“Joseph Cornell/Marcel Duchamp . . . In Resonance”

When asked, in 1961, whether he wanted to destroy art, Marcel Duchamp replied: “I don’t want to destroy art for anybody else but for myself, that’s all.” While never quite destroying it for himself (or anyone else, which is a pity)—the museum’s rapacious maw would frustrate that—Duchamp altered so absolutely what and why and how art is (by perverting received notions of what constitutes it, by eroticizing and laughing at it, by making it a joke)—that he defaced it, much as he defaced himself, replacing Marcel with a more gamine, photographic other, Rrose Sélavy: The body’s face in Étant donnes is impossible to see.

And then there is Joseph Cornell. Although he embraced Surrealism, designing the cover for the 1936 book that gallerist Julian Levy named for the movement, and displaying his works in the landmark exhibit that accompanied it, Cornell distanced himself from most of its frat-house boisterousness and disorganized its calculated sex games in favor of a miasma of longing and erotic quandary. By allowing his works and oddball presence to resonate with Duchamp’s, Cornell is shown to be what he has always been: a rigorous, strange, daunting figure whose works still thwart and balk at most categorizations. With his raffiné knowledge of forgotten movie stars, his balletomania, his careful retarding of the social, Cornell accomplished something as daring as Duchamp: He trashed art. If Duchamp’s Fountain presents waste and its systems in place of art, to take Cornell’s work at its literal dare, to allow its most radical impulses—which are to be found not only in his beloved boxes but in his collages (especially the later, outré ones), in his mesmerizing films, and in his oceanic dossiers—you must take trash seriously, respect the daily intercourse any human has with refuse and refusing: discarded thoughts, ideas, abandoned loves and objects, reality’s landfill and sewer.

In Philadelphia, on opposite ends of a small gallery, two parallel vitrines—one for Duchamp, another for Cornell, each containing a careful selection of many of their most amazing works—were centered by a longer vitrine, running perpendicular to the others and containing Cornell’s Duchamp Dossier. The artist squirreled away this accumulation of ephemera between 1942 and 1953, the years during which Cornell and Duchamp had regular contact in New York after Duchamp had hired Cornell to help assemble his editions of the Boîte-en-valise. The dossier sat on a shelf in Cornell’s house until it was discovered after his death in 1972 by Walter Hopps, the curator responsible for each artist’s first retrospective, both in Southern California. The dossier comprises obsessive flotsam and jetsam irradiated by a complex friendship, but it reveals little about that relationship aside from the data that restaurant and laundry receipts contain, precise yet also inconclusive, and clues as to how Cornell was able to imbue scraps with a totemic aura. What it does illuminate is how closely two artists can work, how they can deploy similar materials—found objects, files, boxes, notes—investigating how those materials relate to particular formal concerns, and yet how different the result can be in terms of tonality, mood. The juxtaposition with Cornell sweetens Duchamp’s taciturn philosophical gaming, showing it always, whatever its complex scientistic reach, to have been made up of the popular’s gamut of stuff: chocolate grinders, perfume bottles, urinals, ads turning into tokenlike portable miniatures. The dossier astonishes by formulating and complicating, as do Cornell’s other projects, definitions and distinctions between art and, well, whatever abrades art but is never quite primarily of it (literature, pornography, etc.), while at the same time locating Duchamp in the loopy context of Cornell’s other dossier subjects—Lauren Bacall, the ballet character Ondine, Patty Duke—proleptically situating the artist-as-star. Cornell referred to these as files, but also as documents, dossiers, portfolios, scrapbooks, and explorations. What does it mean to accumulate material? Duchamp’s materials, notes, are studied like cabala. Why is it that with Cornell, as with Warhol (whose blank presence haunted this show), there is the urge to see his collectophilia as the result of his bachelorhood, his practice as a symptom of some erotic lack?

