New York State Museum Carousel built in 1915 by Herschell-Spillman. Photo: CarouselHistory.com
Art that has not been commodified and aggrandized with exhibits at mainstream museums and galleries or is not collected by hedge fund managers and splashed across the pages of a Sotheby's auction catalog is generally devalued by even the most liberal-minded culture vultures. Some call uncanonized creations "outsider art", others call it "folk art". But few take it seriously.
We're not just talking about third-rate junk store paintings here; we're thinking of instruments, food and beverage labels, and one very special amusement ride — carousels.
It may sound absurd, but think of the last time you rode a classic carousel; didn't it feel as transcendent and magical as standing before a Picasso, or listening to a symphony? Part of it is the motion, but it goes deeper. Much of the exuberant joy we derive from a simple ride around in a circle is derived from the aesthetic charm of leaping horses (or sometimes other animals!) crafted by self-trained artisans.
Carousels have existed in some form since about the 6th century in Byzantium, but they really took hold of popular imagination in the 12th century in Asia and Europe. In the 17th century, carousels for children were created by carving wooden horses and putting them on a roundabout.
New York enjoys a rather storied position when it comes to carousels with 11 carousels listed on the National Register of Historic Places, by far more than any other state.
A new exhibit at the American Folk Museum in Manhattan (on display until July 28th) focuses on the unsung heroes of New York-based folk-art makers from the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. Among the 100 works of art in the exhibit are works from grocers-turned-ironworkers, "fancy chair" manufacturers, and many many carousel figures made by European immigrants. Frequently, these figures were used not just on carousels, but to advertise tobacco and other products.
We spoke with the Folk Museum's chief curator, Stacy Hollander, to find out more about the delightful explosion of creativity and artistry among carousel-making folk artists in New York.
New York Makers: Can you tell us about the artisans who are most responsible for the Carousel-making Renaissance in New York?
Stacy Hollander: A number of important figures revolutionized the carousel industry, centered in New York City's Coney Island. Charles I.D. Looff, an immigrant artisan from Schleswig-Holstein, Germany, installed his first carousel in Coney Island during the 1870s. He soon hired immigrant carver Marcus Charles Illions, whose carving skills, knowledge of horse anatomy, and artistic vision elevated the art to new heights of both imagination and realism. William F. Mangels, famed inventor of various amusement park machinery, improved and patented the gear system that allowed animals to move up and down. He employed Illions as his chief carver and the action of the jumpers combined with the ferocious realism of Illions's carvings lent an unprecedented dynamism to the carousels. Mangels also employed Stein and Goldstein and Charles Carmel in his Coney Island shop at some point in their careers before they branched out on their own.
NYM: How does carousel-making in New York distinguish itself from other regions of the country and world?
SH: New York City, and especially Brooklyn's Coney Island, became the preeminent center of carousel artistry by the turn of the twentieth century. The Coney Island Style, as it came to be known, was distinguished by the realistic dynamism of the horses with flying manes, lolling tongues, and ferocious gazes, the muscularity of the carvings, vigorous ornamentation of animals, the ornate decoration with jewels and mirrors, and the sheer size of the carousel structures.
NYM: What carousels are the most historically or culturally significant in New York?
SH: There are a number of historic carousels in New York City that visitors can still ride today. In 1908 Solomon Stein and Harry Goldstein’s carousel was installed in Central Park. One of the nation's largest merry-go-rounds, it features 57 majestic hand-carved horses and two decorative chariots. Brooklyn's Prospect Park boasts a Charles Carmel carousel. Carved in 1912, it comprises 53 magnificent horses and menagerie animals including a lion, giraffe, deer, and two dragon-pulled chariots. One of the most beloved and earliest merry-go-rounds is the B&B Carousell with horses carved by Marcus Charles Illions. Still located in Coney Island, it was built c. 1906–1909 by Coney Island-based manufacturer William F. Mangels. The most recent addition to New York's carousel landscape is Jane's Carousel. This 48-horse carousel was built in 1922 for the Idora Park amusement park in Youngstown, Ohio by the Philadelphia Toboggan Company, and lovingly restored over a period of decades by Jane Walentas. It is now installed in a beautiful pavilion designed by Jean Nouvel in Brooklyn Bridge Park.
Annual restoration on Jane's Carousel. Photo: Jane's Carousel
NYM: What should visitors to the Folk Museum exhibit be aware of, and what should they look for?
SH: The works of art on view are diverse and beautiful, provide an overview of American folk art, a historical perspective on the city, and offer first-hand glimpses into the life and vitality of New York City as the center of art, business, and innovation during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Even if you cannot visit the Folk Museum exhibit, in addition to the 13 carousels in New York City, the rest of New York State offers a number of possibilities to experience the pure, unadulterated joy of riding on, and appreciating the artistic significance of, our stunningly master-crafted, historic carousels.
Here are a few of our favorites:
Congress Park Carousel: Built in 1904 by the Illions company, it was created to recall the famous racing horses of Saratoga Springs. Ride it at 5 Lake Avenue in Saratoga Springs.
Empire State Carousel: Created over two decades by more than 1,000 volunteer carvers, quilters, painters, and woodworkers from across the state, it features a panoply of beautiful scenes and people — Grandma Moses, Walt Whitman, Uncle Sam, the Catskills — from New York State. The ride also features 23 riding animals indigenous to the state, including a bear, beaver, trout, chicken and mouse. Presented to the Farmers' Museum in Cooperstown in 2005, it is a modern reinterpretation of the classic. (It was also built from the remnants of a 1947 Alan Herschell mechanism). 5775 State Highway 80, Lake Road, Cooperstown.
Empire State Carousel. Photo: Otesaga Hotel
Olcott Beach Carousel Park: A vintage amusement park perched on the shores of Lake Ontario has many delights, including a 1929 Herschell-Spillman two-row carousel with 20 jumping horses, 3 standing horses, and a chariot. 5979 Main Street, Olcott.
New York State Museum Carousel: Perched atop the New York State Museum, with sweeping views of Albany, the 1915 Herschell-Spillman classic wood carousel features jumping and standing horses, deer, donkeys and chariots. 222 Madison Avenue, Albany.The Herschell Carrousel Factory Museum: Located in North Tonawanda, The Herschell Carrousel Factory Museum offers not just more than one historic carousel, but also exhibits about The Herschell Carrousel Factory, which contributed mightily to the legacy of historic carousels upstate and beyond New York's borders.