Message in a Box

December 30, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT


PAUL SOLMAN: A box. The Grand Hotel De La Boule-D’Or, or Ball of Gold: The Sun. A chain, recalling escape artist Harry Houdini, childhood idol of the man who made the box. A cat; cut from some old magazine or children’s book, here to keep the hotel free from mice, and not doing a very good job of it. Another box. Inside another allusion to its maker, a notorious night owl who made boxes like these in his Queens, New York basement from dusk to dawn. A Renaissance palace, a fairy tale forest of painted twigs hovers over it. Behind its windows a myriad of tiny mirrors.

DEBORAH SOLOMON, Author, Utopia Parkway: Feels very Christmassy, doesn’t it?

PAUL SOLMAN: Yes, it does. This is the man who made the boxes–an American named Joseph Cornell. He couldn’t draw, couldn’t paint, didn’t even saw very well when he tried to cut some of his creations from wood, but his boxes now fetch $100,000 or more at auction and are exhibited in major museums worldwide. Houston’s Menil collection of modern art is now running a show of his work because Joseph Cornell is actually considered one of America’s most important modern artists, proudly claimed by surrealists, abstract expressionists, and pop artists alike.

But why? How could a reclusive fabric salesman with no art education or training become almost universally acknowledged as a modern master, a man whose main form of expression was putting souvenirs in boxes, previously a hobby for Victorian housewives, a man whose valentines seem naive enough to make Hallmark cringe? Deborah Solomon is the author of Utopia Parkway: The Life and Work of Joseph Cornell.

DEBORAH SOLOMON: It’s interesting that he was the first modern artist to stake his entire career on a medium as seemingly slight as assemblage. Cornell put common objects inside boxes, but, for him, they were also charged with the power of relics.

PAUL SOLMAN: Now “relics” may not be the word that springs to mind when viewing these dime store dioramas on TV. Their spirituality isn’t obvious even in person. But to his fans, Cornell is a sort of poet saint, a dream keeper, an artist who thought outside the box even as he worked within it. This, for instance, is a tribute to a 19th century ballerina. She fluttered before European princes, who showered her with gems after a performance. To Cornell, she was a goddess. Another devotional offering: The gems here are made of plastic ice cubes. In this tribute the jewels are also fragments of ice because the story, as written by Cornell and pasted to the box, is that a highway robber in Russia once stopped this dancer’s carriage and “this ethereal creature was commanded to dance on fur rugs spread over the icy landscape.”

DEBORAH SOLOMON: When Cornell was over the top, he was over the top.

PAUL SOLMAN: To some, Cornell’s work was romanticism at its best–innocent, passionate, uninhibited. Detractors would use adjectives like “saccharine,” “corny,” or even “pathetic.”

PAUL SOLMAN: I mean, it’s a beautiful thing, and yet, what a sad sack, you know? I mean, geez, a guy who’s sitting home, you know, putting the ice cubes in the box to offer to the 19th century.

DEBORAH SOLOMON: Right. It was a melancholy life. He lived very much through his day dreams. His outward life was quite static, but inwardly, his life was very extravagant.

PAUL SOLMAN: Joseph Cornell was born in Nyack, New York, about 30 miles North of Manhattan. His father was a salesman, his mother a shy debutante. After Joseph, they had two daughters and then Robert, crippled by cerebral palsy. He was, their mother insisted, Joseph’s responsibility, a burden that increased after their father died in 1917. Mrs. Cornell then moved the family to this house in Queens, where Joseph would live with his mother and brother until their deaths in the mid 1960’s through to the end of his own life in 1972. Worshiping women from afar, he lived an ascetic life, never married, never even consummated a relationship.

DEBORAH SOLOMON: Mrs. Cornell was one of the most formidable mothers in all of our history. She belongs to a pantheon that also includes, for instance, Whistler’s mother, who stares out at us from her son’s portrait in her little lace bonnet, or Adele Toulouse-Lautrec, the artist’s mother, who would meet her son for dinner every night after his drunken bouts in Montmartre. Cornell was pretty much the ultimate mama’s boy.

PAUL SOLMAN: But while those artists drew or painted portraits of their mothers, Cornell did not, mainly because he couldn’t draw or paint. Instead, he could only represent her in images he cut out of 19th century books. Here a woman like his mother, buffeted by a storm, here another mother figure perhaps strapped to a young sailor’s mast. With this first group of sixteen collages done in the early 1930’s Cornell began his career by embracing surrealism, the art of the absurd. But he had his own take on the movement, to which he’d been introduced by the work of surrealist pioneer Max Ernst.

DEBORAH SOLOMON: The basic strategy of surrealism was the juxtaposition of illogical objects. We often end up with jarring, jolting images that are a kind of artistic shock treatment. Cornell was not interested in shock treatment. He was interested in finding the poetic connections and conjunctions between objects.

