Saturday, 5 September 2015


(Yes, really! An art exhibition reviewed while its still on!)

“What a fairyland we find ourselves in”
- Letter from Cornell to Dorothea Tanning, 1947

Boxing the Fantastical

With barely concealed pride this show tells you “Joseph Cornell did not draw, paint or sculpt, and declined opportunities to train in traditional artistic methods”. Instead he devoted his energies to collages and assemblages, specialising in what he called “shadow boxes” - constructed environments presented behind glass like cabinets of curiosities. By day commuting to work from suburban to downtown New York, by night he'd assemble artworks on the kitchen table when not caring for his disabled younger brother. Though he knew, exhibited with and was admired by many other artists, he kept a distance from the art world.

As Ben Luke points out “all this reads as a textbook biography for an outsider artist — the kind of visionary who never intends to be an artist, whose body of work is discovered at their death. But Cornell, though undoubtedly eccentric and socially awkward, was very much an insider in art-world terms.”

In fact he was first inspired to create not by some inner compulsion but by encountering Surrealist art. We even know the date and place - the Julien Levy Gallery in '31. That Surrealist influence is clear and acknowledged, with early works dedicated to Ernst and Magritte. 'Object (Soap Bubble Set)' (1941) doesn't just a feature a pipe but what's clearly a reference to Magritte's pipe. Yet for all this he never identified himself as a Surrealist. We might wonder why.

Surrealist artworks tend to be about bursting the barriers between dream and wakefulness, between the conscious and the unconscious, so have a tendency to erupt with lurid and provocative imagery. They have a fondness for the Victorian cabinets of curiosities, but use an outer similarity to the obsessive cataloguing and brown-label tagging to wilfully juxtapose unlikely objects – affecting order while practicing its opposite. Plus the sauce on their pudding was a recurrent fixation with the Freudian id, the sexualised subconscious. (Think for example of Ernst's 'The Virgin Spanking the Infant Jesus Before Three Witnesses', 1928.)

Cornell called all this “black magic” to his “white magic”. He participated in a 1936 exhibition titled 'Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism', which handily delineates the differences for us - his work is more fantastical than surreal. His methods he described as “creative filing/ creative arranging/as poetics/ as joyous creations”. In an absolute reversal to Ernst, one of his key themes is the innocent curiosity of childhood. His last major exhibition was a show he arranged especially for children, with the boxes displayed at child height and with the opening party serving soft drinks and cake.

'Tilly Losch', (c. 1935, above), perhaps one of his signature images, shows the strings on the flying girl without our seeing what she is attached to. There's a Pinnocchio sense of a puppet that's overcome its limitations, that she's now pulling her own strings. There's a sense that, floating legless in her birdcage dress, she is herself the balloon - as if rising by sheer effort of will. A three-dimensional figure against a background flat as a theatre backdrop, she flies free.

But perhaps what's most illustrative isn't what makes him not a Surrealist but what makes him not a Dadaist. In brief, his work isn’t disruptive in the same way. His shadow boxes are constructions not destructions, not spanners thrown into our reality but hermetic environments, other places we can peer into. Anti-art statements such as May Ray's 'Object to be Destroyed' (1923) would be foreign to him. His works don't come out at you, you peer into their strangeness.

The Dada assemblages of, for example, Kurt Schwitters may have some formal similarities. But they're made from ephemera and detritus, as if he's been rummaging through the waste-paper basket of our culture. What to Schwitters was mere material with Cornell became something closer to muses. When Schwitters uses, for example, bus tickets he simply uses them. Whereas, in something we'll come onto later, Cornell employs the iconography of travel. As Robert Hughes said of him “To others, these deposits might be refuse, but to Cornell they were the strata of repressed memory, a jumble of elements waiting to be grafted and mated to one another.”

It’s a concept which lends itself to the romantic notion of the super-sensitive artist scouring junk shops waiting to encounter inspiration. At times the show plays up to this, referring to his seeking out “keepsakes”, its web page describing the works as “charged with personal histories” - as if his thriftstore acquisitions came complete with a kind of psychic history only he was attuned to. The opposite, perhaps, of Duchamp's depersonalised shop-bought readymades. Instead he seems to have accumulated material which he diligently if eccentrically catalogued, then used as a kind of cross between an image repository and a palette board. (See here for some visual examples.)

In this way the glass front is not incidental, not just a way of keeping things together or preserved, but central. Notably he often uses glass within the boxes, incorporating drinking glasses or phials. As Victoria Sadler comments “these boxes remain sealed, the glass lids fixed and closed. The worlds Joseph created always remaining out of reach, untouchable.” In this way these products of the imagination are much like the imagination, vivid but untouchable. Like any peepshow, the peeping's as important as the show. Fittingly, Jennifer Hamblett's film of 'Beehive' (1940/8) merely lets light play on the work and, with a remarkable similarity to the films of the Quay Brothers, this flickering suggests imperceptible movement.

