Washington, DC

Joseph Cornell

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Joseph Cornell loved the ballet, broken glass, nude models from photography manuals, jewels and jewel boxes, airplanes and ships, old books, old master paintings, optical devices, palace facades, penny arcades, photographs of movie stars, sand, soap bubbles, star maps, stuffed birds, and toys. Scouring Woolworth’s, bookstores, second-hand and antique stores, and other promising-looking outlets across the US and Europe, he gradually accumulated materials presented in the 177 boxes, collages, graphic design projects, dossiers, and films that were shown in a recent exhibition—the artist’s first retrospective in twenty-six years—curated by Lynda Hartigan and co-organized with the Peabody Essex Museum.

Yet despite Cornell’s seemingly indiscriminate range of obsessions, the show’s contextual material—books and magazines, record albums, diary pages, and all manner of other paraphernalia and ephemera, presented in a special section dubbed “Wonderland”—indicated how precisely calculated the artist’s practice was. The objects that he salvaged seem mysteriously destined for one another, banal causal order momentarily superseded by his private aesthetic. Using the found objects displayed in his boxes and the images in the collages, he composed his own brand of assisted readymades. But where his friend Marcel Duchamp displayed individual objects, Cornell combined pre-existing things. He followed this methodology even in his films; in the ’30s and early ’40s, he cut and spliced found footage, while in the ’50s and ’60s, he collaborated with avant-garde filmmakers by directing them to his favorite neighborhoods, then editing the footage they shot himself. His chosen subjects—among them birds, children, the elderly, the elevated train, storefronts, parks, and glamor girls—mark the limits of his world.

Cornell’s peculiarly American take on Surrealism presaged the larger painted assemblages of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, while his playful wunderkammers anticipate the miniature museums of Marcel Broodthaers, albeit without that artist’s political thrust. Viewing his boxes is like looking through a telescope at a stage set or into a doll’s house, and their superiority to the collages is clearly attributable to the fact that the three-dimensional format allowed the artist’s sensibility freer play. Setting everything behind glass, Cornell keeps that which he loves at arm’s length (an effect intensified by the fact that his objects are often displayed in vitrines, so that one finds oneself looking at a box-within-a-box). In A Dressing Room for Gille, 1939, a little magazine reproduction of Jean-Antonie Watteau’s melancholy Gilles, 1721, encapsulates Cornell’s vision of the past as presented in art museums, while Naples, circa 1942, preserves photographs of the city before its decimation in World War II.

Nostalgic about everything, even the future—late in life he became interested in space travel—and a celibate filled with hopeless longing, the housebound Cornell fantasized about the heavens, movie stars, and travel. A utopian whose ideal world was set in an idealized past, he loved Romantic shabby chic. Like Paul Klee, another miniaturist, he is at once accessible to all and a specialized taste.

David Carrier