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Joseph Cornell

Joseph Cornell’s
biography, if such an entity were
imaginable to him, could have
seemed only a grim joke, an as-
semblage of remarkably unre-
markable moments. A biography
needs a hero, a Picasso or a Jack-
son Pollock,someone to get drunk,
smash up cars, and bed women.
Cornell didn’t drink, never learned
to drive, and, to his regret, died a
virgin. On the other hand, Cornell
was no stranger to desire. For
women he felt a deep reverence (Cover)
as well as a nearly breathless Object (Roses des Vents).
longing. In his sixties, he finally
relented and had his first physical
1942-53 | Brown hinged box construction | 2.5 x
21 x 10 in.
A Pioneer of Assemblage.
relationships. But up until then The Museum of Modern Art, New York,
he was unable to permit himself
Mr. and Mrs. Gerald Murphy Fund.
anything as imulsive as a love
affair. An art monk, Cornell was Wood lid divided into 3 latched parts, interior
determined to repent, for what of lid lined with German maps of the Coral Sea
and the Great Autralian Bight.
sin he was not quite sure. Of one
thing, however, he was sure: he Interior divided into upper and lower areas
was drawn to a vision of chaste- by removeable wood panel, its bottom surfaced
ness for himself, a vision that gov- with plexiglass on which rest 21 compasses, fit-
ted into holes (3 rows 0f 7) pierced through pan-
erned the arc of his life as well as el. Lower area divided by corrugated cardboard
his work. Paradoxically, the same and wood strips into 17 compartments of un-
impulse that condemned him to a equal size, which contain maps, spirals, marbles,
lacerating aloneness would lead to plaster chips, spring, seeds, shells, glass balls,
beetle, sequins, torn paper,pins, paper fish, con-
romantic rapture in his art. stelllation diagrams, etc.

-From “Utopia Parkway: The Life Five compartments are covered in clear, green,
and Work of Joseph Cornell” by yellow, or blue glass; some are painted or lined
with paper. Rose des vents is French term for
Deborah Solomon compass dial.
Untitled (Solar Set)

c.1956-58 | Construction | 11 1/2 x 16 1/4 x 3 5/8 in.

Collection Donald Karshan, New York

He had no formal training in (Bottom)

Untitled (The Hotel Eden).
art and his most characteristic
works are his highly distinctive c.1945 | Brown box construction |15 x 15 x 5 in.
`boxes’. These are simple boxes, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa.
(From top to bottom)
usually glass-fronted, in which he
Untitled arranged surprising collections of Interior partially lined with paper, painted white,
photographs or Victorian bric-à- divided into 3 areas by white wood strips.
1942 | Construction | 13 1/8 x 10 x 3 1/2 in. brac in a way that has been said
Private collection, New York Contains yellow wood ball resting on white wood
to combine the formal austerity dowels; spiral-painted paperboard cutout and
of Constructivism with the lively metal spiral behind wood-framed glass window
Untitled (Penny Arcade Portrait of Lauren Bacall) fantasy of Surrealism. Like Kurt painted with spiral; cutout of parrot, mounted
Schwitters he could create poetry on wood, resting on wood branch; cord passing
1945-46 | Construction | 20 1/2 x 16 x 3 1/2 in. from bottom of box through parrot’s beak to
Collection Mr. and Mrs. E. A. Bergman, Chicago
from the commonplace. Unlike spiral; music box enclosed in wood in which sits
Schwitters, however, he was fasci- inverted glass bottle with newspaper stopper
nated not by refuse, garbage, and containing 12 white cylindrical wood blocks;
Untitled (Medici Boy) the discarded, but by fragments 3 loose cylindrical wood blocks; white dowel
placed at angle below parrot; and 3 printed
1942-1952 | Construction |13 15/16 x 11 3/16 x
of once beautiful and precious labels affixed to back of box, including adver-
3 7/8 in. objects, relying on the Surrealist tisement for Hotel Eden, which is splattered with
Estate of Joseph Cornell technique of irrational juxtaposi- white paint.
tion and on the evocation of nos-
talgia for his appeal (he befriended
several members of the Surrealist
L’Egypt de Mlle Cléo de Mérode.
movement who settled in the USA
1940.| 4 x 10 x 7 in. during the Second World War).
Collection Richard L. Feign, New York. Cornell also painted and made
Signed. Surrealist films.
Hinged Casket; lid lined with marbleized paper,
cutouts of printed phrases “[Cornell] spent most of his life in
a frame house on Utopia Parkway
L’EGYPT /de Mlle de Cléo de Mérode/COURS in Queens, New York, with his and from them he made boxes. He
mother and his crippled brother, would tinker with them for years.
picture of seated Egyptian female; box divided
by sheet of glass into 2 horizontal levels. Con- Robert. From there this reclusive, Object (Roses des Vents) was
tents of sealed lower level: loose red sand, doll’s gray, long-beaked man would begun in 1942 and not finished
forearm, wood ball, German coin, several glass sally forth on small voyages of until 1953. It is full of emblems
(From top to bottom) and mirror fragments. Contents of upper level: 12
discovery, scavenging for relics of of voyages Cornell never took, a
Untitled (Window Facade) removeable cork-stopped bottles (tops of corks
covered with marbleized paper, most bottles la- the past in New York junk shops little box of mummified waves and
c.1950 | Box construction| 18 5/8 x 12 3/8 x 3 1/2 in in unsullied purity, expressed in beled with cutout printed words), in 4 rows of 3 and flea markets. To others, these shrunken exotic coasts, peninsu-
The Menil Collection, Houston, Texas the strict architecture within his set in holes in sheet of wood covered with mar- deposits might be refuse, but to las, planets, things set in com-
boxes: white compartments and bleized paper, strips of glass forming 2 rows of
Cornell they were the strata of partments, with a drop-in panel
painted wood, glass, cracked glass, and mirror glass-covered compartments (3 each) at sides of
. pigeonholes, sometimes - as in bottles. repressed memory, a jumble of containing twenty-one compasses,
his series of ‘Dovecotes’ - without elements waiting to be grafted each with its needle pointing in-
A Parrot for Juan Gris anything else in them. It is an im- Contents of each bottle (and labels): (1) cutout and mated to one another. “In the souciantly in a different direction
agery of New England spareness, sphinx head, loose red sand; (2) numerous short
studio he would sort his finds into from that of its neighbor. Even
Winter 1953-54 | Construction | 17 3/4 x 12 3/16x 4 5/8 in. yellow filaments with glitter adhered to one end
Collection Paul Simon suggesting clapboard meeting- (Gameh, Kontah/Blé [Triticum sativum, Linn]); (3) their eccentric categories - ‘Spi- the map on the inside of the lid,
houses, plain fences, and rectitude 2 intertwined paper spirals (Les reptiles des illes ders,’ ‘Moons,’ and so forth - and cut from some nineteenth-century
above all.” du Nile); (4) cutout of Woman’s head (CLEO DE file them with boxes of his own German chart book, depicts an
Tilly Losch MERODE/momie/sphinx); (5) cutout of camels
mementos, like love letters to Jen- excessively remote coastline: that
and men, loose yellow sand, ball (sauterelles).
c.1935 | Construction | 10 x 9 1/4 x 2 1/8 in. - From “American Visions”, by Cléo de Mérode was a famous courtesan and nifer Jones and other movie stars of the Great Australian Bight. The
Collection Mr. and Mrs. E. A. Bergman, Chicago Robert Hughes ballerina in the 1890s. or ballet dancers he’d never met; earth is presented not as our daily
habitat but as one strange planet
among others, which to Cornell it

