by Miles Beller
Flat paper parrots and snippets of string; clay pipes and building blocks and baby doll heads; wide patches of color between this object and that; charts of the cosmos and petite plaster cupids; pocket watch faces devoid of hands, black-and-white publicity stills scissored from Hollywood movie magazines; pages from faraway French novels and arthritic driftwood with miniature globes; children’s textbook pictures and sky-blue eggs; charts of craters pock marking the moon, a thicket of twigs foresting the space behind a cutout impression of a beaux arts palace…
Such is the stuff of Joseph Cornell’s boxed 3-D riddles – made of found matter, binding science and whim. Here are walled-in want and nostalgia; stop-action dreams and the poetry of memory; enshrined regrets and promises, twitchings and stirrings mounted and pinned. In the recesses of Cornell’s craftily worn and weathered dioramas settles lost time, a ghost reclaimed.
The associations and relationships of disparate items held in Cornell’s glassed-fronted cages -- here a pressed ticket stub creased and worn, there a hard starfish stuck to a spiraling design – make the juxtaposition of proximity the heart of art. The appointment of these things, the relationship of the ephemeral and the used becomes spiritual, divine. Position and placement, context and arrangement, in his care the rapport between bits and pieces can be as reverential as Sunday morning.
But let us pause to consider things. If my words were fashioned as one of Cornell’s boxes you surely would find something conveying his personal history. For instance, in this corner you would learn he was born a day before Christmas in 1903 and had come into the world as a child of privilege; his family encamped in a large Queen Ann house by the Hudson in Nyack, New York. But you would also discover in another part of the construct that when Cornell’s father died in 1917, the good life ended; his mother forced to move the children through a series of small spaces in New York City’s borough of Queens, finally winding up in an unassuming white-shingled house at the end of a street named Utopia Parkway. And here also lived Cornell’s brother Robert, profoundly afflicted with cerebral palsy and whose death in 1965 deeply touched Cornell. You would also find in a quantrant of the box that Cornell attended Phillips Academy and that after his graduation he felt compelled to help with the family finances by securing a job as a textile salesman, the same line of work his father had pursued.
Other things you would come to know about Joseph Cornell would include the fact he was an autodidact who became a passionate amateur astronomer, an opera aficionado, and an avid fan of cinema who made his own experimental films. (Recently, avant-garde musician/composer John Zorn wrote and performed music that served as soundtracks to several Cornell movies.) And, too, you would see that Cornell was a diligent reporter of the interior who set down notes of his days augmented by accounts of his dreams.
You would also realize he corresponded with movie stars and fellow artists, these letters sometimes decorated with hand-drawn flourishes and succinct collages. You learn, too, that Cornell acquired the rudiments of carpentry to build his boxes, and was hired as a window designer for Lord & Taylor and Elizabeth Arden’s perfume, as well as winning work as a graphic designer for such magazines as Town & Country and Harper’s Bazaar. Moreover, you would come to see that his favorite haunts were secondhand stores, theaters, used bookshops, and galleries, and that the Julien Levy Gallery where Cornell first saw the kicky surrealist pieces by Max Ernst spurred Cornell (who had amassed his own trove of advertisements, antique prints, shots of popular entertainers, and pictures of art masterpieces) to create collages of his own which Levy would include in a group show with Max Ernst, Man Ray and Jean Cocteau, opening on January 9, 1932.
You would also come to see that a few years later, Cornell would begin building his boxes, his “poetic theaters” as he sometimes referenced them, and that he would become a Christian Scientist. Additionally, you would learn that while Cornell fashioned diverse art, it would be those boxes – bearing such names as “Napoleanic Cockatoo,” “Tanlioni’s Jewel Casket,” and “Lobster Ballet: For Jacques Offenbach,” -- that would achieve iconic status. And, too, you would come to know that a Cornell solo show at Julien Levy’s gallery in 1939 you could buy one of his pieces for $5 to $100, while today a Cornell collage could run you nearly $150,000 and one of his boxes set you back more than $2.5 million.
All this you would come to understand about Joseph Cornell. And for the purpose of this story, you would become aware of a finely researched and richly illustrated book by Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, “Joseph Cornell: Navigating the Imagination,” published in concert with a recent touring exhibit of the same name that Hartigan assembled and that captured many glowing notices. The New York Times’s Holland Cotter came away from that show convinced Cornell’s work emitted “provocatively contradictory signals” that were both “guileless but sophisticated, occult but self-revealing, sweet and corrupt,” while Kenneth Baker of the San Franciso Chronicle found the retrospective “captivating,” a “lyrical counterpoise” to the idea “anything can be – or figure in – an artwork.”
