wining and dining on such Mulligan stew, why would anyone wish for turkey?
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.