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.

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.

It was not until he was in his late fifties that Cornell acted on his incessant fantasies about women. In the liberated Sixties, he had his first sexual explorations with several young women, although he found early on that he was impotent and could not have intercourse. One collage in the exhibition Untitled (Seated Nude with Basket, reflects his late blooming: a picture of a seated naked woman in a magazine ad against a sublime landscape. While it reveals something about the artist's personal life, compared to the artist's other work the piece is unremarkable.

In the last years of his life Cornell was often depressed. His career was lauded by a retrospective at the Guggenheim in 1967, but that didn't cheer him much. His mother and brother had died several years earlier. Sporadically he had assistants live with him, but he was often alone in the house, a sad, almost ghostly figure lost in his reminiscences. He died peacefully on the living-room couch, a few days after his birthday. He was cremated and his remains were placed in a small wooden box that happened to be about the same size of one of his own works of art.

Joseph Cornell: Boxes and Collages
Through May 4 at the Norton Museum of Art, 1451 S Olive Ave, West Palm Beach; 561-832-5196.

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