The World of Shadows

A Cornell exhibition is a must for quite a fundamental reason. His works aren't flat collages but objects, which means reproduction (including all the illos here) don't fully capture them – you need to go to a place where they are in order to really see them. As one example, at the same time the boxes are enclosed doors, windows, cut holes and other apertures appear all over them. 'Untitled (To Marguerite Bleach)' (1940, below) presents a book with cut-out chambers. It's reminiscent of a child's view of reading, as they start to decipher the alchemic symbols they find they have the power to make objects appear in your mind. (Its similar to the way children's books will sometimes drop images into text, a little drawing of a dog or a ball replacing the word in a sentence.)

And where else in Modernism do we see this interplay of text and image? Of course in Cubism. If the association with Surrealism is understandable and instructive, if not entirely accurate, some of the other connections made for Cornell are fanciful. (For example, the odd splodge of paint fallen on one or two works supposedly prefiguring abstract expressionism.) Yet with Cubism there's perhaps more of a connection than is generally acknowledged. 'A Parrot for Juan Gris' (1953/4, below) is dedicated to the Spanish Cubist painter. Clearly its a playful take on the theme. Cubism arose as a solution to the 'problem' of rendering three-dimensional objects on flat canvas. Here Cornell finds a child's solution by adding on the third dimension. At the same time, Cubists often incorporated collage elements, such as Picasso's 'Still Life With Chair Caning' (1912), which is precisely what he does here. The parrot is in relief, its relief claws clutching a relief branch. Yet it's sat atop an actual piece of wood. The parrot suggests we see the box as a cage, yet the newspaper lining behind it also suggests a drawer.

Similarly, 'Habitat Group For Shooting Gallery' (1943, below) has (at upper left) a drawn perch which then continues into the real thing. Detritus lies at the bottom of the box as though these were real birds in a cage. Yet the presence of actual objects in the box can only emphasise that they're merely cut-outs. They're even tagged in a (functionally useless) numbering system, as if illustrations in a book. Not particularly visibly in this illo, the glass of the case is cracked in the centre – the notion this might be a bullet-hole reinforced in the work's title. The bird behind this, and another to his right, are rendered in black-and-white. Yet flecks and blobs of colour are splattered onto the wall behind them (some yellow still clinging to the upper bird's tail), as if the colour has been shot away from them, as if they've been robbed them of their radiance.

Cornell frequently used bird images, even titling a 1949 exhibition 'Aviary'. And as the indicia points out these were often parrots and cockatoos – birds capable of mimicking human speech. Let's remember he was influenced by Ernst, who devised the bird alter ego Loplop. Yet for Ernst Loplop represented the overcoming of inhibition, free will in flight. Cornell's birds are more ambiguous – are they confined to those boxes, or does their shadow world represent escape from our space? Here the box seems penetrated, perhaps infected by the outside world. (One theory is that it's a wartime work, representing how war's shadow fell even on Cornell's basement studio. Generally he doesn't seem a social or political artists – his cosmology is entirely private. But there may be something to this.)

The Mind Might Travel

Cornell barely left New York State in his life, never venturing further than the East Coast. Yet as the show says “the imagery of travel permeates [his] work, from maps and postage stamps to timetables and hotel advertisements.” Europe we're told was “to him an ideal realm not so different to a fairy-tale land”, and indeed there's a whole series of works devoted to hotels he never stayed in, often with images purloined from their glossy brochures. 'Naples' (1942, below) is a memento of a town he never visited. Perhaps what matters is the distance, and for me that brings an irony. New York itself has been celebrated in so much music and art yet I have never clapped eyes on the actual place, making it easy for me to see it in this semi-mythologised way. Yet of course what it meant to Cornell was subway rides to work.

It would be tempting to believe that he saw such postcards and hotel brochures as a stimulus to the imagination, and wanted to dream of places unfettered by the undoubted tawdry reality of cramped beds and tip-hungry staff. And yet that would imply a cut-off point, beyond which it wasn't a benefit to know more. Better to have the appetiser then stop eating. Yet he seems to have read of foreign places as voraciously as he was able, and his knowledge was detailed and accurate. In an anecdote on his meeting Marcel Duchamp, they discussed the streets of Paris at some length, only for him to then astonish the Frenchman by saying he'd never been there.

Cornell's quoted as saying that he remained a virgin, thinking sexual activity would rob him of the ability to create. Travel was surely similar, and the signs are that he knew this. When success in later life (he gave up the day job in 1940) brought invitations abroad he always declined them. And he was as interested in people and places of the past, for example reading of Romantic ballet dancers he could never hope to see perform. They're evocations rather than descriptions. The show puts it succinctly: “above all, he longed for the state of yearning itself”. In the wanderlust which titles the show, the wandering is just something to pin the lust onto.

