PRINT April 1999


I must have been taken by my parents to see the Joseph Cornell boxes at the Art Institute of Chicago as a little boy. Although I don’t remember seeing anything by Cornell so early in life (we left Chicago when I was six), I do know that when I was very young and I heard the word “art” I thought automatically of something mysterious and beautiful, insistently but obscurely meaningful, contained within a box.

I drew and painted obsessively from around the age of five, and I created rudimentary dioramas in shoe boxes, usually involving my own clay figures, a toy or two, and a picture from a magazine. When my family moved from Chicago to Europe, I was regularly taken to museums and cathedrals and, being a child with a particular relationship to reality, began aspiring to the accomplishments of Raphael and da Vinci, though I did not, at the time, quite know one from the other. My most ambitious project was a painting of a cemetery from which smiling spirits ascended toward heaven in the upper right-hand comer of the canvas board. For heaven I tried foil stars, a little plaster Christ child (which obdurately refused to stick), and a miniature gated city done with paste and gold glitter, though none of these quite conveyed the ethereal reward I had in mind. Being a child with a particular relationship to defeat, I eventually gave up on art and turned to writing stories. Those Cornell boxes, however, have remained imbedded in my consciousness in a way I can’t fully explain, and if I worked myself up to a sufficient level of hysteria I could very well cry out “I am Cornell,” much in the way Catherine says, in Wuthering Heights, that she is Heathcliff. Cornell got to me early, and I surrendered to him an innocence that was probably mine to give only once.

Cornell’s Soap Bubble Set (Lunar Rainbow, Space Object) has always been one of my favorites, though I might just as easily have written about almost any of the boxes. It’s the whole body of Cornell’s work that speaks to me—the enterprise of it, the crackpot consciousness that somehow, confoundingly, produced enduring works of art out of magazine pictures and trinkets from dime stores. Cornell famously lived his entire life, all sixty-nine years of it, as a child. He never moved out of his mother’s little suburban house in Queens. He never had sex, though he was subject to obsessive crushes on dancers, singers, and movie stars. His diet consisted largely of candy and cake. The work he created can be ravishing, and it can also be a little creepy: A man who refuses to grow up is, after all, at least as grotesque as he is charming.

It mattered to me when I was younger, and still matters to me today, that Cornell was not only self-taught but was, in the technical sense, barely competent. The edges of the boxes are not quite straight, the corners not quite true. Still, using the humblest everyday materials, he created worlds of depth and great beauty, and he did so in a dank little basement in Queens as his mother stomped around on the kitchen floorboards overhead. He was arguably the greatest unskilled artist of the twentieth century, the one whose work veers closest to the fervent, feverish output of strange and precocious children. As a child, I believed that the boxes were meant to be gifts (which, as I’ve since learned, was sometimes true and sometimes not; and even when Cornell did give a box away he often changed his mind later and asked for it back, as a little boy might). When as a child I embarked on a project, I always imagined presenting it, triumphantly, to my family or a particular friend, and I still write with certain readers in mind: If a book isn’t for someone, I can’t seem to get started.

I tend to think of words as elements not unlike those in Soap Bubble Set (Lunar Rainbow, Space Object), and I try to shock my language more fully to life by pairing words that don’t generally belong together. Taken individually, the components in Soap Bubble Set are as common as their names: clay pipe, metal ring, picture of the moon. Juxtaposed, they become something else entirely. I’ve tried to learn from that.

My novel The Hours is based on Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. Woolf and Cornell were, of course, geniuses of considerably different sorts, but both produced great art from everyday sources. He used toys and magazine pictures, she an ordinary day in the life of a relatively ordinary woman named Clarissa Dalloway. Woolf was revolutionary, in part because she insisted that the experience of a fifty-two-year-old woman going to buy flowers on a summer day in London was a more than sufficient subject for a novel. Like Cornell, she scoured the streets, always alert to transcendence’s capacity for inhabiting what might look, to the untrained eye, like nothing more than a clay pipe or a toy, or a woman shopping.

Woolf and Cornell are, in a sense, my two patron saints. I often wonder whether I’d have been half as receptive to Woolf’s fiction if I hadn’t first seen Cornell’s boxes. While I venerate Woolf, I feel a greater affinity with Cornell—perhaps because I more directly recognize his form of insanity. At any rate I aspire, in my wilder dreams, to something like what he achieved, a peculiar hybrid of great art and rainy-day project: objects that are profound if somewhat roughly made, that strive for their own kind of eccentric beauty while flirting with sentimentality, that are meant to be given as gifts, and that recognize no contradictions among any of those qualities.