BATTLE OF LIGHTS: CONEY ISLAND & BROOKLYN BRIDGE

For how many years have these two landmarks, Coney Island and the Brooklyn Bridge, attracted the attention of poets and painters?  Many have tackled this subject.  When we read Walt Whitman’s ‘Crossing Brooklyn Ferry’ or Hart Crane’s ‘To Brooklyn Bridge’ there are many elements that remind us of other works by artists like John Marin, Marsden Hartley and Joseph Stella.  Contemporary poets such as Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Joseph Stanton have also made mention of these sites. 

Most recently, and very importantly, we have images from the contemporary photographer Dudley Gray, whose work clearly shares many of these same aesthetic concerns.  In fact, many of Dudley Gray’s images have been published over the years, and the writer Janel Bladow has had this to say in describing his work in OMNI Magazine: 

“The cables of the Brooklyn Bridge…become flamboyant, spidery abstractions.  Around Manhattan other buildings, bathed in vivid colored light, brightly beam the urban nightscape.  These marvels of design sparkle like precious jewels.”[i] 

Dudley Gray
“Brooklyn Bridge Illuminations:  Cables”
COPYRIGHT 2003
Color photograph
Collection of the artist  

“Without altering the physical structure of the cityscape, artist Joseph Strand and photographer Dudley Gray can change the mood of the city.  Their urban illuminations transform today’s skyline into stunning abstract light sculptures of the future.”[ii] 

However, we must go back in time and follow a progression of these words and images.  In “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” Walt Whitman describes some of the very spots that would later become the views people would have when crossing the Brooklyn Bridge.  In fact, throughout this poem Whitman makes reference to the generations of the future who will experience these sights. 

“The stretch afar growing dimmer and dimmer, the gray walls of the granite store-houses by the docks,

On the river the shadowy group, the big steam-tug closely flank’d on each     side by the barges—the hay-boat, the belated lighter,

On the neighboring shore, the fires from the foundry chimneys burning high and glaringly into the night,

Casting their flicker of black, contrasted with wild red and yellow light, over the tops of houses, and down into the clefts of streets.”[iii]

“Others will enter the gates of the ferry, and cross from shore to shore;
Others will watch the run of the flood-tide;

Others will see the shipping of Manhattan north and west, and the heights of Brooklyn to the south and east;

Others will see the islands large and small;

Fifty years hence, others will see them as they cross, the sun half an hour      high;

A hundred years hence, or ever so many hundred years hence, others will see them,

Will enjoy the sunset, the pouring in of the flood-tide, the falling back to the sea of the ebb-tide.”[iv]

John Marin
“Brooklyn Bridge, on the Bridge”
1930
Watercolor on paper
21 3/4” x 26 3/4”
Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago, Illinois  

One of these others from fifty or one hundred years hence would surely be the painter Joseph Stella.  Stella has always been a difficult artist to categorize.  Although he was a very figurative painter he was not close to the American realists and regionalists so popular during the early years of the 20th Century.  Although he was a modernist, he would not be classified as a colonial cubist, as others were during that same era.  He is appealing to us today for these very reasons. 

Stella’s body of work includes almost classical portrait drawings of his contemporaries such as Edgar Varese, Marcel Duchamp, and Katherine Millay.  Amongst his most important, and famous images, are paintings from the “New York Interpreted” series, especially the works in reference to Coney Island and the Brooklyn Bridge.  And finally, there exists another body of work that includes many references to natural objects and fantasies. 

Another literary reference should be added here:  Joseph Stella wrote several manuscript notes regarding his individual paintings.  They were written fragments, translated from the Italian by Irma B. Jaffe, and included in her book dealing with the symbolism in Stella’s work.[v]  These written statements by Stella are in themselves quite serious and lyrical.  They do not just describe, but provide a literary parallel to his paintings.  They are just as mystical as his paintings, equal to them, and excellent examples of the ekphrastic process in their own right.

Joseph Stella
“The Brooklyn Bridge:  Variation on an Old Theme”
1939
Oil on canvas
70 1/4” x 42”
Whitney Museum of American Art,
New York, New York

“Seen for the first time, as a weird metallic Apparition under a metallic sky, out of proportion with the winged lightness of its arch, traced for the conjunction of Worlds, supported by the massive dark towers dominating the surrounding tumult of the surging skyscrapers with their gothic majesty sealed in the purity of their arches, the cables, like divine messages from above, transmitted to the vibrating coils, cutting and dividing into innumerable musical spaces the nude immensity of the sky, it impressed me as the shrine containing all the efforts of the new civilization of America…the eloquent meeting of all the forces arising in a superb assertion of powers, in Apotheosis.”[vi]

Joseph Stella
“Battle of Lights, Coney Island”
1913-1914
Oil on canvas
39 7/16” x 29 5/16”
Anna R. and Frank M. Hall Charitable Trust,
Sheldon Museum of Art, University of Nebraska,
Lincoln, Nebraska

Jumping ahead to contemporary literature, recent references have appeared to both Coney Island and Far Rockaway by Lawrence Ferlinghetti.  The very first book I read by Ferlinghetti was A Coney Island of the Mind, purchased in San Francisco in 1970 or so; and the most recent one was A Far Rockaway of the Heart, which I purchased just after his reading here in Indianapolis at Clowes Memorial Hall on the Butler University campus on 7 February 2000. 

