To collect anything requires a type of mania, a fetish for ownership of the desired object that cannot be sated until the next obsession takes its place. The art of Joseph Cornell epitomizes this type of madness, but the current exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Joseph Cornell: Navigating the Imagination, reveals the method behind that madness. In the catalogue to the exhibition, Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, founding curator of the Joseph Cornell Study Center, brings her encyclopedic knowledge of this encyclopedic artist to bear. Cornell absorbed almost every field of knowledge or art that came within his reach, whether it was classical music, motion pictures, modern art, ballet, penny arcades, or the books, magazines, and newspapers he would come across in his haunts. Even astronomy fell within his purview, inspiring works such as Interplanetary Navigation (above), in which he took the burgeoning sphere of new knowledge and imposed his sense of artistic order upon it in collages or shadow boxes. Hartigan helps navigate us through the deep and wide waters of Cornell’s intellect and demonstrates how Cornell deserves greater recognition in the pantheon of American modern art.
Hartigan challenges “the long-standing emphasis given to Surrealism’s role in [Cornell’s] emergence as an artist,” titling her essay “When Does an Artist Become an Artist?” Living and working in New York City, Cornell found himself surrounded by new sensations. New York’s theaters, museums, galleries, and bookshops serve as Cornell’s “sanctuary and retreat of infinite pleasures.” He described “awesome, religious moments in front of florists’ windows.” Rather than a product of direct artistic influence, Cornell benefits from the culture rising around him. “His multifaceted curiosity was innate,” Hartigan writes, “yet magazines and newspapers in the 1920s—including those intended for a broad rather than intellectual readership—devoted an engaging mix of informed and intelligent discussions on the arts.” Like Edward Hopper, John Sloan, and so many other artists in that place and time, Cornell found the new elevated trains fascinating in their voyeuristic potential to glimpse through windows into strangers’ lives. Cornell equates art with the experience of life itself—as just another window upon the world. Although aware of Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, and others, Cornell lacks an epiphany, a Road to Damascus moment of conversion so easily fit into the narratives of artists’ origins. Instead, his is a slow process, a gradual accumulation of artistry mirroring his gradual accumulation of artistic material.
After years of creating collages by cutting and pasting Victorian-era imagery, transforming banal material into art through unique juxtapositions and correspondences, Cornell hit upon his first masterpiece in his Cabinet of Natural History: Object, 1934 (above). Hartigan sees Cornell’s Cabinet as reflecting the Victorian era’s “absorption in things, from the common to the exotic” thanks to mass production and advertising spinning the fantasy of “a universe readily filled with necessities, inventions, and fancies.” The Cabinet also harks back to the Victorian use of shadow boxes as show pieces. Rather than the precious minutiae of life, however, Cornell fills his cabinet with his own most precious possessions—the scientists and artists filling and firing his imagination. Bottles representing Newton, Herschel, Pascal, and other scientists stand beside those representing the artist Duchamp and the author Edgar Allan Poe. Cornell conflates these two worlds in his desire to bring all experience under one roof, into one single box, and deny the modern phenomenon of specialization, which threatened to atomize culture and society. Hartigan feels that Cornell wanted to resurrect the idea of natural philosophy, in which science, philosophy, and art spoke the same language, sometimes even by the same person, specifically polymaths such as Newton and Pascal.
Cornell’s boxes and collages always have a sense of time, harking back but remaining in the present. “He was constantly clocking himself—chronicling what he had done, what he was doing, what he was not getting done, and what he hoped to do,” Hartigan writes, “in ways that suggest the tyranny of time, but also an awareness of a time line and continuum for his efforts.” Works such as his Penny Arcade series (above) embody Cornell’s nostalgia for his youth and the simple pleasures of that time but never allow escapism. They provide a window on time past but always with a sense of time passed, as shown in the weathered appearance of the penny arcade itself. In Cornell’s mind, these games represented the imagination itself, “wherein traveling agent balls release the dreams and inner visions of the poet-painters,” as he said in 1948. Cornell the pinball wizard never stopped playing games, and the agents of inspiration continually ricocheted around his imagination.
Joseph Cornell, Untitled (Penny Arcade Portrait of Lauren Bacall), ca. 1945–46; box construction with blue glass; The Lindy and Edwin Bergman Collection; © The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York; photo: Michael Tropea
It’s fascinating to wonder how Cornell would fare today, in a world even more inundated by visual stimulation than his own. When Cornell saw the 19-year-old Lauren Bacall star in To Have and Have Not in 1945, he went back to see the movie four more times. From that experience, Penny Arcade Portrait of Lauren Bacall (above) was born. Cornell literally builds a shrine to Bacall’s youthful sexuality, capturing it and controlling it in a way, yet still celebrating it. Experiences such as his rapture over the young starlet seemed like ephemeral butterflies to Cornell that he desperately needed to pin down and preserve under glass. “Whether expressed by the frame of a box or a collage,” Hartigan writes, “his intent was similar—directing us to a highly defined space or field of vision for free-form contemplation.” In his portrait of Lauren Bacall, Cornell took the place of director, choosing the stage and scene in which he could contemplate her at his leisure. (Pass the popcorn, please.)
Joseph Cornell, Untitled (Blue Sand Fountain), ca. 1953; box construction; Private collection; © The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York; photo: Dennis Helmar
Hartigan’s succeeds in her monumental task of mapping out the universe that is Cornell. Like the grains of sand in Blue Sand Fountain (above), Cornell’s multiplicity often slips through the fingers of critics, but Hartigan never loses her grip on the man or his material. His ability to assimilate information still astounds me. One work, Variant Version for Mahler Maed.C.hen #2 (Symphony #3), demonstrates a deeply profound knowledge of Gustav Mahler’s difficult music. Speaking of his Third Symphony, Mahler once said, ““Just imagine a work of such magnitude that it actually mirrors the whole world—one is, so to speak, only an instrument, played on by the universe. . . . My symphony will be something the like of which the world has never yet heard! . . . In it the whole of nature finds a voice.” Cornell, too, hoped to give all of nature and the imagination a voice in his work, mirroring all that he knew and felt. Mahler titled sections of that symphony "What Man Tells Me," "What the Angels Tell Me," and "What God Tells Me." In many ways, Cornell’s works are what the universe told him, and he is still telling us those stories back.
[Many thanks to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art for providing me with a review copy of the catalogue to Joseph Cornell: Navigating the Imagination and for the images from the exhibition.]