PRINT April 1966

Joseph Cornell

“. . . a kind of ‘sacred conversation’ . . . among the objects within the box . . .”

JOSEPH CORNELL IS THE MASTER OF AN ART that derives from an eccentric and solitary imagination. Although his work is born out of Surrealist imagery and vocabulary, it cannot ultimately be classified with Surrealism or with any other group movement. Cornell is a Surrealist only in the sense that “Surrealism is not a direction or a movement, it is a permanent state of the soul.” (Wilhelm Freddie.)

The intensely private and detached nature of Cornell’s art might be seen as a continuation of a specifically American cultural tradition. One aspect of American cultural history presents a series of withdrawn men and women, recluses whose genius has been to give their art vitality through isolated self-communication and solitary reverie. They eschewed social involvement for a self-imposed, frequently celibate and monastic private life. One thinks of the composer, Charles Ives, or the physicist, Willard Gibbs, or of Emily Dickinson, who, in her intensely private, retiring, yet awesome creative life, also refused to deal with the outside world. This tradition combines an austere outlook with mysticism and humility. Joseph Cornell is of their number.

Cornell has affinities with the 19th-century painters, Harnett and Peto, whose work was virtually unknown among their next-door neighbors. The formal harmonies of their still-life compositions are echoed in the three-dimensional serenities Cornell achieves in his boxes. These latter share with the still-lifes a reverence for common objects (pipes, nails, letters) and their textures. Both contain the classic discretion of tellingly arranged objects related in space.

A mysterious obscurity has surrounded Cornell, one which he himself has fostered by sheer inaccessibility. Enjoying the admiration of the few who know his work, and long since a myth to the larger art world, Cornell has played a significant underground role in the development of current American art. Yet he keeps nearly everything he has made, and sometimes even makes a copy of something sold, to retain it. Thus, though his output has been amazingly prolific, boxes for sale are scarce. (After making these creations for thirty years, Cornell has over a thousand stored in his own house. He has concentrated on collage for only a few recent years and already has hundreds.) The boxes and collages have been consistently exhibited but rarely twice in the same gallery, and Cornell has hitherto scrupulously avoided the exposure which would come with a retrospective or a major museum exhibition.

Cornell has lived in Flushing, New York, since his early childhood. He was born at Christmas, 1903, and grew up in what now seems a halcyon time in America, relics of which he now enshrines in the boxes. It is known that he went to Andover School, and that he was interested early in theatre and symbolist poetry. He is not known to have gone to college or to have had any formal art training. As a young man, Cornell tells of working in his father’s business, dealing in fabrics and yard goods around New York. At this time he began to love the city, and browsed through small book and second-hand stores, and curio palaces. He became fascinated with theatre, vaudeville, and the then-emerging movies.

Film time sequence, the idea of the movie frame, and the stars of films (and theatre) have become fundamental compositional and iconographic elements in the boxes. (Cornell has made movies from time to time, up through the present.) At the same time, he treasures his collection of old and rare books, maps, papers, and documents, begun during the twenties. Cornell cherishes de Nerval’s Encyclopedia of French Theatre and the old magazines and portraits of bel canto singers as well as a vast collection of movie stills and portraits that he has acquired. All these have been incorporated into the boxes.

His earliest known work, outside of some experiments with film montage, indicates Surrealist influence. A Watchcase for Marcel Duchamp was executed around 1929. Cornell was the only American to exhibit a piece in the first Surrealist show in America, held at Julien Levy’s gallery in 1932. Cornell himself recalls an early piece called Woman and Sewing Machine, now lost, whose description suggests strong affinities with early pieces by Max Ernst. This exhibition marks the beginning of a close association with Julien Levy and the artists whom he represented. It endured through the thirties and is evidenced by Cornell’s interest in and contributions to View magazine in the early forties.

