Joseph Cornell: how the reclusive artist conquered the art world – from his mum’s basement

art artist's life assemblage artist collage art cornell boxes joseph cornell


I really enjoyed this article from The Guardian about an upcoming exhibit Joseph Cornell: Wanderlust at the Royal Academy in London until 27 September. It reads like a life story of an artist I've longed adored but never bothered to study:

The box is the central metaphor of Joseph Cornell’s life, just as it is the signature element of his exquisite and disturbing body of work, his factory of dreams. He made boxes to keep wonders in: small wooden boxes that he built in the basement beneath the small wooden house he shared with his mother and disabled younger brother, the two fixed stars of his existence.

As a boy, he saw Houdini perform in New York City, escaping from locked cabinets, wreathed in chains. In his own artwork, which he didn’t begin until he was almost 30, he made obsessive, ingenious versions of the same story: a multitude of found objects representing expansiveness and flight, penned inside glass-fronted cases. Ballet dancers, birds, maps, aviators, stars of screen and sky, at once cherished, fetishised and imprisoned.

The same tension between freedom and constriction ran right through Cornell’s own life. A pioneer of assemblage art, collector, autodidact, Christian Scientist, pastry-lover, experimental film-maker, balletomane and self-declared white magician, he roved freely through the fields of the mind while inhabiting a personal life of extraordinarily narrow limits. He never married or moved out of his mother’s house in Queens and rarely voyaged further than a subway ride into Manhattan, despite being besotted with the idea of foreign travel and particularly with France.

He was on friendly terms with almost every artist who passed through New York during the middle years of the 20th century – among them Duchamp, Motherwell, Rothko, De Kooning and Warhol – and yet he was also profoundly solitary, a hermit who said to his sister regretfully in the last conversation they ever had, “I wish I hadn’t been so reserved.” Though he longed for larger horizons (the title of the retrospective currently at the Royal Academy in London is Wanderlust), he didn’t attempt to physically escape his circumstances, choosing, rather, to master the hard knack of conjuring infinite space from a circumscribed realm.

Cornell was born on Christmas Eve 1903 in Nyack, a village just up the Hudson from Manhattan. Nyack was also the childhood home of Edward Hopper, another rangy, solitary artist fixated with scenes of voyeurism and enclosure (though they didn’t meet, he taught one of Cornell’s sisters to draw at summer school). In 1910, Cornell’s beloved brother was born. Robert had cerebral palsy, struggled to speak and later used a wheelchair. From the beginning, Joseph considered him his personal responsibility.

The family’s early years were a whirlwind of Christmas parties and trips to the enchanted playgrounds of Coney Island and Times Square. But in 1911, Cornell’s father, an exuberant textile designer and salesman, was diagnosed with leukaemia. When he died a few years later it became unhappily apparent that he’d been living well beyond his means. Confronted by sizable debts, Mrs Cornell sold up and moved the family to New York City, renting a succession of modest houses in working-class Queens.

She wangled her oldest son a place at the prestigious Phillips Academy, but he was unhappy and friendless there and left in 1921 without so much as a diploma to his name. Unable to draw or paint, he had no notion of becoming an artist and that autumn took the first of many grinding jobs as a salesman in Manhattan. He hated the work and often suffered from physical ailments, among them migraines and stomach aches.

What leavened those years was the city itself. Any free time Cornell had was spent luxuriating in what he described as “the teeming life of the metropolis”. He prowled the avenues and lingered in the parks: a gaunt, handsome man with burning blue eyes, leafing through racks of secondhand books and old prints, haunting flea markets, movie houses and museums, pausing sometimes to feast on stacks of doughnuts and prune twists.

The city he favoured was neither glamorous nor exclusive, but democratic: an arcade whose astonishments might equally be found at a Saturday matinee at the Metropolitan Opera or in the lit boulevards of Woolworth’s. He built up a vast private museum from his excursions, toting home treasure in the form of rare books, magazines, postcards, playbills, librettos, records and early films. Stranger things, too: shells and rubber balls, crystal swans, compasses, bobbins and corks.

First, you acquire the materials and then you put them together. Cornell’s career as an artist began when he encountered surrealism in the early 1930s. The touch paper was La Femme 100 Tetes by Max Ernst, a collaged novel that introduced him to the idea that art was not necessarily a matter of applying paint to canvas, but could also be made from real objects, estrangingly combined. Inspired, he began to make collages of his own, sitting with scissors and glue at the kitchen table of 37-08 Utopia Parkway, his home from 1929 until his death in 1972. He worked mostly at night, his mother asleep upstairs and Robert dozing in the sitting room, surrounded by model trains.

In this period, Cornell also began to assemble what he called dossiers on his favourite subjects: folders crammed with cuttings and photographs of the ballerinas, opera singers and actresses he worshipped, among them Gloria Swanson and Anna Moffo. Other explorations, which sometimes ran for decades, were meticulously catalogued by way of topic: Advertisements, Butterflies, Clouds, Fairies, Figureheads, Food, Insects, History, Planets. Categorisation mattered to Cornell, though so, too, did intuitive leaps and flights of fancy. “A clearing house for dreams and visions,” he called his files – part research project, part devotional act.

By the mid-30s, he’d discovered the two great mediums of his maturity: shadow boxes and films made by re-editing found footage. One of the most striking among the latter was Rose Hobart, which he made by chopping up the B movieEast of Borneo and splicing it back together as a series of lingering, blue-tinted glimpses of the actor Rose Hobart, wrapped in a trenchcoat, intercut with enigmatic footage of jungle foliage and swaying palms. According to Deborah Solomon’s biography, Utopia Parkway, at the first screening Salvador Dali was so overcome with jealousy that he knocked over the projector, an incident Cornell found abidingly distressing.

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