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Cornell was nearly 30 when he began crafting his unusual creations. (Self-taught and eccentric, today he most likely would be labeled an outsider artist and marketed as such.) He had seen surrealist works at the Julien Levy Gallery on Madison Avenue and was especially inspired by a Max Ernst collage. He started making his own collages, and soon moved on to objects, or objets, as he liked to call them, using the French term as the surrealists did. (Also like the members of that group, Cornell made experimental movies, splicing together scenes from footage he bought from film houses and flea markets. Salvador Dali is said to have become so jealous of the brilliance of the American artist's films that he once overturned the projector during a screening.) The earliest work exhibited here is from 1939 -- a round cardboard pillbox covered with words cut from the title page of a book, one Memoires Inedits de Madame la Comtesse De G. Tiny slips of paper printed with French words cut from the text sit inside the box, along with a small plastic ball, bits of ribbon, and a sprinkling of black powder.
Although he is most often described as painfully shy and reclusive, Cornell dared to show his early works to Levy, who exhibited them at his gallery as "toys for adults." They went virtually unnoticed by collectors at first, but they did catch the eye of Alfred H. Barr, Jr., director of the Museum of Modern Art. In 1936 Barr included Cornell in a survey of "Fantastic Art, Dada, and Surrealism" at his six-year-old museum, and it was in preparation for the show that Cornell made the first of his glass-paned wooden boxes. He later said that he got the idea when he passed the window of an antique shop full of compasses, and then came upon a store window full of boxes. His biographer Solomon points out that the Cornell constructions have a clear precedent in the Victorian era, when making shadow boxes was a popular pastime for women.
Cornell most often made his boxes and collages as gifts, or with a certain someone in mind; a homage to Juan Gris and another to Susan Sontag (on whom he once had a crush) are included here. Photo reproductions don't do the constructions justice, in the way that a video of a stage play is never the same as the real thing. The theatrical boxes with their ethereal backdrops and secret doors have the feel of strange and beautiful rooms that invite the viewer to climb inside, like Alice through the looking glass.
Some of the most powerful boxes in the show are from Cornell's Medici series, which he embarked upon in 1942 with Medici Slot Machine, pairing a reproduction of a sixteenth-century portrait of Piero de' Medici with jacks, balls, and dice in a construction resembling a vending machine. That work is not on exhibit in West Palm Beach; instead we see 1952's Untitled (Medici Prince), a more expressionist configuration that features the same portrait encased behind a pane of the blue glass Cornell used frequently. The box resembles a doorframe, or a tomb, with drips of white paint making a cross through the boy's image. Medici Boy, from the same year, is another gamelike box that uses a different painting of the prince. The painting appears in a windowlike slot in the center, framed by a series of smaller versions of the same. The repeated images recall Andy Warhol's later celebrity portraits.
Other well-known series of works are also represented, such as the aviaries: boxes containing cutout pictures of birds that seem to perch in midair. Several lyrical constructions from the Fifties, the hotel boxes, have round arches, columns, screens, and other architectural features covered with cracked paint evoking layers of history. With the Dovecote series, also from the Fifties, Cornell's work became more abstract. For these boxes, inspired by pigeon coops, the artist abandoned his romantic colors and painted the surfaces white -- in the "purist" spirit of the abstract expressionists of the time. Untitled (Compartmentalized Dovecote), for example, contains a a grid of wooden cubbyholes, some occupied by white and yellow balls. The work has a musical feel akin to the gridded paintings of Mondrian.
As the years went by Cornell's fame grew, but his life changed relatively little. He remained in the house on Utopia Parkway, which he increasingly refused to leave, asking instead that people come to visit him. Although he was essentially a loner, Cornell had countless friends and acquaintances who included well-known artists, writers, dancers, and art dealers. As Solomon's book documents, they variously considered him a genius, a gentleman, a poet, and something of a kook.
Throughout his adult life, Cornell subsisted mostly on sweets, eating a number of desserts for each meal and setting before his callers treats one dealer described as "industrial strength donuts from the supermarket." He was reluctant to part with his work and often became upset if galleries sold too much of it. When his boxes became valuable late in his life, he pretty much stopped making them, although he continued to create collages for people he fancied.