PAUL SOLMAN: So, for example, in this–

DEBORAH SOLOMON: In this work he starts with a subject that could be seen as implicitly violent, meaning a beheaded woman. He puts her head on a plate. He attaches a swallow’s wing to it. And what sounds like it should be some kind of monster turns out to be a very serene and dreamy image.

PAUL SOLMAN: Now, I look at this and I think to myself, well, wait a second, the artist here is the person who actually engraved the head.

DEBORAH SOLOMON: But maybe the engraving isn’t that interesting. Maybe what Cornell did with it is more interesting. And in choosing these objects Cornell was making an artistic statement. That’s certainly the legacy of Marcel Duchamp, who told us that if you put a snow shovel in a gallery and if the artist says it’s art, it’s art.

PAUL SOLMAN: The Menil collection actually exhibits a Duchamp bottle rack, raising key questions of 20th century art criticism: What is art anyway? And who’s an artist? Cornell’s collages prompt the same basic questions, and so do his boxes.

DEBORAH SOLOMON: Here we have “Medici’s Slot Machine,” in which he situates a Renaissance prince into a candy vending machine and provides this prince with a sort of dream home, the kind of home he probably didn’t have in real life because you’ll notice the box also has jacks, blocks, a map of Italy, in case the prince decides to travel anywhere.

PAUL SOLMAN: Did he travel much himself?

DEBORAH SOLOMON: Oh, no, he went absolutely nowhere. His idea of an exotic jaunt was to ride the bus to Main Street in Flushing, Queens, and shop at Woolworth’s.

PAUL SOLMAN: “Medici’s Slot Machine” also makes references to the movies, with filmstrip-like images of the Renaissance Prince. Cornell was a movie nut who collected publicity stills of real-life stars like France Nuyen of The Flower Drum Song, and made them centerpieces of his work. He even collected old movies and rearranged one of them, the 1931 Grade B jungle flick called East of Borneo, into the jarringly edited Rose Hobart after East of Borneo’s now forgotten star. Inept, some might say, a breakthrough experiment, others insist, 30 years before the so-called experimental films of the 1960’s. In fact, Salvador Dali was so jealous that at a 1936 screening of this film at New York’s Museum of Modern Art he up-ended a projector and called Cornell a “bastard,” envious of his colleague’s supposed surrealist coup. Greta Garbo wasn’t resentful, just unimpressed. Garbo, reportedly, said when she saw a box in her honor–

DEBORAH SOLOMON: “It looks nothing like me.” And word got back to Cornell, and he was crushed. He was so hurt that she didn’t like the box that he destroyed it, and it lives on now only in photographs.

PAUL SOLMAN: The guy does sound like he’s the classic neurasthenic, I mean, you know, the hypersensitive–

DEBORAH SOLOMON: Yes. Well, art is not made by accountants.

PAUL SOLMAN: Well, at any rate, this art wasn’t made by an accountant, but a star-struck salesman offering sacrifices to those who moved him. This box is called “Swan Lake,” made after seeing the Russian ballerina Tamara Toumanova perform in 1942.

DEBORAH SOLOMON: The box is based on Act II of the ballet when an evil magician turns Odette into a swan to keep her away from her lover. And Cornell has decided to keep her a swan forever, so that the longing never ends in this box. In that sense, it reminds of us all the women and experiences that were inaccessible to Cornell.

PAUL SOLMAN: Why is it suspended–oh, there are mirrors in the background.

DEBORAH SOLOMON: Right. He often included mirrors in his work, which reminds us that the work is very much about looking and the experience of voyeurism, and the boxes turn us into voyeurs. Look at you. You’re peaking into that box and studying your own reflection. You, voyeur, you.

PAUL SOLMAN: (laughing) Voyeurism–experimental movie-making–appropriating the work of others; these remain cutting-edge themes in art today. But Joseph Cornell was clearing the trail half a century ago as many of his contemporaries acknowledged.

DEBORAH SOLOMON: In the 1950’s, he whitened and brightened up the boxes, which may be related to abstract expressionism, a movement that celebrated motional directness. He did a long series of boxes featuring birds in them. And it’s tempting to see the birds as a stand-in for the artist, for he, himself, was something of a caged creature.

PAUL SOLMAN: In Cornell’s copious diaries Deborah Solomon found this sentence copied from an article by John Updike in October, 1962: “The willingness to risk excess on behalf of one’s obsessions is what distinguishes artists from entertainers and what makes some artists adventurous on behalf of us all.” To his admirers, Cornell was adventurous all right, most of all in transforming the images of popular culture into art. Some celebrate Cornell as the father of pop, though Solomon writes that his fragile poetry spoke in a whisper, not the screaming irony of pop art.

Joseph Cornell never reveled in his growing status as seminal figure, however. His last years were his st isolated. He would watch neighborhood children from his window, leaving boxes out on the porch for them to play with. In 1972, Cornell died at his Utopia Parkway home. He was cremated; his ashes buried in a small wooden box.