The cover of issue #4, Americana Fantastica, January 1943 an article entitled “The Crystal Cage (Portrait of Berenice)”, and two illustrations are all by Cornell. The cover is an extraordinary collage of Niagara Falls, Indian acrobats, movie stars, King Kong and old maps, with an old etching of Columbus, elements and images also central to Cornell’s boxes. The two smaller illustrations both reveal and represent interests which became themes in Cornell’s work. Spent Meteor Night of February 10th, 1843 (for E. A. Poe) is a photograph of an open book scattered with sand, glass fragments, spilled ink and a dropped quill, all lighted by a candle. “. . . Like a net of stars . . . ,” a collage of a ballerina dressed in a cloud of stardust, dancing in a limitless space, illustrates Charles Henri Ford’s poem “Ballet for Tamara Toumanova” and Cornell’s love, knowledge and idealization of ballerinas finds its purest expression in The Taglioni Jewel Case, 1940. This issue of View contains references and examples of motifs that he makes more particular and explicit within the boxes.

Cornell’s work with View indicates that his sensibilities and many of his themes were fully developed by 1940. Ernst, Breton, Tanguy, Masson and Dali also appeared frequently in the magazine. This period of the thirties and early forties marks Cornell’s greatest personal contact with the Surrealists, who shared his fascination for objects, toys and the irrational, haunting juxtaposition of images. Cornell incorporated the Surrealist’s symbolic approach to the unconscious into his extremely personal imagery of fragments and ephemera. From them he learned the use of dream space, the irrational game, the haphazard, but his work has never contained the erotic, sinister or shocking elements that were also a part of the Surrealist vocabulary. Where the Surrealists seem calculating and self-conscious, Cornell’s imagery comes out of a natural stream of imagination.

Surrealism proclaimed an apparent break with cultural tradition. Cornell has treasured the traditional as records of personal history. He combined Surrealist techniques with a specific fascination for 19th-century symbolism and romanticism. Robert Motherwell has spoken of his conversations with Cornell about the literature of the Symbolists in the early forties when the two were in close mutual contact. Cornell has always been deeply immersed in the works of poets like Novalis, Holderlin, de Nerval and Mallarme, whom Cornell combined, as Motherwell remarked, with the upstairs attic. Their mysticism and irrational imagery have been touchstones for his own states of contemplation.

Cornell’s boxes create an atmosphere of paradox and enigma that sets up a highly individualistic resonance, inciting the viewer’s own processes of free association. Most discussions of Cornell’s work therefore become vague, frustrated descriptions of the effect of the work upon the viewer, rather than a clear and specific inquiry into the nature, organization and structure of each box itself. These boxes do cast a kind of “spell” best set aside for the moment, in order to better examine thematic, iconographic, and structural components as they develop in Cornell’s work.

Cornell is perhaps the first artist to deal with the hypnotic quality caused by the monotony which comes from repetition. The repetition of words, glasses, balls, cubes and regular spatial intervals and even whole boxes produces a monotonous rhythm which makes Cornell’s cosmos seem inevitable in its arrangement, frozen in time.

A connected theme in his work is that of a fascination with the nature of things. Objects are perpetually doomed to vanish or be destroyed. Thus the importance of ephemera in recording both natural and personal histories. The nature of the universe is explored by Cornell in his Soap Bubble Sets, his sand fountains and games and in his Celestial or Night Sky pieces. The Sand Fountain is a visual rendering of chance and flow. When the box is moved, the blue sand cascades and falls in random patterns, like a Lucretian flow of the elements. The broken goblet which breaks the sand’s flow suggests both the measurement of time, as in an hourglass, and the destruction of objects accomplished by historical time. Glass is made from sand, a chemical affinity which unifies the box almost metaphysically.

In the Soap Bubble Sets, the broken pipe fragments of scholarly texts and glass goblets suggest fragility and when combined with the backgrounds, which are usually maps or blue space, the cosmos. As for the Night Sky boxes, astronomy, the science of the stars, and astrology––the mythology of the stars––unite to again suggest cosmic order played off against man’s contingent knowledge and existence. In Cornell’s imagery, science and mathematics and navigation represent masculine activities.