Not long after the artists met in New York in 1933, Cornell began meditating on Duchamp—both the man and his work. Hidden in the pages of the revelatory Untitled Book Object (Journal d’Agriculture Pratique et Journal de l’Agriculture), ca. 1933-mid-1940s, is one of the most complex commentaries on Duchamp’s work by a fellow artist. As Lynda Roscoe Hartigan writes: “Tipped in, the silhouetted color reproduction of the Mona Lisa is slit to cradle a dried leaf and cutouts of French perfume bottles and a woman’s straw hat in her arms . . . . Lifting the reproduction of the Mona Lisa reveals a head-shot detail of Lusha Nelson’s 1934 photograph of Duchamp for Vanity Fair superimposed on an illustration of a ’Pompe de Jardin A Commande Électrique [Electrically Operated Garden Pump].’ Cornell also inscribed Mariée in the lower left corner of the composition, reinforcing his imaginary portrait’s allusions to the Large Glass in a French book about practical agriculture.” Both men reused all manner of culture and science to further their exploration into the nature of what anyone meant by art. Duchamp favored the acerb, cool, and indifferent; Cornell privileged the nostalgic, limp, and oneiric. Both questioned the intellectual activity involved in scavenging, borrowing, burrowing, cutting things up, and turning away.

In one of his most amazing late collages, Sorrows of Young Werther, ca. 1966, Cornell cut and pasted different photomechanical reproductions together on Masonite: A lordly lone boy and his dog gaze away from a nude reclining in a strange, thickety wood, her pocketbook lying off in the distance. The collage recalls (predicts?) with a delicate ferocity the particulars of Étant donnés, illuminating, as in Proust, the turning away in any erotic scene, the sorrow of the aubade and the never aubaded. Jean Genet queried what remained of a “Rembrandt torn into four equal pieces and flushed down the toilet?” Duchamp and Cornell spent a lifetime cutting and flushing their way out of the quarantine of “art” and “artist.” Early in Duchamp’s career (1913), as part of a speculation à l’infinitif, before he proceeded to consider “the question of shop windows” (“the shop window [as] proof of the existence of the outside world”), he asked: “Can one make works which are not works ’of art’ ?” It is a question he would continue to meditate on for his entire career, and it has more than a little to do with his preference for the job description of respirateur (breather), dust breeder, window glazier, or chess player to that of artist. As Rosalind Krauss reports in The Optical Unconscious, Duchamp stated that he “wanted to grasp things with the mind the way the penis is grasped by the vagina,” a proviso echoed in Jean-François Lyotard’s view that Étant donnés shows the one looking as just what he or she seems to look at: con celui qui voit (he who sees is a cunt). Emphasizing the con in conception (a con too often absent in Conceptualism), Duchamp was always a con artist. As for Cornell, no matter how Gilles-like he appeared, he too trafficked in the sexual, but in a way Duchamp never imagined. He knew about the cerebrations of sex (the unbridgeable lacuna between the body desired and how the mind desires it)—any conflicted loner does. Just ask Warhol.

The fact of Étant donnés being set in a museum has been amply commented on, and complex diagrams have been proffered that give attention and interpretation to the lines of site within the space, but there is also the space outside—the voyeur peering through the barndoor peepholes, bent over, exposed, exposing (in Proust’s phrase) a “symbolic bum” and—if con celui qui voit, then cui celui qui est vu—an anal aperture. In Funeral Rites, Genet demarcated the site as l’oeil de Gabés, African Batallion slang for the anus. Any renunciation, any turning away, exposes such possibilities: that looking often makes an ass out of the looker; that optical desire can embarrass; that art, in its inversions, trashing, and stripping bare, in its focus on waste systems—from the cunt that is not one to the ass anyone becomes by not getting the fecund humor of the whole thing—deals with shit, the fictions made of it; that art provides a way for rimming the sublime.

Which is why art most beautifully self-destructs, craps out, why its beauties are at first so wrong—as wrong as I want these words to be. The erotics of looking: Duchamp spent a life plotting their abandon. Cornell did as well, but, like Warhol, he was a bachelor machine, and the erotic workings of the uncoupled are for many hard to discern. Warhol continued what both men began. He had his way with art—already stripped bare, trashed—and made it look as if nothing had happened.

Bruce Hainley is a contributing ediror of Artforum.