We learned that night, that he had been continually writing, adding to, and expanding upon many of his earlier themes.  Even though he had spent so much time at the City Lights Bookshop in San Francisco, he seemed to be making several references to his earlier years:  the Brooklyn Bridge, Coney Island, and any number of childlike antics on sidewalks just below the bridges and elevated train tracks.    

The Junkman’s Obligato

“Let us arise and go now 
into the interior dark night
of the soul’s still bowery
and find ourselves anew
where subways stall and wait
under the River. 
Cross over
into full puzzlement. 
South Ferry will not run forever. 
They are cutting out the Bay ferries
but it is still not too late
to get lost in Oakland. 
Washington has not yet toppled
from his horse. 
There is still time to goose him
and go
leaving our income tax form behind
and our waterproof wristwatch with it
staggering blind after alleycats
under Brooklyn’s Bridge
blown statues in baggy pants
our tincan cries and garbage voices
trailing. 
Junk for sale!”[vii]

John Marin
“Brooklyn Bridge”
1912
Watercolor and charcoal
18 5/8” x 15 5/8”
Alfred Stieglitz Collection
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Poets of a younger generation have also taken on these ideas and images, including the writer and art historian Joseph Stanton.  With his writing, Stanton creates imaginary places and even museums with various ‘wings’ housing his personal collection of ekphrastic masterpieces, including this reference to Josef Stella and the Brooklyn Bridge.

Josef Stella’s Brooklyn Bridge

“On his first painting of it,
lines of force slant this way, then slant that,
flickering a cacophony of blue and white
above a blossom of blood;
while the spine articulates—
in tiny, elegant detail—
the sequenced towers. 

Passing the frisson futurism
in subsequent pictures,
Stella settled to a symmetry
a quintessential modernism
that became the way he crossed
this bridge every subsequent time
he came to its soaring contradictions—

Josef Stella
“Brooklyn Bridge”
1919-1920
Oil on canvas
84.7” x 76.6”
Yale University Art Gallery
New Haven, Connecticut

medieval gothic are its massive piers
and yet the machined-aged cables of steel,
the taut song of its wiring mechanique,
is what lifts our spirits, transports us,
as we walk the interior passage,
unique to this suspension,
a path that makes our walking seem

a transit towards an altar,
an altar that turns out to be
the City of Brooklyn,
a place worthy of worship in its way,
but cruel, ungraspable. 
‘Only the dead know Brooklyn,’
sayeth the gospel of Thomas Wolfe.”[viii]                           

Thinking again about modernism and the “wiring mechanique,” Janel Bladow has summarized perfectly the effect of light falling on the Brooklyn Bridge, while quoting Dudley Gray:  “To Gray, light caresses structure.  ‘It’s like a love affair between light and steel.  Colors run from hot purples to cold blues.  Buildings suddenly acquire both intense identification and peaceful beauty in one dazzling moment.’”[ix] 

Dudley Gray
“Brooklyn Bridge Illuminations:  Cables”
COPYRIGHT 2003
Color photograph
Collection of the artist 

TO BROOKLYN BRIDGE

“Out of some subway scuttle, cell or loft
A bedlamite speeds to thy parapets,
Tilting there momently, shrill shirt ballooning,
A jest falls from the speechless caravan.

Down Wall, from girder into street noon leaks,
A rip-tooth of the sky’s acetylene;
All afternoon the cloud flown derricks turn…
Thy cables breathe the North Atlantic still.”[x]


[i] Bladow, Janel; “Luminicity,” OMNI; New York, New York; Volume 2, Number 11; August 1980; p. 70.

[ii] Bladow, Janel; “Luminicity,” OMNI; New York, New York; Volume 2, Number 11; August 1980; p. 70.

[iii] Whitman, Walt; “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” Selected poems; Gramercy Books; New York, New York and Avenel, New Jersey; 1992; Section 3, p. 144. 

[iv] Whitman, Walt; “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” Selected poems; Gramercy Books; New York, New York and Avenel, New Jersey; 1992; Section 2, p. 143.

[v] Jaffe, Irma B.; Joseph Stella’s Symbolism; Pomegranate Artbooks and Chameleon Books; San Francisco, California, and New York, New York; 1994.

[vi] Jaffe, Irma B.; Joseph Stella’s Symbolism; Pomegranate Artbooks and Chameleon Books; San Francisco, California and New York, New York; 1994; (Unpaginated, printed opposite Plate 13).

[vii] Ferlinghetti, Lawrence; A Coney Island of the Mind; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1958; p. 56.

[viii] Stanton, Joseph; Moving pictures; Shanti Arts Publishing; Brunswick, Maine; 2019; p. 86.

[ix] Bladow, Janel; “Luminicity,” OMNI; New York, New York; Volume 2, Number 11; August 1980; p. 73.

[x] Crane, Hart, ed. Marc Simon; “To Brooklyn Bridge” from The Complete Poems of Hart Crane; Liveright Publishing Corporation; New York and London; 2001; p. 43.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s