Here is an excerpt from a piece I just wrote, SFMoMA: Cornell, Wall, Eliasson, that is at my place, and is also now posted on the brand new group blog focusing on Bay Area art: Bay Area ArtQuake.
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I thought I knew Cornell's work pretty well, the collages and boxes and films and drawers full of photographs and ephemera, but I was wrong. Of course there is the myth about him as the obsessive naif, and I suppose I bought into that. But this exhibition shows him as an artist with extreme focus and clarity of vision, and the nerve and chops to realize his vision.
While Cornell's focus and vision might initially seem narrow, they were not simple; this work is complex in ways I don't think I can understand. It's mysterious, and layered, and cinematic. I think there is something in much of his images that is about capturing the feeling of singular moments in film- a moment or person of beauty, a certain juxtaposition, a movement, some kind of grandeur, something that happens in one moment in a film and then is gone; sitting in a dark theater watching moving images of projected light is thrilling, but certain moments in this medium can feel magical. I think Cornell was after that magic.
That, and backyard astronomy, which is another kind of camera and cinematic experience. And celebrity worship, another kind of star gazing, And also the theater of the Peeping Tom or voyeur. And something that might look to us like nostalgia, but which was in Cornell's time the objects and images from his childhood, and from the generation just prior to him. These probably aren't original ideas on my part; they're probably in the literature, but Cornell's art definitely works in these many areas, as you can see for yourself.
Think of the Scrovegni Chapel, which is really one big box, and looking up at the ceiling, which is a deep cobalt blue above littered with gold stars, and substitute Lauren Bacall for Mary, and you're drifting towards Cornell.
It is a huge, impressive show, a bit of a landmark. The biggest surprise for me was seeing the skill with with Cornell made things. Components of some of the boxes are quite finely crafted, and there are collages that show genuine sophistication in terms of how color from different pieces are combined, how texture is laid next to another, how line and edge are used. This formal kind of stuff is something I did not expect to be bowled over by. He knew what he was doing.
The low light in the galleries combined with the amount of work can tire the observer, so plan your visit: at first, you might quickly walk through the show; next walk back through and carefully see the first half the show; after that, take a break at a cafe; finally, go see the rest of the show. Take your time-- it's worth it.