Out of the box!

Different strokes

Out of the box!

In 1992, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Charles Simić published Dime-Store Alchemy, The Art of Joseph Cornell, a collection of 60 short prose texts and poems. In one of the texts titled ‘Where Chance Meets Necessity’, he alludes to Cornell’s uncanny facility to find significance in simple, ordinary and unexpected things.

Somewhere in the city of New York there are four or five still-unknown objects that belong together. Once together, they’ll make a work of art. That’s Cornell’s premise, his metaphysics and his religion, which I wish to understand.

“He sets out from his home on Utopia Parkway without knowing what he is looking for or what he will find. Today, it could be something as ordinary and interesting as an old thimble. Years may pass before it has company. In the meantime, Cornell walks and looks. The city has an infinite number of interesting objects in an infinite number of unlikely places.”

Considered one of the foremost artists of his generation, Joseph Cornell (1903-1965) had no formal art training. He did not draw, paint or sculpt in the traditional sense. Instead, he chose collage and box assemblage to be his principle medium of expression.

Two personal traits helped him in his artistic endeavour: one, his love for wandering across New York, the city where he spent his entire life; and two, an enduring passion to collect odd things — from bus tickets, maps to broken mirrors — from street trash, used bookstores, and junk shops.

Rona Cran in her book Collage in Twentieth-Century Art, Literature, and Culture affirms that New York was central in shaping Cornell’s expansive imagination and artistic vision. “It was here, in Manhattan, that he first made his ‘wonderful irrational discovery’ of collage… Collage was his key artistic tool; and it enabled him to energetically reframe the frustrations of his working and domestic life in a positive light, and to narrate the story of his life in New York City in unique and uncompromising terms.”

Cran also explains how plastic shells, watch parts, springs, white pipes, owl cut-outs, glass cubes, magazine articles, sheet music, ticket stubs, old books, photographs and coins were amongst the countless objects which made way to the artist’s modest home.

“Cornell was a consummate archivist, and in possession of a wealth of unrelated objects, many of which held an almost spiritual meaning for him.” Pultizer Prize winning poet John Ashberry puts it succinctly when he says that the genius of Cornell was that he saw and enabled the viewer to see with the eyes of childhood…“when objects like a rubber ball or a pocket mirror seem charged with meaning, and a marble rolling across a wooden floor could be as portentous as a passing comet.”

Difficult life

By all accounts, Cornell had a difficult life. Fatherless at 13, he lived with his widowed mother and devotedly took care of his younger brother Robert who suffered from a crippling form of cerebral palsy since he was just one. Cornell never married, shunned travel and preferred to remain a recluse. 

In his youth, Cornell took on odd jobs to survive and support his family. He was able to devote himself more fully to his art only after 1940. Even then, he continued to undertake freelance work and produced illustrations and designing layouts for magazines such as Vogue and House and Garden until 1957. A man of many interests, he loved music and was well read in both classics and contemporary literature. He also loved ballet and the movies, with a particular interest for collecting images of Hollywood film stars.  

Robert died in 1965 (aged 54), and his mother, in 1966, leading Cornell further into depression and loneliness. On 29 December 1972, a few days after his 69th birthday, Cornell too passed away apparently due to heart failure. He left a will which stipulated that the money made from the sale of his work should go to charity.

Varied themes

Cornell’s art encompassed varied themes which dealt with the ideas of time, death, decay, aging, memory, mystery and metaphysics. He believed that “life can have significance even if it appears to be a series of failures.” 

While his early work showed the influence of German Surrealist painter and sculptor, Max Ernst (1891-1976), he was also personally acquainted with French-American artist and the founder of the Dada movement, Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), whom he revered. Duchamp even engaged Cornell (who was 16 years his junior) to assist him in his work. In 1936, Cornell’s work was included in an exhibition of Dada and Surrealist art at the Museum of Modern Art. In 1939, Cornell’s art was famously described by Salvador Dalí as “the only truly surrealist work to be found in America.”

Although his name was often associated with surrealism, Cornell was not a surrealist in the strict sense and did not want to be counted as one. “Cornell’s ‘attitude of mind’ was resolutely not that of the surrealists,” says Cran. “He did not believe in chance as a guiding aesthetic force; he believed in fate and the inescapable. His art never had its roots in the automatic; he shaped, carefully, whatever emerged from his unconscious…He had the ability to raise the surrealist formula above its own standards, enabled by his unique vision of the world.”

Cornell’s fascinating collages and mysterious box assemblages have influenced generations of artists. They have also attracted literary luminaries including Nobel Prize-winning Mexican poet Octavio Paz (1914-98), whose poem dedicated to the art of Cornell titled ‘Objects and Apparitions’ was translated from Spanish and published by another Cornell admirer, Elizabeth Bishop, in 1976.

One of Europe’s highly admired writers, Gabriel Josipovici (born 1940) too has alluded to Cornwell in two of his short stories. His recent novel, Hotel Andromeda (2014), which is an engaging story of an art historian living in London struggling to write a book about the American artist has been hailed as ‘a beautiful and thoughtful tribute to eccentric 20th-century artist Joseph Cornell’.

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