Coney Island at The Wadsworth


I couldn’t wait to get up to see the freshly renovated galleries of Contemporary Art at the Wadsworth Atheneum and the new exhibit, Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland. I have a personal interest, too. Both sides of my family hail from a teeny hamlet at the very tip of Coney Island, called Sea Gate. We inherited my great-grandparents house and my sister still lives there in an ancient, sprawling, shades of Gray Gardens, Victorian. When we visited our grandparents, we weren’t allowed outside the safety of “The Gate” much. Coney Island was a dangerous place in the sixties and seventies and most families of my mother’s generation moved to Long Island or “The City”.  But Coney always had a mystical, magical allure for us. Nathan’s and the thrills of the Cyclone were barely two miles away! As teenagers, we would sneak out for hot dogs, those incredible french fries (the secret? Rumor is they never change the oil), Carvel Banana Boats and ride after ride on the rickety Cyclone: always first car, hands in the air. Coney Island is buffed up these days and a milder experience, but it was fascinating to see its various incarnations along a timeline, from the turn of the century to present day.  Artifacts abound of my various ancestors at Luna Park, Steeplechase, the Parachute Jump, and freak shows, but those attractions are long gone. The exhibit at the Atheneum masterfully captures the history of Coney from the early, pre-developed days (including a stunning painting of Sea Gate sand dunes in the 1890’s), through it’s heyday of the mammoth amuseument parks of Luna and Steeplechase, to the dark and gang-ridden periods of the seventies, to present day curiosities like the over-the-top annual Mermaid Parade. Through paintings (including works by Lyme Art Colonists William Merritt Chase and John Twatchman),  film clips, carousel horses and photographs, the people’s playground comes alive. This in-depth exhibit is interesting for all ages and the hands-on activities (color in a cut-out character and place it on the beach, write your Coney Island memory on a postcard) are genius. Loved it. Through May 31st.

Tonight, February 11th at 6pm: a free Lecture: Coney Island: The Melting Pot at Play. Chief Curator and Exhibition Curator Robin Jaffee Frank focuses on how artists’ visions of Coney Island became a vehicle for exploring the mixing of people from different racial, ethnic, and class backgrounds, transcending social boundaries. From 5 to 6 pm guests are invited to view the Coney Island exhibition galleries and attend a pre-lecture reception. 

Also, don’t miss the new contemporary galleries with works by Franz Kline, Sol LeWitt, Martin Puryear, Cindy Sherman, Kiki Smith, Kara Walker, and Andy Warhol.

Photo credit: 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