Sunday, November 11, 2007

More Thoughts on Joseph Cornell, aka The Universe with 90-degree Angles

I saw this show, Navigating the Imagination, at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., where it was installed all summer, and recently at SFMoMA within days of when you saw it. To make an institutional comparison, I’d say that I liked the PEM installation better. The vitrines were contained in a sequence of rooms, which made sense for the work—boxes with boxes, as it were, rather in the larger SF gallery spaces. The light was lower in Salem, which made the work harder to see, but which underlined the mystery of his work (though of course the low lights were for archival protection).

Some of the conventional ideas about Cornell still ring true for me: his obsessiveness, the idea of his looking to the stars while working in his mother’s basement. And, of course there’s the delicious coincidence that his extraordinary miniature universes were made on Utopia Parkway—doesn’t that sound like a road to the heavens, or a terrestrial version of The Milky Way? (Except that Utopia Parkway is a busy street in Queens, and the house was a modest one-family, and his basement studio, judging from the pictures in the show, was cluttered and cramped.) I loved your reference to the Scrovegni Chapel, but I'm thinking his own home was the more mundane version of the big box.
Harry Roseman, Back of Cornell, 1971, above right; below, the house on Utopia Blvd. in Queens

As I’ve learned more about him from the show, he was only reclusive when it came to women. Otherwise, he regularly went out and about, at least in New York (apparently he never traveled much past the boroughs). He had a job in Manhattan, and he went to openings. He was also an avid collector of books and objects. (I loved the photograph in the show of his boxes of stuff. Such an organized obsessive!) Cornell was not only aware of the Surrealists, he did a collaborative work with Duchamp, who was an admirer of his work. Untrained in art though he may have been, he was no naif but I do think his work has a kind of na├»ve poetry.

Image from the Peabody Essex Museum site, a promotional collage of Cornell's work (Don't you love that? A collage of Cornell's assemblages and collages)

As someone who works with the grid as an organizing principle, I love that part of his work—the compartments, the repetition, the everything-in-its-place compositions (like his boxes of stuff). I find these compostions infinitely more compelling than the dioramas and what look like miniature stage sets. I’d like to think his work was meditative, but it could equally have been fraught with obsession. One thing was surely obsessive, and it gives me the creeps: his focus on certain women, whether movie stars, divas or dancers. There was a little too much of the voyeur for me in his female figures. Nowadays it’s the stuff of Law and Order: SVU.

But just as I’m getting creeped out, I walk to another vitrine and find a little box with a dancer backed by a chorus line of little plastic lobsters, wearing tutus. Dancing lobsters! The piece was made in about 1945, long before Pop sensibility roared into the zeitgeist. I saw those klutzy terpsichorean crustaceans and laughed out loud. Then I thought of Dali’s big, floppy lobster telphone. So we’re back to Surrealism.

Zizi Jean Marie Lobster Ballet Box," 1949, by Joseph Cornell


And then there are the pieces with watchsprings, lovely little spirals stretching out like miniatire galaxies, metaphors for space and time, and graphically just beautiful to look at. So we’re spiraling back into poetry.

The poetry is also there in the boxes with the soapbubble pipes, and the marbles and glass balls. Material, tangible objects suggesting the ephemeral. Because my studio is around the corner from the PEM, I visited the show half a dozen times, allowing myself to wander in the half light. That was probably the best part of the show for me, the repeated, extended viewing of the work, seeing it not objectively or reportorially, but emotionally—which is why this post is more stream of consciousness than what I normally write.

This sounds corny, but there is a magical quality to it the work. You get the sense that Cornell kind of disappeared into his little creations, like Alice down the rabbit hole. I imagine his mind as having little compartments, some lined in velvet, others stacked like drawers with little knobs, each filled with all kinds of marvelous or marvellously mundane things, or little stage sets with theatrical vignettes. Maybe there was another little door that opened onto the stars. Now that's a Surrealist image. Or maybe the universe was indeed in minature and existed inside a box in his head.

From Pavel Zoubok Gallery, New York. This piece has a flat box that opens under the main diorama, the heavens contained just like those marbles in the little glasses
OK, back to reality. One thing I found horrifying was the materials he used—an object lesson, if ever there was one, for artists unconcerned with archival issues. You saw the photograph of his materials. Yikes, kiddie art supplies! I guess this is where the naif part comes in. School paste, cheap tempera and brushes. In another vitrine there was a photograph of one of the boxes showing how it has once looked, with a brilliant an Yves-Klein-blue interior; the actual piece had faded to gray.

The show was curated by PEM chief curator Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, who was the former director of the Joseph Cornell Study Center at the Smithsonian Institution, where the exhibition originated. It caps an extended reprise for Cornell, who died in 1972.

Pace Gallery (on 57th Street, before the "Wildenstein" was added) did a major show of his work in the mid 90s. Then this past May, just as the Cornell show opened at the PEM, Pavel Zoubok did a small but lovely show of the artist's work in his 23rd Street gallery . Considering that so few of Cornell's works must be for sale, Zoubok had a surprising number of very good works. And no doubt there have been other small Cornell shows in between.

Above and below: Joseph Cornell at the Pavel Zoubok Gallery, New York City, in May

But back to Cornell. This Smithsonian-to-Salem-to-SFMoMA show is the big one, 35 years after his death. So in addition to poetry, magic, and dreams, this show is, in its way, about reincarnation.

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