Joseph Cornell lives, on DVD, making a convert to the screen

On Books

November 09, 2003|By Michael Pakenham

When it comes to reading, no matter how hard I try, print on paper always works vastly better for me than words flashing across my computer screen. I am told that in a generation or two, it will be the only way to read. I shall be propelled into the hereafter before that day. If that be Heaven, I am fairly certain its galleries will contain a considerable number of Cornell boxes.


Well, the question takes us to Joseph Cornell: Shadowplay ... Eterniday by Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, Richard Vine, Robert Lehrman and Walter Hopps (Thames & Hudson, 256 pages with 231 illustrations, 205 in color, plus an interactive DVD, $60). The DVD, designed by Rory Matthews, is titled "The Magical Worlds of Joseph Cornell." Both works, with much overlapping labor and material, are timed to celebrate the centennial of the birth of Cornell -- one of the inescapably great artists of the 20th century, because of both his art and his influence.

Robert Lehrman, the source and force behind both the book and the DVD, is a distinguished art collector who serves as chairman of the Hirshhorn Museum. He's also president of the Voyager Foundation, which sponsored the project in conjunction with the Smithsonian Institution's American Art Museum and its Joseph Cornell Study Center. His essay is a provocative and often moving exploration of, among other Cornellities, what it is like to live with a collection of the boxes.

Cornell is, to my eye and mind, one of the most accessible and yet most extraordinarily elusive of artists of the modern era. His materials are, in the main, commonplace objects or surfaces -- "found" bits and pieces, postcards and photographs, common thread-spools, plastic dolls, pill bottles, shells and children's blocks.

Taken as a whole, or in representative part, his work is a magnificent coupling of irony and romanticism, of playfulness and piety. It is reflective of celestial abstraction and of the basest domesticity. It exudes intense curiosity about the eternal and profound -- and equally confesses a celebration of the immediate and earthy.

Joseph Cornell was born in 1903 in Nyack, N.Y., in relative prosperity, and went to Phillips Andover, a stylish Massachusetts prep school. His father's death in 1917 left the family struggling. A lifelong bachelor, he lived and worked most of his life in a small house in Flushing, Queens, a humble section of eastern New York City. He lived with his mother, until her death, and with his brother, Robert, who had cerebral palsy.

Though he never attended a university, Cornell was an assiduous autodidact. He harvested the lush cultural riches of Gotham -- museums, theater, galleries, music, libraries, readings of poetry and prose, lectures, public programs in every imaginable discipline or diversion. Until he was about 40, he worked in modest jobs, from laborer to salesman, but including textile designing and doing picture research for magazines.

He was a collector of all sorts of oddities and artifacts, but began making art for the first time in about 1931. He made films and collages, but the bulk of his work, and that which is most often seen in museums, consists of his boxes -- constructions of no more than a foot or two in any dimension, containing sundry materials and pasted up illustrations, usually with glass fronts.

In the 1940s, his art began to catch the imaginations of New York art insiders. Although famously reclusive, Cornell befriended scores of people in the worlds of imagination and ideas. He maintained friendships and intense professional involvements with major figures like Marcel Duchamp, Robert Motherwell and Robert Rauschenberg. He was close to top ballet dancers, actresses, poets and all sorts of other luminaries.

A particularly fascinating section of the book is an essay by Richard Vine, "Eterniday: Cornell's Christian Science 'Metaphysique.' " Vine, managing editor of Art in America, has written on a wide array of cultural matters in both professional and popular journals. Cornell was an active Christian Scientist from age 21 throughout his life. Vine's insights into his personality and belief system is both convincing and compelling.

Oversimplified, Vine describes a man who, with deep conviction, depended upon a mystical, evangelical code to protect himself from depression and to provide a firm foundation for work. Cornell was forever examining the meanings of life, and ceaselessly making art objects. His art intermingles the mysterious and the mundane: practical household objects placed in glass-fronted simple wooden boxes with themes that often echo the doctrines of the Surrealists, whom Cornell much admired. Vine writes of Cornell's "dialogue between the ephemeral and the eternal."

Critics and scholars generally find it difficult to place him or his work in any aesthetic box -- though his involvements with every modernist form from classic Impressionism to Pop Art and beyond are inescapable.

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