The Futurists’ ecstatic embrace of modern technology—planes, cars, subway trains, as well as machine guns and other engines of mass destruction for smashing the old order—also informed Joseph Stella’s Battle of Lights, Coney Island. The painting is among the most interesting efforts to express the new urban experiences of speed, machine-driven motion, and kaleidoscopic sensations collapsing time and space. Stella was an Italian immigrant who brought to his encounter with American modernity the fervor of a convert to a new creed. His paintings of modern New York contain a range of religious symbols, from stained-glass mosaic to soaring Gothic arches. Having read Walt Whitman while still in Italy, Stella was steeped in the mythology of a new land rife with possibilities for a democratic embrace of modern life. Traveling from his home in southern Italy as a young man to join his brother in New York City, Stella was headed for a career as a doctor. Soon, however, he turned to art. Following a long period of apprenticeship, first to the Old Masters, and then to Post-Impressionism, he followed the herd of American artists to Paris. There in 1912 he met the Italian Futurists, who provided him with a language for capturing his giddy impressions of the new. These various influences came together during a trip to Coney Island, a place that combined technology, ecstatic pleasure, danger, and crowds of people—for Stella the essential elements of an art grounded in his religion of modernity. The amusement park at Coney Island transformed industrial machinery—the tracks and cars used to mine coal and transport urban crowds from place to place—into roller-coasters, the agents of a dizzying new exhilaration. In celebrating the new sensations created by the intimate dance of the machine with the human body, Stella turned to the experience of crowds, whipped up by mechanized motion and lights into a state of “carnal frenzy.” This blend of crowds and machines is expressed in Stella’s painting as a swirling motion, suggesting the centrifugal force of a rollercoaster ride. Spinning out from the center, it also sucks us back in like a vortex. Anchoring the composition is the only recognizable motif in the painting—the electric tower of Luna Park in the upper center, resembling the spire of an Eastern Orthodox church. The painting is an intricate mosaic of splintered geometric patterns intermixed with organic swirls and spirals, a “dynamic arabesque,” in Stella’s words. In the lower register tiny human shapes pulsate in a sea of fractured forms. Abolishing all references to the humanistic perspective of his Italian heritage, Stella erases the boundaries separating the individual from his or her surroundings. Body and world become one in an experience that leaves behind both history and a sense of grounded selfhood. A carnival for men and women exhausted by industrial labor, Battle of Lights heralds an emerging culture of mass entertainment and mechanized leisure. In the experience of the modern and the loss of the self, Stella found a new means of transcendence, but also the unsettling potential for alienation and a descent into frenzied unreason.
—Angela L. Miller, et al., American Encounters: Art, History, and Cultural Identity (2008)