Birds and butterflies are also constantly recurring images in his iconography. Birds reoccur in habitats, terrarium settings, games, shooting galleries and cages. Sometimes, as in the box called Dien Bien Phu, the cockatoo is a symbol of life destroyed. Exotic birds also are symbols of homage to singers and artists as in Homage to Juan Gris and in the box dedicated to Pasta, the bel canto singer. Butterflies (incorporated as stickers or stamps), can represent the fleeting beauties in life and nature and also suggest the freedom of distant places. As Cornell’s style becomes purified in the early fifties, the birds are physically absent but still present in spirit. In Abandoned Perch and in the dovecote (columbier) series, the image has given way to emptiness or to a severe “white on white” reiteration of squares containing cubes and balls.

The Pharmacy series combined this purification and compartmentalization of space with an exploration of substances. The compositions are held together by the strict divisions of space played against the volume of the small glass containers and the differing textures of the substances contained within the bottles. In these boxes handfuls of common things, sands, beads, glitter (which is basically meretricious) are metamorphosed into rare and precious substances. This metamorphosis from common to rare, tawdry to precious, and vice versa (as with money) is a distinctive trait in Cornell’s work.

Penny arcades and games are a recurring thematic concern, too. These boxes are informed with a nostalgia for childhood toys and a witty preservation of ten-cent store figures. They are the “play” boxes in which the children’s block and toys are kept from destruction by the simple and severe containing squares within the rectangle of the box itself.

Cornell’s abiding passion for the theatrical and the performer constitutes a major theme throughout his work. Dancers, singers, and movie stars are memorialized in the boxes. Symbolizing Cornell’s idealization of women and of creative forces, they represent the possibilities of sheer make believe. Dancers are also equated with doves and butterflies and jewels. A lost fantasy world of love and art, Rousseau-like in purity and innocence, is created in the series of Miniature Palaces and the Homages to ballerinas. The memorial portraits enshrine individuals, as in the Garbo box, where Garbo’s photograph is simply preserved in space. (These images of stars, on another level, become symbols of other people Cornell has privately known.)

Suns, hotels (identified by typographical imagery), planets, constellations (Cassiopeia, Andromeda) are recurring images. They exalt, sometimes metaphysically, sometimes allegorically, a light opposed by the darkness of the aquariums and the environment compositions, which must be connected electrically to be seen.

Cornell collects notebooks, scraps, and the data of ephemera like a historian of a doomed culture. His boxes highlight the continuity of life with an awareness of the inevitability of age, destruction and decay. He “stages” fantasies which are nevertheless symbols of concrete feeling. The work is built on a vast array of associations about transient experience and a past which is more real than the present. Yet Cornell’s nostalgia, concerned as it is with enigma, is never reserved in emotional terms. Each box is a cryptic document, whose very mystery is often “documented” in turn. Maps, scraps of pages, poems, pictures and arcane texts often provide a secondary composition on the backs of the boxes which “key” the interior symbols. These “keys” are like directions for unraveling the meaning of the visual composition.

The box called Celestial Navigation by Birds is intricately documented. The composition behind the window-glass evokes a sensation of spatial and corresponding metaphysical contrasts—sky-earth, night-day, near-far, planets, globes, orbits. The formal and spatial compositions of the cut-out circles, the balls, the marble and the round emptiness of the glasses suggest a complex of scientific and dimensional relationships. But by looking simply at the composition of glasses, runners, maps and free objects, one has little more than a sensation of an esoteric game. The theme or direction of the composition is articulated by the back of the box. Here is the title, pasted over a map of the constellation. In the upper left and lower right corners Cornell has pasted small cut-outs of an astronomer looking through a telescope surrounded by a crowd of onlookers and a boy looking upward through binoculars. From the title, now given, one can make all kinds of associations about the map and the figures, and the main composition. Where are the birds? What are the boy and the astronomer looking for, or at? The glasses, blue balls and the documentation all become environmental and symbols for something unknown and romantic. The formal and emotional values resonate like strains of music, but no final conclusion can be drawn from a documentation which gives “direction,” but still remains hermetic. Documentation occurs even more fully in Cornell’s collages perhaps because it is often more personal and because collage, by the nature of the medium, tends to be less dense and complex than the three-dimensional medium of the box. In Chant du Nightingale (1965) the back and front surfaces of the collage present virtually two separate compositions.

