Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland


Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861-2008 is on view at the San Diego Museum o from July 11 through October 11, 2015. Composed of more than 150 objects including celebrated icons of American art and rarely seen works from public and private collections, this exhibition explores the lure Coney Island has exerted on the American imagination for more than a century.

The display at The San Diego Museum of Art follows a run at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Ct. After this, Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland will travel to The Brooklyn Museum, and McNay Art Museum in San Antonio, Tx. 

Coney Island’s fascinating history as aworld-famous resort and a national cultural symbol was shaped by the times—and it helped to shape the times. Artists’ visions of Coney Island became a vehicle to imagine the future, to convey changing ideas about leisure, and to explore the mixing of people from different racial, ethnic and class backgrounds, transcending social boundaries.

An extraordinary array of artists viewed Coney Island as a microcosm of the American experience, from its beginnings as a watering hole for the wealthy, through its transformation into an entertainment mecca for the masses o the closing of Astroland Amusement Park following decades of urban decline. From early depictions of “the people’s beach” by Impressionists William Merritt Chase and John Henry Twachtman, to modern and contemporary images by Diane Arbus, Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Red Grooms, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Reginald Marsh, Joseph Stella, and George Tooker, “Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland” will investigate America’s playground as a place and an idea.

The exhibition will bring to life the excitement of Coney Island, which occupies not only a strip of sand in Brooklyn but also a singular place in the American imagination. The modern American mass-culture industry was born at Coney Island, and the constant novelty of the resort made it a seductively liberating subject for artists. What these artists saw from 1861 to 2008 at Coney Island and how they chose to portray it varied widely in style and mood over time, mirroring the aspirations and disappointments of the era and of the country. Taken together, these tableaux of wonder and menace, hope and despair, dreams and nightmares, become metaphors for the collective soul of a nation.

Coney Island has been viewed as a microcosm of the American experience by an extraordinary array of artists including William Merritt Chase, John Henry Twachtman, Reginald Marsh, Walker Evans, Diane Arbus, poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Frank Stella, and Red Grooms. Showcasing an eclectic mix of drawings, prints, paintings, photographs, film clips, and assorted artifacts such as carousel animals, this exhibition brings to life the excitement of Coney Island, which occupies not only a strip of sand in Brooklyn but a singular place in the American imagination.

From Reginald Marsh’s glamorous and gaudy Pip and Flip and Wooden Horses (below) to 

Arnold Mesches, Anomie 2001: Coney
from the series Anomie, 1997
Acrylic on canvas
80 x 96 inches
Whitney Museum of American Art,
New York. Gift of Jill Ciment,

Arnold Mesches’ gothic-inspired canvas from the Museum’s Permanent Collection, Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland is the first exhibition to explore Coney Island as a place and an idea. Looking at the evolution from glamorous beach playground to entertainment mecca, and the decay and neglect that followed, Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland illuminates the contrasts between this once great place and the  artifacts   that remain.

The exhibition’s section titles are taken from contemporary quotations that communicate changing popular perceptions—vividly conveyed by the artwork—about America’s Playground through the generations: Down at Coney Isle,”1861–1894; “The World’s Greatest Playground,” 1895–1929; “The Nickel Empire,” 1930–1939; “A Coney Island of the Mind,” 1940–1961; and “Requiem for a Dream,” 1962–2008.

 “We are thrilled to be offering our visitors the chance to see an iconic American landmark from a new perspective,” says Roxana Velásquez, Maruja Baldwin Executive Director of The San Diego Museum of Art. “There are traces of Coney Island throughout San Diego in places such as Belmont Park and in Balboa Park’s history as a fairground, so it’s momentous to have the opportunity to see the artistic impact of a destination with such a rich past.”

To accompany the featured works, a fully illustrated scholarly catalogue has been co-published by the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art and the Yale University Press. It includes the first sustained visual analysis of great works about Coney Island by exhibition curator Dr. Robin Jaffe Frank, and essays by other distinguished cultural historians.

Developed by the Wadsworth Atheneum, the exhibition has been organized in San Diego by Dr. Ariel Plotek, Associate Curator of Modern Art.

Samuel S. Carr,
Beach Scene, c. 1879, oil on canvas,
Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton,
Massachusetts, Bequest of Annie Swan Coburn
(Mrs. Lewis Larned Coburn)

William Merritt Chase,
Landscape, near Coney Island c. 1886, 
oil on panel, The Hyde Collection, Glens Falls,  NY, Gift of Mary H. Beeman to the Pruyn Family  Collection, 1995.12.

Joseph Stella,
Battle of Lights, Coney Island, Mardi Gras, 1913
oil on canvas, Yale University Art Gallery,
New Haven, Connecticut,
Gift of Collection
Société Anonyme, 1941.689

Milton Avery,
The Steeplechase, Coney Island, 1929,
oil on canvas,
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New  York
Gift of Sally M. Avery, 1984 (1984.527)
Image ©  The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image source: Art
Resource, New York; © 2013 Milton Avery Trust/Artists
Rights Society (ARS), New York

Reginald Marsh,
Wooden Horses , 1936, 
tempera on board,
Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art,
Hartford,  Connecticut,
The Dorothy Clark Archibald and Thomas L.
Archibald Fund, The Krieble Family Fund for American
Art, The American Paintings Purchase Fund, and The Ella
Gallup Sumner and Mary Catlin Sumner Collection Fund,
© 2013 Estate of Reginald Marsh / Art Students
League, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NewYork

Reginald Marsh,
Pip and Flip, 1932, 
tempera on paper mounted on canvas,
Terra Foundation for American Art,
Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1999.96
Photo  Credit: 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

Red Grooms, Weegee 1940 , 1998 – 99, 
acrylic on paper, Private Collection
Image Courtesy Marlborough  Gallery, New York; © 2013 Red Grooms/Artists Rights  Society (ARS), New York

Coney Island Pier
Oil on canvas
60 x 80 inches
Collection of the artist