This ambitious display (180 pieces encompassing assemblages, collages, annotated clippings, photographs, and other assorted materials), was the first major survey of Cornell’s output in nearly three decades. Commencing in Washington D.C. at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (a co-sponsor along with the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts), the exhibit then moved north to the Peabody Essex, wrapping up on the west coast at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
As noted, this exhibit was accompanied by Hartigan’s outstanding catalogue, Hartigan chief curator of the Peabody Essex Museum. Indeed, beyond Hartigan’s words, what makes this Cornell book memorable are the telling photographs of his work and related items, pictures conveying the depth and wonder of Cornell’s magical confections. Quite so, these pictures very nearly summon the visceral presence of his miraculous boxes and cut-and-paste hagiographies to fleet-footed saints of the subconscious. Encountering these evocative photographs imparts something of the lyrical mysticism received when in the presence of Cornell’s handiwork.
Here it must be mentioned that along with “Navigating the Imagination” arrived "Joseph Cornell's Dreams,” edited by Catherine Corman. And though Corman’s “Dreams” is considerably smaller and less ambitious, it nicely augments Hartigan’s big book. Corman presents in chronological order 150 of Cornell’s dreams as jotted down by the artist in his journals, journals that Corman tells us run 30,000 pages of which almost 500 contain dreams.
That these books are markedly different makes them compelling companions. For taken together they afford layered insights into the art and inner life of Joseph Cornell. Hartigan provides a discerning reconsideration and analysis of the influences and impulses in Cornell's work, while Corman's affords access to Cornell’s motivations. As Corman writes in her introduction, "Dreams and life were not completely separate for Cornell." To this end, she includes an incident recounted by Cornell's sister, Betty, who recalls coming upon her brother cowering in a corner, convinced a dream was an actuality, and repeating over and over to her, "It's a white antelope, it's a white antelope." Corman also offers an extended quote by a Cornell assistant who remembers how Cornell "took naps on the front room sofa for three or four hours and would get up directly out of a dream and put something together." Moreover, the assistant asserts that Cornell “didn’t come out of a poetic world ever.” Though far different in means and method, Cornell shares with painter Edward Hopper the ability to define a softly shifting melancholy that like shadow imperceptibly settles on and coats architecture and objects in mood and tone.
A sampling of Cornell’s dreams from Corman’s book underscores how the sleep state informed his art. For instance, on November 29, 1952 he wrote of a "quaint toy like bird wigs opening like a clamshell." A dream recorded on July 19, 1963 told of an "old-fashioned doll suddenly opening its eyes from no apparent motivation…." And on October 10, 1967, Cornell described a dream of "catching a rabbit looking more like a fox" that falls asleep in his hand and on waking "turns into my hand." This imagery evokes his shadow box worlds, where a hoop-skirted cutout of a doll parachutes in open sky over what looks like bulldozed mountains; or where a publicity head shot of a screen siren stares out from a cell bisected by glass shelves above which a series of squares contain the Manhattan skyscrapers in miniature.
Early in Cornell’s career his cagey dealer, Julien Levy, who had a knack for showcasing and promoting smart art not yet in the mainstream, trumpeted Cornell’s work and that of kindred artists as toys for adults. Yet in Cornell’s case such labeling smacked more of marketing rather than fitting description. While whimsy and play are elements in his constructions, his overriding sentiment is serious; of longing and loss and a softly keening regret.
This full view of Cornell emerges when Hartigan and Corman’s books are taken together. For the reader comes to see Cornell’s consummate skill in selecting and positioning just the right bauble or bell in league with other objects to generate yearning and a sense of the past, of that unrecoverable distance between expectation and experience.
Though Cornell sometimes flirted with the prissy and the precious, an innate understanding of perspective and composition invariably righted these inclinations. For the untrained Cornell instinctually acted with finesse and elegance. In his work there is a natural refinement, a perfection largely lacking in garden variety “outsider artists,” even in the offerings of such celebrated folks as naïve painter Grandma Moses and the detail-obsessed Henry Darger. While the hallmark strength of the self-tutored artist is usually cited as “rawness” and “crudeness” and “primitivism,” Cornell’s arrangements are inarguably precise, with a clarity and a brilliance born of exactitude. And though Cornell has been classified by some as a Surrealist, his vision extends well beyond the confines and conventions of this movement; his work defying easy categorizing and pigeonholing. Cornell, himself, put it simply yet vigorously, “My boxes are life’s experiences esthetically expressed.”
As a matter of fact, his work has ignited literature. A poem by Frank O’Hara takes us inside a Cornell box, to that place of reconciled opposites and sumptuously appointed dislocations. As O’Hara expressed it, “Into a sweeping meticulously detailed disaster the violent light pours. It’s not a sky, it’s a room. And in the open field a glass of absinthe is fluttering its song of India. Prairie Winds circle mosques.” Octavio Paz dedicated the composition “Objects & Apparitions” to Cornell, characterizing his boxed creations as a “Slot machine of vision” and “Theatre of spirits” where “objects (were) putting the laws of identity through hoops.” Moreover, John Ashbery, Stanley Kunitz and Robert Pinsky have authored poems for the artist; while Dore Aston, Charles Simic and Jonathan Safran Foer have been involved with projects tethered to Cornell.
