Book Reviews: Joseph Cornell -- Joseph Cornell's Theater of the Mind: Selected Diaries, Letters, and Files Edited by Mary Ann Caws

By Grove, Nancy | Art Journal, Winter 1994 | Go to article overview

Book Reviews: Joseph Cornell -- Joseph Cornell's Theater of the Mind: Selected Diaries, Letters, and Files Edited by Mary Ann Caws


Grove, Nancy, Art Journal


Mary Ann Caws, ed. Joseph Cornell's Theater of the Mind: Selected Diaries, Letters, and Files. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1993. 480 pp.; 24 b/w ills. $35.00

On Saturday, December 9, 1972, about three weeks before his death, I spent the afternoon with Joseph Cornell at his house on Utopia Parkway in Flushing, New York. It was the only time I met the reclusive creator of the "boxes": small closed constructions of materials drawn from literature, art, science, and popular culture. His good friend Dore Ashton, who taught in the City University of New York graduate art history program when I was a student there, had kindly spoken to him about my interest in writing about him; I had also written to him and he then called and we set up the appointment. I had seen many of his exhibitions and films and had had a chance to see his boxes in such places as the Bergman Collection in Chicago, but knowledge of his work didn't fully prepare me for the experience of meeting him.

During the course of our telephone conversation, Cornell mentioned how much he had liked Fairfield Porter's article on him in Art and Literature (1966), but he said that he would "die happy" if someone wrote something about his work like the Rene Crevel article on Paul Klee that appeared in the same issue. He asked that I bring him samples of my writing, so I took a paper I'd written on the Italian metaphysical painter Giorgio de Chirico. He met me at the front door of the small, white, blue-trimmed house wearing a dark green suit with a lapel-less jacket and a shirt with a dark red tie that he kept pulling at as though it irritated him. Most of our discussion took place on the glassed-in front porch of the darkened house, where he sat at a desk and took notes with a green felt-tipped pen on a pad of legal-size paper, occasionally twitching aside the curtains to watch his young, working-class neighbors come and go. He was tall and thin, with a strong, bony face and faded blue eyes under a shock of gray hair. He rarely looked directly at me, but shifted about a good deal in his chair; he was recovering from surgery and looked rather ill. He seemed to want me to take charge of the conversation, yet he also seemed to want to remain in control. I just wanted to spend as much time with him as he would allow. Having heard of his sweet tooth, I had brought him a tin of homemade Christmas candy, most of which he ate during the afternoon. He talked about his house, about how Flushing had changed over the last forty years, and about how he had done an "exploration" of the town's old mansions in terms of the summer of 1944 (which had been a special time for him). He spoke about Manhattan's Fourth Avenue bookstores and Times Square area, about hanging around Union Square toy stores and Julien Levy's gallery, and about how his art was a natural product of his everyday activity.

The porch where we talked was piled high with portfolios, boxes, and bags; a large photograph of his great-great-grandfather, whom he faintly resembled, hung on the wall. He said he needed help "getting out" his explorations, and pulled out a portfolio bulging with material on the theme of "Columbier." This dovecote theme had begun to interest him in the 1950s, and he kept putting related materials into the folder: typewritten notes, prints of medieval castles showing chinks in the masonry where birds nested, pictures of birds and birdhouses and children, plans for dovecote boxes, and "rubbings" from completed boxes. He wanted to take his explorations to colleges and share them with young people as an artist-in-residence, but it was difficult to find anyone to whom he could entrust his house, which he eventually wanted to make into a museum.

After several hours he offered me a cup of tea and we walked through the dark, cluttered house to the kitchen at the back. Dishes had been removed from the shelves there and the shelves were filled with prints, newspapers, and books. He seemed more relaxed in the kitchen, and he showed me the quince tree in his backyard and the parts of a birdhouse he had built years ago. …

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