The Diving Horse, the Wonder Wheel, the Loop-the-Loop, the Astrotower: “People tear up when they describe the childhood intensity of visits to Coney Island,” says Robin Jaffee Frank of Hartford’s Wadsworth Atheneum. Frank, the museum’s chief curator, has her own memories of the beach and amusement park, of taking in its exotic pleasures with her grandparents and hearing tales about how her father courted her mother there. An exhibit she has conceived “is about reminding people of that excitement and how quintessentially American it is.”
“Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland” will open at the Wadsworth in January 2015 and travel to San Diego and Brooklyn. In more than 140 works of art, supplemented by film clips and ephemera, the exhibit will cover 1861 to 2008 as Coney Island evolved from a beach escape for New York City elites to a mecca for the masses and, following decades of urban decline, a place with an uncertain future. Carousel animals, architectural artifacts, and postcards will be juxtaposed with paintings by the likes of William Merritt Chase, Joseph Stella, Reginald Marsh, and Red Grooms and prints by photographers Walker Evans, Bruce Davidson, and Diane Arbus.
Frank believes that artists’ fascination with the amusement park “wasn’t just about a strip of sand in Brooklyn. It was really about a singular place in the American imagination.” The “dazzle” of Coney Island, she says, both recalls the past and signifies the future. “Taken together, these tableaux of wonder and menace, hope and despair, dreams and nightmares become metaphors for the collective soul of a nation.”
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