Every Box a Poem

Joseph Cornell would have been delighted to observe the scene at the Norton Museum of Art on a recent Sunday afternoon, when children ran excitedly about the gallery in which the artist's work is on display. Engaged in a treasure hunt organized by the museum, they each held a list of clues that directed them to count the marbles hidden inside one of Cornell's glass-front boxes, to spot the tiny white birds flying over a celestial teapot in a collage. If Cornell were present, he probably would have watched the scene from a corner of the room; perhaps his eye would have settled on a dainty blond preteen with long slim legs, her hair in a topknot wrapped with satin ribbon. Still thinking of her when he got home, the artist might have taken out an album of pictures of the obscure Neapolitan dancer Fanny Cerrito or another of his beloved nineteenth-century ballerinas and created a collage in the little girl's honor.

Cornell loved children (especially girls), and he didn't mind letting them play with his artworks like toys. Young people were his preferred audience and one of his numerous obsessions. Their images appear frequently in the form of cherubs, dolls, and Florentine princes in his intimate works, which are marked by a childish sense of idyllic romance. Like a wise child, Cornell was both erudite and innocent. Avant-garde yet old-fashioned, a voyeur and a virgin, he sealed his fantasies and dreams in wooden shadow boxes filled with magazine cutouts, bright-colored balls, sand, and mirrors.

The artist died in 1972. But if he were alive, he would surely have decided against making the trip to West Palm Beach to see Joseph Cornell: Boxes and Collages, the spellbinding retrospective of holdings from his estate that is on display at the Norton through May 4. While Cornell's work traveled widely during his lifetime, he preferred to stay at home in Queens, in the house on Utopia Parkway where for most of his life he resided with his mother and his disabled brother Robert. There he embarked on what he once dubbed "bathrobe journeying," or daydreaming -- mental voyages made real in the art he created at the kitchen table or in a basement workshop he crammed with found materials and treasured souvenirs.

It is because of his dreamlike vision that Cornell is usually categorized as a surrealist. He was definitely influenced by that Paris-based group of artists, and he found himself exhibiting with them in New York at the outset of his artistic career. He shared with them a talent for surprising juxtapositions and a delight for found objects. But he was an observant Christian Scientist, a shy, prudish young man who worshiped girls from a distance. Disapproving of their bawdy puns and lewd behavior, embarrassed by their sexual excess, he never considered himself one of the surrealists.

Cornell's symbiotic relationship with artists of this century went far beyond surrealism, as this exhibition of more than 60 boxes and collages from the late Thirties to the Sixties attests. The wonder of these works has not lessened with time; in fact, hindsight makes them even more marvelous. From his appropriation of images from movie magazines and advertisements to his spare geometric constructions, the degree to which minimalism, pop art, postmodernism, and numerous other "isms" are indebted to Cornell is clearly in evidence here. While he admired and learned from the work of colleagues including Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, and the recently departed Willem de Kooning, his own influence has been vast.

"Artists who agreed on little else agreed on Cornell," writes art critic Deborah Solomon in her compelling new biography Utopia Parkway: The Life and Work of Joseph Cornell, published last month by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. A sensitive look at an unusual man, the book stresses Cornell's role as a quintessentially American original who brought the spirit of the European avant-garde to twentieth-century American art. "Cornell deserves credit for mixing up media decades before American culture became a culture of mix-masters," Solomon writes. "He found the sublime at the five-and-dime."

The artist was born on Christmas Day 1903 in Nyack, New York, a village on the Hudson River not far from New York City. His father, a fabric designer, died when Cornell was a boy, and he was sent to boarding school at Andover with tuition from his father's employer. After graduation he returned home to care for his demanding mother and wheelchair-bound brother, and remained with them for the rest of their lives. (He also had two sisters, who later married.) The family moved to Queens, and Joseph worked as a fabric salesman in Manhattan. A voracious reader, he alleviated the tedium of his days by browsing the used bookstalls in Greenwich Village. At night he sometimes went to the ballet, where he'd stand alone in the back of the theater. Cornell collected programs and publicity photos of the fairylike dancers; smitten with their beauty, he wrote them letters and turned up at stage doors, forging awkward friendships with a few, who gave him snippets of fabric from their tutus that he later used in his work. Sylphide Souvenir Case (1940-42), on display at the Norton, is a square, covered box lined with pink fabric. A picture of a ballerina sits atop a shell inside the box's top. A bottom compartment holds beads, glitter, tiny spiraling shells, and bits of tulle.

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