“Some of his beginnings in the

(Top) 1930s lay in Surrealism: Cornell
Untitled (Soap Bubble Set). was particularly affected by the
collages of Victorian steel engrav-
c. 1936 | Construction | 15 x 14 x 5 in.
Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford Connecticut, ings in Max Ernst’s series La
The Henry and Walter Keney Fund. Femme 100 tetes. Yet nowhere in
Surrealism is there an imagery that protected the contents of the evocations of his own Edwardian
Brown box with recessed metal handle on each quite like his. Cornell distin- box, but that is all he allowed in environment as a child. Yet his
side and removable glass front. Interior lined with
pale blue fabric held in place by blue thumbtacks, guished between what he called the way of violence - it suggests gothic fantasies and fussily rever-
rear wall partially lined with French map headed ‘the Max Ernst white magic side’ that the sanctuary of imagination ential evocations of dead Victorian
CARTE GEOGRAPIE DE LA LUNE . of Surrealism and its darker, more has been attacked. That glass, ballerinas - Marie Taglioni be-
violent aspects. He embraced the the ‘fourth wall’ of his miniature ing a special favorite - are usu-
Interior divided into 7 compartmentsby 6 sheets
of glass painted white on outside edges and held first but shied away from the theater, is also the diaphragm ally drawn back from the edge by
in place by metal pins. second. He didn’t share the revolu- between two contrasting worlds. Cornell’s rigor as a formal artist.
tionary fantasies of the Surrealists Outside, chaos, accident, and Not for nothing did he call him-
Upper compartment: 4 hanging cylindrical blocks or their erotic obsessions. There libido, the stuff of unprotected life; self a ‘constructivist.’ Cornell was
painted white with reproductions adhered to the
blocks on each end; isn’t a sexual image, let alone a inside, sublimation, memory, and intensely Francophile, though he
trace of amour fou, in his entire peace, one of whose chief emblems (Top ) had never been to France - witness
left compartment: cordial glass holding egg paint- output. The most he would permit was the caged bird, the innocent Untitled (Bébé Marie). his many references to French
ed blue with gold highlights; himself was a gentle fetishism. If, resident of The Hotel Eden, 1945. provincial hotels, and even by the
Early 1940s | Construction | 23 x 12 x 5 in.
right compartment: small blue and gold child’s as some have thought, Cornell’s The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Purchase
worn, comfy French colors of his
head attached to wood block; imagery had to do with child- “At times, though not often, box interiors, the ivory whites
hood, then it was one which no Cornell’s imagination looks fey (Bottom) and pinks and faded bluegrays.
center compartment: clay pipe, flanked by two child has ever known, an infancy or precious. There is a treacher- Habitat Group for a Shooting Gallery But he was, just as intensely, an
white wood elements attached to rear wall rest-
ing on glass shelf, below which are three glass without rage or desire. Sometimes ous line between sentiment and 1943 | Construction |15 1/2 x 11 1/8 x 4 1/4 in.
American artist, with his asexual
discs, each in its own compartment. he would crack the glass pane sentimentality, particularly in his Des Moines Art Center, Coffin Fine Arts Puritan imagination and his belief

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