How fitting that Joseph Cornell, maker of his magic boxes, was born on Christmas Eve 1903, the day before the opening of boxes around the world. Cornell lived with his mother and disabled brother for most of his life on a street in Flushing, New York called Utopia Parkway. As an artist, Cornell brought together the tiny fragments of ordinary life and assembled them into a tiny utopia he neatly packaged into a box. Many critics like to lump Cornell in with the Surrealists, but I’ve always seen him more as a hyper-realist who distills the world around him into its essential essence. Cornell was the ultimate pack rat, collecting not only little bits and pieces to place into his artwork but also mentally collecting new obsessions that ranged across the whole gamut of culture, both high and low. Cornell’s Untitled (Penny Arcade Portrait of Lauren Bacall) (above, from 1945) came out of the artist’s obsession with the actress. I’m sure Cornell wished he could find the sultry starlet under his tree on Christmas morning, but his almost crippling shyness relegated him to living out his dreams through his box. In his Penny Arcade, Cornell could enshrine Bacall and make her his forever.
Cornell taught himself how to build his boxes. Art and art history were just two of the many subjects he taught himself from scratch, obsessing and possessing them before locking them away in his boxes. Untitled (Medici Princess) (above, from 1948) shows Cornell facing the art of the past and the ideal of beauty of the past. Cornell’s centuries-old Medici Princess serves as a neat contrast to Bacall’s contemporary femme fatale. I love Cornell’s boxes for just how transparently they show the workings of the artist’s mind. You can sit and look at them individually and follow how they “work” internally. Just when you think you understand one, you see another box, perhaps related to another subject entirely, and recognize how Cornell’s mind leapt from place to place. Cornell’s obsessiveness can become almost obsessively compelling by itself.
Cornell remains a confusing figure for the general art public, many of whom don’t see the big fuss of these little boxes of “junk.” Because of his withdrawn nature, Cornell never promoted his own work. At his death, even Cornell’s family had no clue as to his stature in the art world and almost destroyed his body of work if not for the intervention of a fan. When Cornell screened his 1936 collage film Rose Hobart, Salvador Dalí, king of self-promotion, railed against Cornell for “stealing” his idea, thus ending Cornell’s film experiments and driving the film itself underground for decades. To appreciate Cornell, you must follow him and be prepared to go anywhere, including the stars. Cornell’s late-career love of astronomy led him to create works such as Cassiopeia 1 (above, from 1960) in which he attempts to stuff the very universe into his tiny boxes. A great deal of art teaches us to reach for the stars, but Joseph Cornell’s art brings them down to earth and hands them to us like a present.