And, always socially awkward, people were as distant to him as places. Think of how many pieces seen already have been dedicated to someone. He produced a series of votive works to famous women, called by the indicia “intense shrine-like portraits”, blurring the Catholic devotional with Hollywood glamour. Surrealism fixated upon the female body, while for Cornell it's always the face. They resemble youthful crushes on distant film stars – obsessive yet strangely chaste.

Twigs For Forests

If Cornell remained in part an outsider artist, this is most evident in the way his work involves microcosms of the world. For example 'Palace' (1943, above) employs twigs to stand for a forest. But its clearest in his many cosmological pieces. These tend to be based on Orreries, clockwork models of the solar system popular among the Victorians. For example 'Celestial Navigation' (1956/9, below) employs key-rings as the arranged spheres and plants flags on a scrap of driftwood like a cratered moon. In others white balls become planets.

In one sense he's playfully upending the certainty of that clockwork precision, the Victorians' hubristic assumption that they knew how the whole process ran. Notably he keeps the reassuring dark woods of the cabinets, even as substitutes the objects within. Yet he retained a Victorian view of science, from a time where lectures doubled as shows. He preferred its antiquated term 'natural philosophy', viewing science as human curiosity on the wing rather than any kind of formalised discipline, and called his studio a laboratory.

And he never lets go of their sense of order, even as he plays with it. Several works have blue sand, either on their base or held inside a lower draw. And sand might seem a virtual symbol of unpredictable disorder, the way we use sandcastles as an image of impermanence. Yet captured in a draw the sand seems more to represent the tides, themselves a measure of the moon. 'Penny Arcade, Pascal's Triangle' (c. 1965) makes the link between Orreries and their perfect geometry with arcade games.

Please Don't Touch

As said earlier, a Cornell show is something that must be seen, in every sense of the phrase. However there’s a paradox at the heart of his work, and it cuts right across this show. As mentioned, his shadow boxes contain unattainable otherworlds. Yet at the same time they can be interactive to the point of being tactile.

'Object (Compass Set)' (1940, above) is but one of many works described as “compartmentalised constructions, the treasures revealed gradually as they are unpacked”. While a work like 'Untitled' (1939/40), a series of images on what resemble circular playing cards, is an endlessly rearrangeable collage. The point of these works is they don't have a 'correct' combination, their state is permanent flux, like an irresolvable jigsaw. (Presumably why it couldn't even have a fixed name.) In a similar example 'Untitled (Musical Box)' (1947) is a scaled postage parcel which “contains unknown objects that, when handled, produce random sounds”.

But perhaps most egregious of all is 'Museum' (1949) of which we're even told “here the usual advice of museums to look but not touch is inverted. Only by handling the scrolls can their contents be discovered”. It is little short of a taunt to be told this then have the promise unhonoured. You long to let your fingers discover those inner chambers, pull out layers and look beneath them. Deprived, you feel like a child whose nose is pressed up against the window of a closed toy shop. The solutions they find, supplying videos demonstrating the white-gloved opening of the objects or sound recordings of the Musical Box, are inadequate workarounds and just make the sealed-off prospect of the objects themselves more enticing. Which makes the exhibition an exercise in both revelation and frustration.

Weren't these objects made for use? Like the toys in 'Toy Story', if they could talk wouldn't they tell us they'd rather be worn out through use than aridly preserved? The curators would doubtless reply that the gallery doesn't even own these works, and they'd be unlikely to get loan of them if they intended allowing us punters to get our grubby mutts on them. This is of course part of a wider problem where artworks have lost their primary purpose and become more investments, and true enough we don't want all exhibitions put on hold until such time as capitalism is brought to a close. But perhaps more of a middle way could be found, where reproductions of some of the works were assembled (like copies of bronzes are sometimes cast) and left out for use. This might have also given the show more of a 'playpen' atmosphere, which would have suited Cornell's work. They could even have served soft drinks and cake.

'The Life of Ludwig II of Bavaria' (1941/52, above) contains a book of that name, but also photos, objects and ephemera connected to him. Some of the connections are literal, others more tangental. This is a person as you might think of them, rather than write a biography of them, an unsettleable jumble of impressions. And, by gathering his work, accumulating his multi-chambered cabinets, the show responds to Cornell in a similar way. The 'atticy' upper gallery at the Academy, a nest of nooks and crannies, is as fitting for Cornell as the vast expanse of the main gallery was for the recent Anselm Keifler exhibition. There's a thousand juxtapositions, then escape hatches and rabbit holes that lead you from that reading into something else. Despite its undoubted flaws, this is the best chance you're likely to get to see inside Cornell's private world.

More, and slightly more informative, videos here.

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