The infinite complexity and cross-references of Cornell’s data and symbols can be understood as the elements which give form to a unique fantasy universe. Within the repetition of the themes of childhood, solitude, memory, natural and cultural history, and personal memorials, there are the endless combinations and variations of the imagery previously discussed. He constantly re-works old pieces and reintroduces old themes, so that there is no strict chronological development of either content or style. These boxes develop, rather, through a finely worked out series of tensions that exist between the formal and the emotional; the container and the content—or contained. The very use of a box suggests an objectification of something into a tangible fact. A box is self-contained, limited, preserving. Cornell’s box, in addition, is theatrical, reminiscent of shadow-boxes. What is within is cut off; it can be seen through the glass, as through a window, but not touched. The components in a box may be rearranged, or moved around, but not scattered. The box presents a microcosm, in which the objects communicate primarily among themselves; a kind of “sacred conversation” which recalls an aspect of certain kinds of still-life, goes on among the objects within the box.

Certain consistent devices of spatial arrangement and scale exist in Cornell’s work. Detachment and serenity are created by a precise sense of scale. One has the feeling of distances commensurate with a view through the wrong end of a telescope. The images are tiny, clear and often very far away. Interplay between near and far, the nearness of the frontal figures, cut-outs, glasses, etc., is contrasted against the suggestion of infinitude given by maps, mirrors, and empty white or blue spaces. In the Sun box, Cassiopeia #3, c. 1954, the setting of the sun image in an expanse of white space broken only by the runner and ball, creates a flat surface and also implies the whole expanse of sky and daylight. Many boxes contain the source of their own light (electric bulbs). Sometimes the sun and/or white space, radially scored, schematically represent light. Cornell also uses mirrors, silver, and the glinting of glass, mica or fragments of crystal to suggest a poignant sparkle.

One of several ways in which Cornell’s boxes are structured is through repetition of objects and spatial “double entendre.” Another is his use of the grid or compartment which has, ultimately, Cubist sources antithetical to his use of symbolical space. Variations of this are slots, cubes and balls, and the circular openings within compartments. The early work, Petit Musee (similar in formal concept to the Taglioni Jewel Case) has compartments which contain, at random, whiskey glasses filled with small relics. This is a three-dimensional grid. The compartments also suggest old containers, 19th-century post office slots and old-fashioned games. In later works, the grid was made two-dimensional by a use of chicken wire. In using the linear effect of wire, or lines on the glass, Cornell introduces into his work a kind of surrogate draftsmanship.

Texture, too, is an important element within the boxes. The inner surfaces of each box are pasted, stained and aged with infinite care. Glass, buttons, and mirrors are transformed into precious substances, contrasted all the more by charred, flaked or abraded wooden or painted surfaces. The boxes are like reliquaries that contain sacred objects. There is a feeling of reverent preservation of the past, rather than a confrontation with the present. Cornell creates new things out of old so that none of the pastwill be lost. He conjures his own self-preservation out of memory. Tactilely, Cornell’s palette tints and discolors the majority of objects that come into sight. The boxes contain no large areas of bright colors, though there are often vivid accents of red balls, yellow cubes, plastic toys or colorful plumage of birds. The tonalities of the boxes are usually light with dark accents or dark with light variations; in any event, extremely contrasted in value. He uses cool silvers, blues and whites, and faded shades of yellow and rose that are reminiscent of a delicate, romantic mouldering or a waxen lifelessness. These colors also suggest old walls when read flat, and open up into deep spaces when read symbolically. The color evokes, simultaneously, innocence and decay.

Cornell’s emphasis on, and fascination with the past has affinities with “Camp” sensibility. Camp’s preoccupation with artifice, with the esthetic of art made from the once-banal, with theatricality and tinseled enthusiasm all parallel, to some extent, Cornell’s own preoccupations. His naivete and particular wit contain elements of Camp, but his work ultimately rejects Camp however outre many of its elements are. And this is because his art partakes of a larger fantasy, and a genuine refinement that transcends affectation and exaggeration. He has transformed fleeting, banal and sentimental fragments of taste into a sensibility of high culture, charged by the catalyst of his own extremes of feeling, by, that is, his serious, even grave ingenuousness.

Alexandra Cortesi



✻ Cornell’s other contributions to View include “Story without a Name” in #1 (Max Ernst Number) April 1942.