Friday, December 11, 2015

Coney Island: Visions of An American Dreamland, 1861-2008 The Brooklyn Museum

A lot of thought and work went into this by and large wonderful exhibition documenting this famous Brooklyn fun place. As someone who grew up in the 1950's going to this place I was looking forward to seeing this show. My main memories are of the beach of course but also Steeplechase which was the sprawling aged amusement park that filled my childhood with inspiration and wonder and some of this does come across in the show especially in the superb paintings of Reginald Marsh who is well represented and some of the actual artifacts that are the real stars of the show.
The show is strong with some terrific paintings that along with the great Marsh include works by Joseph and Frank Stella, Milton Avery and several artists who were unknown to me and whetted my appetite to see more of their work. As I said the show also has some stuff saved from Coney including carousel horses, side show banners and posters, and plaster of paris monsters that graced some of the facades of horror show rides and gave me nightmares for days.
There are also postcards way too many I thought and what reason possessed the curators to place a copy of "A Coney Island of the Mind" the famous collection of poetry by Lawrence Ferlinghetti in a glass case just because the cover is illustrated with a photo of Luna Park. Surely they could have used this display case for better examples of Coney Island memorabilia.
There are also film clips from a wide range of films that used Coney Island as a background (The Crowd, Speedy) or as a vivid co-star (The Little Fugitive) along with many historical photographs and stunning pieces by some of the great photographers of the 20th century Arbus, Frank, Wegee and Stock. The show for me looses it's speed and interest with the final gallery that is filled with contemporary art and photographs and except for the terrific Red Groom's did nothing for me. The best book on Coney Island is "Coney Island Lost and Found" by Charles Denson who grew up there and documented the decline and fall with his precocious camera even sneaking into Steeplechase right before it was criminally destroyed and documenting it. The book is also jam packed with historical material and surprisingly it was now where to be found in the gift store. Maybe its out of print. With all its faults (there is not one memento of Nathan's) this is still a valuable show and definitely worth the visit out to my borough. It will be on view until March 13th.


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