The artist-writer Mina Loy, who knew Cornell, reverentially spoke of his “sublime bric-a-brac” and how on entering a gallery housing his work she felt as if she were “consort(ing) with the transcendent.” The abstract color field painter Mark Rothko, in a letter to Cornell, lauded Cornell’s “genius for expressing to people how you think about them and about what they do” and of the “uncanny magic of the things you make.” And in a piece penned by figurative painter Fairfield Porter for Art & Literature, Porter cited Cornell as “…having something that has not been seen in works of visual art since the Renaissance.”
Through the decades, the critics, too, have been challenged and entranced by Cornell. Parker Tyler, assessing the artist’s constructions in 1939, wrote how when a child he, Tyler, thought “the dimensions of the Universe was a shoebox because I peopled it with images, objects and drama, which it appeared to contain.” Tyler then ruminated on Cornell’s skill regarding this process, concluding, “Joseph Cornell, master of the world as a biboquet, transforms the tired brooding on messy things into the crystal perception of form and color; he cathedralizes thought too silly to mention and returns lost articles of the imagination.” New Yorker Critic Robert M. Coates, considering Cornell’s boxes in a Manhattan gallery during the mid-1950s, thought them “…trim and austerely impeccable as always.”
Barbara Rose, in “American Art Since 1900,” determined that Cornell was “…able to distill poetry and drama from ordinary fragments.” Yet the stuff Cornell deployed for his work, Rose judged, was no mere junk, rather he was attracted to “precious fragments—crystal goblets, bits of sparkle, etc.” And the net effect of Cornell’s arrangements in a box of these particulars was for Rose something akin to “…three-dimensional collages, star-maps of a private universe.” A newsweekly story about Cornell pegged the force of his handiwork as owing to that quality which underscores “…man’s timelessness by collecting and preserving man’s shreds and tatters.” Robert Hughes, in his “American Visions,” the companion publication to the PBS series, saw the relatively concise pieces produced by Cornell, a “reclusive, gray, long-beaked man,” as having the effect of opening “vast tracts of the imagination.” Concerning the kinship of Cornell’s art to Surrealism, Hughes deemed it far more in accord with what Cornell called “Max Ernst’s white magic side” than with Surrealism’s more disturbing eruptions. Yet despite Hughes’s contention that Cornell stripped his images of sexual innuendo – e.g. childhood depicted as young and innocent – more than a few Cornell boxes exude an erotic undertone of carnal craving, Malice in Wonderland bleeding through the sweetly decorative.
Yet what does seem to be a point of critical agreement concerning Cornell is his staunch commitment to refinement and grace, his unwavering dedication to order and compositional rigor.
To this end, Corman contends that Cornell considered himself “a custodian of fragility,” and Hartigan lauds him for taking “a radical stance from the outset in choosing beauty, wonder, spirituality and humanity as his touchstones…” Cornell, who died at age 69 in 1973, more than alluded to this, writing in the mid-1940s that “as long as I have been making the objects my feeling has been a more serious one than of ‘mere amusements’…” This sentiment is further reflected in Cornell’s remembrance of how he came to fashion his boxes. It was while passing an antique store in the 1930s and catching sight of a display of compasses that he realized he was thinking in a revolutionary yet reasonable way. “I thought everything can be used in a lifetime, can’t it, and went on walking. I’d scarcely gone two blocks when I came on another shop window full of boxes, all different kinds…Half way home on the train that night I thought of the compasses and boxes, and it occurred to me to put the two together.”
This notion, as in Cornell’s art, is prosaic yet profound; the marriage of the utilitarian with the numinous to produce tender transcendence. This duality, fantasy hinged to practicality, was tacitly acknowledged by Cornell in an undated letter to the actress Eva Maria Saint. Here he wrote of being particularly “prone to Christmas from childhood…in the context of NYC, snow, magical store windows...no matter how the seasonal mystique gets hammered out by the world condition.” To another correspondent, Cornell composed and enclosed a simple but formal cut-and-paste portrait of play and fancy. It was collaged imagery borrowing from an old etching and a torso comprised of the picture of an open eye. A handwritten sentence, curling like a Dali moustache at both ends, declared over smiling lips, “Glad you like my nonsense.”
Nonsense? Indeed. But nonsense that slips free of logic’s gravity and is in full sail in the service of navigating the imagination.
Miles Beller is a board member of The Wonder of Reading and served as the Joan Nordell Fellow at Harvard University’s Houghton Library.