Joseph Cornell: In the Box

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I like the way Cornell uses Surrealism to tell stories of nostalgia and dreams, all wrapped in a tidy box.

Here, Alex Kittle describes his life and work

The instinct to collect may be a basic part of human nature; we acquire and amass and stockpile a variety of things, be it nostalgic keepsakes, artistic treasures, emergency snacks, or cherished memories. Parents hold on to their children’s baby teeth, bibliophiles fill their houses with books, sports fans hunt down memorabilia from their favorite teams; my own mother dutifully collected Longaberger baskets for a good ten years. I myself collect all manner of things, often to the level of hoarding, but that is a discussion for another day. Perhaps this shared tendency is why the work of Joseph Cornell strikes a chord within so many, as I have yet to meet anyone who dislikes his thoughtful and intricate assemblages of found objects. A collector as much as an artist, he has inspired generations of artists and art-lovers, tapping into that seemingly innate human interest in stuff.

Born in 1903, Cornell grew up in the small village of Nyack, New York, a picturesque spot along the Hudson River. His four years at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts became the longest period he would spend away from home. After leaving school without a diploma, he moved back in with his family and became a textile salesman like his father, who had passed away in 1917. During the 1920s he collected various paper and secondhand ephemera, but it was not until around 1931 that he began making art out of such materials. Inspired by Surrealist exhibitions at the Julian Levy Gallery–especially Max Ernst’s collages–he created three-dimensional boxes and sculptures assembled from found objects. By 1932 he was exhibiting at the same gallery, with a solo show that fall. He also experimented with filmmaking, cutting together bits of collected film strips to create collaged movies (he returned to the medium in the 50s, collaborating with auteurs like Stan Brakhage to make films with new footage).

Throughout the next several decades, Cornell worked full- or part-time as an artist, never moving out of his mother’s house in Flushing, NY (where he helped care for his brother Robert, who had cerebral palsy) but taking frequent trips to New York City and establishing an ever-growing assortment of artistic connections and friendships, from artists Mark Rothko and Yayoi Kusama to dancer Allegra Kent and poet Mina Loy…

… The wonderful thing about Joseph Cornell is he created works of high art that could easily be read as pure knick-knacks if not for their powerful associative effect. He taps into the nostalgia inherent to so many objects, deftly combining his found items so as to elicit a response related to memory or personality, expressing feeling and experience through secondhand castaways. Putting together things like glassware, maps, stuffed birds, torn book pages, and keys, he silently invites viewers to extrapolate their own connections with such everyday items. We bring along our own baggage, our own memories, our own wishful thinking, and we are able to take it personally. Generally, Cornell is not making bold political statements or irreverent art historical references; he is not caught up in the manifestos and rampant theories of many artists of his day. He is sharing his own interests and perspective with others–often specific friends, colleagues, and crushes–through his own belongings. Many early-twentieth-century artists made art out of the everyday, but Cornell made art out of his everyday, which in turn could easily become reinterpreted as our own.

Internet Weekly went to a Cornell exhibit and said:

Cornell’s style including his use of repetitive pictures like in the Medici Princess (above) also influenced Pop artist Andy Warhol … there was newspaper that Cornell sent to his relatives during the Depression called Goop Joe’s Poultry Pages.  Some of the articles, which he typed with a Smith Corona were a hoot, especially the story on Page 19 – Duck Hunter Falls Out of Boat; Drowns.  I was cracking when I read it, and then I saw a young girl read the same article and she cracked up too.  I think Cornell would be pleased to know that his humor is still relevant today especially to his potential fees, filles or faeries as he called young women that caught his eye in New York City.

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Author: marypmadigan

Writer/photographer (profession), foreign policy wonk (hobby).

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