My review of Contemporary Cartographies, a show at the Lehman College Art Gallery in the Bronx, is up here on Hyperallergic.
I interviewed the Serbian designer Ana Kraš recently, and the Q&A is now up here.
The art world is divided into those people who look at Raphael as if it's graffiti, and those who look at graffiti as if it's Raphael. I prefer the latter.
When an art dealer wished to purchase one of Joseph Cornell’s boxes, he would arrive at Cornell's white clapboard house on Utopia Parkway in Queens accompanied by a pretty woman. The famed artist, whose acute shyness afflicted him with lifelong celibacy, would feel nervous and more easily part with the work.
Cornell’s unfulfilled wish was to love a beautiful woman — a wish his mother thought better than to encourage. With a bucket of water, she quite literally extinguished his brief relationship with Yayoi Kusama as they sat shyly necking in the yard one afternoon. “How many times do I have to tell you, Joseph? You mustn't touch women! Women are filthy! They breed syphilis and gonorrhea,” Kusama later recounted her shouting. It was 1964, and Cornell was 60 years old, his mother only a year from her death.
It proved as impossible for Cornell to overcome his romantic hangups as it was for his disabled brother, Robert, to walk. The two became companions. The pillbox and medicine chest works of his early career (see Pharmacy of 1943) reflected Robert's cerebral palsy as much as they did his own felt psychological illness. Was there a pill for loneliness? An antidote for what Cornell called his “overwhelming sense of sadness”?
Perhaps he found it in Manhattan, in the book shops and flea markets that lined Fourth Avenue near Bowery, in the neon frenzy of 42nd Street or the eyes of a pretty café waitress. Cornell’s self-consciousness pushed him into the limelight of his own universe, but here in the city he could become — not confident, no, but — anonymous again, a fly on the wall of the automat where he loved to eat his lunch.
He became New York’s resident flâneur, the American double of Baudelaire’s wanderer: “solitary, gifted with an active imagination, ceaselessly journeying across the great human desert.” He took the train nearly every day across the East River to peruse the city’s streets like a history book, to cull from its junk shops ephemera for his collages.
In the art world, he was misleadingly called a ‘homegrown Surrealist.’ It was after seeing Max Ernst’s collage book, La Femmes 100 Têtes, that Cornell — an artist with no training — left an envelope of his own collages with the secretary at the Julien Levy gallery. His subsequent inclusion in the 1936 landmark exhibition that officially introduced Surrealism to America emphasized the similarities he shared with the movement — an interest in dreams and the subconscious. But Cornell could not identify with their subversive purposes and ultimately kept his distance from them.
Cornell’s chief interest was beauty: the beauty of women, of nature, of dreams. After his exhibition with the Surrealists, he began experimenting with three-dimensional collages — his shadow boxes. Here, Cornell’s material and dream worlds converged. Many were shrines for beautiful women — Egyptian queens, 19th-century ballerinas and Hollywood starlets — to inhabit. He preferred brunettes but was also fond of Lauren Bacall after seeing her in To Have or Have Not. She peers with a sultry smile from Penny Arcade (1945), lost in a child’s game.
Emily Dickinson was also an important muse, if not a kindred spirit and validator of Cornell’s ascetic world. In 1953, he made Toward the Blue Peninsula (For Emily Dickinson) after reading Poem 132: “It might be easier / To fail with land in sight / Than gain my blue peninsula / To perish of delight.” It is a white box, caged as if for a bird, but containing only an empty perch and small paper window — perhaps through which the poet could gaze at the stars.
Stars are difficult to see in New York City, but Cornell likely admired them in the sea-green, zodiac sky of Grand Central Station, where he boarded the train back to Queens. Like Dickinson’s home on Main Street, the house on Utopia Parkway was a sanctuary where the Christian Scientist could ponder the cosmos in the quiet hours while his family slept. His repeated use of astronomical illustrations and cartography in works like Solar Set (1956-58) and Cassiopeia 1 (1960) channel the large, wondrous feeling one gets when lying under a night sky or seeing the earth from the tiny window of a plane.
Cornell delighted in the untapped promise of small spaces and humble objects. Perhaps he felt it mirrored the possibilities in his own colossal spirit, imprisoned in a body much like Houdini’s magical elephant was squeezed into a wardrobe. It’s of little surprise that he admired the escape artist, who he saw perform at the Hippodrome on Sixth Avenue as a child. This interest in the captive soul inspired his later use of parakeets, doves and parrots — birds that lead lives of confinement — as subject matter in his work. Keepsake Parakeet of 1949 features a wooden, two-dimensional parakeet enclosed in a gridded rectangle and resting on a tree branch. It gazes at a spiral, a symbol for infinity, in the top right corner of the box. Infinity, which had terrified Cornell as a child, threatened the animal with unending boredom, but it also represented to Cornell a kind of faith — that by dwelling on something larger than one’s self, transcendence might be achieved.
Such transcendence arrived to Cornell through his art. The boxes were a substitute for life — a way to act on his desires without any real risk. He created Parisian hotels without ever leaving New York, games for children without ever fathering his own, homages to women without ever experiencing physical love. One wonders what he might have made of the computer — that modern silver box containing the breadth of our universe. A rabbit hole of infinite images, words and thoughts through which some men and women vicariously live their lives: creating, exploring, destroying, falling in love.
Cornell’s reclusiveness was also self-imposed. It was in his boxes, not life, that he investigated the boundaries between outward and inward, consciousness and subconsciousness, history and ephemera, the mechanical and the metaphorical. He may have been happier had he been less lonely, but it is hard not to wonder whether his works would have lost their strength if exposed to the placidity that contentment sometimes breeds. It is difficult to separate the work from the man, because his boxes — which held such weight, such enormity, such preciousness — were his life.
My review of the new Richard Pagán retrospective at the Puerto Rico Museum of Contemporary Art is up on Hyperallergic.
Read it here.