Joseph Cornell's Alluring Boxes ; A Lavish Tribute to the Modern Artist on the 100th Anniversary of His Birth

By Andreae, Christopher | The Christian Science Monitor, March 23, 2004 | Go to article overview

Joseph Cornell's Alluring Boxes ; A Lavish Tribute to the Modern Artist on the 100th Anniversary of His Birth


Andreae, Christopher, The Christian Science Monitor


"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 mysteries.

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. …

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