"Cornell could take you into the universe in the space of a
thimble," writes Robert Lehrman, a prominent collector of this mid-
20th-century American artist's small-scale but visionary work.
Like Lehrman, all the contributors to this celebration of Joseph
Cornell attempt to describe the ineffable feeling of contemplating
his "shadow boxes" or "poetic theaters." Cornell himself, we are
told, rarely committed explanations of his art to paper. Perhaps in
consequence, there has not been a shortage of analyzers and admirers
since his death in 1972 eager to put pen to paper on his behalf.
The sense Lehrman conveys of Cornell's art is informed by
actually holding and moving the works - a privilege denied most of
us, who can see but not touch Cornell's boxes in museum displays -
or in beautiful photographic reproductions like these. However, the
book, published in collaboration with the Smithsonian Institution,
also includes a DVD that shows some of the works "in action," along
with audio interviews with art critics, and photos of additional
material that inspired his work.
Lynda Roscoe Hartigan tells us that Cornell called his studio a
"laboratory" and his boxed displays "museums" and "pharmacies." They
have something in common with the old "cabinets of curiosities" in
which traveling collectors would, centuries ago, store and show
strange or exotic items. But Cornell's collecting was driven by an
affection for comparatively commonplace natural history,
reproductions of Renaissance paintings, female film stars and ballet
dancers, children and childhood. His works bring together repetitive
celluloid images, maps (he aptly called himself "an armchair
voyager"), charts of the stars, sand, marbles, shells, bubble pipes -
a whole miscellany of objects and interests that were not specially
rare, but, in his highly individual poetry of juxtaposition and
unexpected association, achieved a rarity of vision.
Walter Hopps describes Cornell as a "visual alchemist," and his
work does have something in common with such ancient and magical
On another level, this artist was an unabashed nostalgist, as
shown in his love of such boyhood obsessions as penny arcades and
pinball machines. He was unafraid of sentimentality (he loved
Victoriana), and many of his works might well be seen as souvenirs.
He called his tributes to Romantic Ballet "bouquets." His boxes
display private (and notably guileless) obsessions rather than an
expressive extroversion. If he is a surrealist - dreams were very
significant to him - he is a supremely innocent and undisturbed one. …