Daily Book Excerpt: Biography
Next biography on this shelf is Utopia Parkway: The Life and Work of Joseph Cornell (ArtWorks), by Deborah Solomon
They made their way past several more curricula vitae holding cocktails, as well as a number of actual Surrealists, like raisins studded in a pudding. For the most part these seemed to be a remarkably serious, even sober bunch of fellows. They wore dark suits with waistcoats and solid neckties. Most of them seemed to be Americans – Peter Blume, Edwin Dickinson, a shy, courtly fellow named Joseph Cornell – who shared an air of steel-rimmed, Yankee probity that surrounded like a suburb their inner Pandemonium.
— The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, by Michael Chabon
There was about a year in my life when I was obsessed with all things Joseph Cornell. This was because I had been cast in a workshop of a play based on Cornell’s life. The workshop was directed by my good friend Ted. The play had been written, but much of the initial process had to do with improvisation, research, and playing around with the structure of the play that had already been written. The goal was to make the play itself like one of Joseph Cornell’s famous boxes (more on them in a bit). The fantasies enclosed in Cornell’s boxes, the mini-worlds and obsessions contained therein, his desire to “capture” the object of his obsession by putting her (usually a her) in a box … all of that we explored in a non-linear way in our process. Characters stepped in and out of the boxes Cornell had made for them. We imagined what was going on in the boxes, what stories they told, what dreams they expressed. We rehearsed in a giant rehearsal room at Lincoln Center for two full weeks, a 9 to 5 process every day, and by the end of those two weeks, we had a full performance piece. It was a lot of hard work, and so much fun. A great group of people. We brought in our own props, things we thought Cornell might have picked up on his wanderings up and down Second Avenue in the 40s, his perusing of junk shops and second-hand book shops: we accumulated nearly an entire room full of objects. During our improvisational explorations, if one of us felt we needed, say, a globe … or a magnifying glass … whatever … we could run over to our growing prop pile and grab it. We created a giant brown-paper banner, which we kept adding to, a sort of emotional timeline as well as an actual timeline of Cornell’s life. Since we were dipping in and out of his story in a non-linear way, it was important to know the facts inside-out.
Cornell, along with his boxes and collages and assemblages, was also an experimental filmmaker. His films were housed at MOMA at the time, and we got a private showing of all of them in a small screening room at MOMA. The films have Cornell’s particular stamp: assemblage, collage. (Film is, essentially, collage, anyway, so it was a perfect fit).
Recently I was delighted to see that Ed Howard reviewed one of Joseph Cornell’s films. Well worth reading! Cornell’s boxes get all the glory, but the films are definitely part and parcel of his body of work. He was obsessed with movies.
One of Cornell’s ongoing themes for his work was his celebrity-crush obsessionswith various women, ballerinas, actresses. He would make boxes for them. If the actress was still alive, sometimes she would come back to her dressing room after a show, and find a gift from Joseph Cornell there, a box he had made for her. These boxes were simple, he would make the boxes in his own workshop out at his house in Queens (he lived on Utopia Parkway, with his mother and his brother Robert, who had cerebral palsy), and then during the day he would wander the streets looking for inspiration. He was the ultimate fan. He was a fan of opera singers, ballerinas, movie stars … he expressed his love for them through his boxes, the ultimate tribute. I really understood that part of him, his desire to acknowledge what these famous glamorous women had given to him. One of the actresses he made a box for was the wonderful Lois Smith (she who is still working, and she who made her debut in East of Eden), and she was involved with our project from the get-go. I had met her before in Chicago, after a performance at Steppenwolf, and her help with our Joseph Cornell project gave us access. Access to a lot of people who knew him, loved him. She was really helpful.
After the initial two-week workshop, we had yet another workshop, this time hosted by the University of Connecticut, which also had a theatre program that specialized in developing original works. So it was a good fit. They gave us space to develop the project into a first-draft final form (we did a production of it at the end of the workshop, with the theatre students and faculty in attendance), and we also ran acting workshops with the college students there. It was a great time. It was a small cast, only 6 people, and each of us had our “area of expertise”. One actor was Cornell. One actor played his brother Robert (a very important influence in Cornell’s life, and one of his primary relationships). One actress played Emily Dickinson (one of Cornell’s main obsessions, he made many many boxes for Emily Dickinson), and the rest of us played multiple roles. I played Joyce Hunter, this strange little dirtbag of a girl whom Cornell befriended later in his life (he loved strays, he loved women who worked as hatcheck girls, cashiers, movie ticket clerks, waitresses). She was a devious person who lived on the fringes of society, and Cornell took pity on her. (He died a virgin. This wasn’t a sexual thing. Or maybe it was, in his own submerged way, but this wasn’t a romance). He was obsessed with her. His friends didn’t understand it. They tried to warn him that she was bad news. She was about 18 or 19 at the time, I believe. She was intermittently homeless, and desperate, and clearly saw this gentle elderly man who took a liking to her as her meal ticket. In a devastating act of betrayal, she stole a couple of his boxes from his workshop and then (like an idiot) went to try to sell them at a couple of New York galleries. Of course, the gallery owners immediately recognized the boxes as the works of Joseph Cornell, so they alerted him to the fact that he had been robbed and taken advantage of. This was obviously a blow to this gentle trusting man, and he did sever ties with her, but refused to prosecute. He had too much compassion for that. In a tragic end to this story, soon after this Joyce Hunter was found murdered in a sleazy SRO in Manhattan. The murder has never been solved, but if I remember correctly there was some speculation that drugs were involved. She ran with a pretty rough crowd. Cornell was devastated by the news, despite her earlier betrayal. I had a lot of fun with the part. I look back on “the Cornell project” time in my life as very happy. Busy, hilarious, and focused. I read Deborah Solomon’s biography, Utopia Parkway (we all did), and despite her annoying tendencies as a writer, which I will get to in a minute, it is a pretty detailed look at this interesting strange artist, his influences, his character.
Cornell’s journals and art notebooks have also been published, and these are fascinating, even more so than Solomon’s biography. So much of Cornell’s life was lived between the lines. He never traveled. As a teenager, he attended Andover for a couple of years, although he did not graduate. That was the farthest he ever got from Utopia Parkway. He stayed in Queens his whole life, living in the house he was born in. A middle-class house. He was a devoted Christian Scientist. He took his jaunts into Manhattan every day, and his work began to grow in reputation, he was part of some pretty important art shows, looping him together with other up-and-coming Surrealists, he made connections, he nurtured his friendships. There are these great stories of all of these wacko Bohemians, dancers and artists, traveling out to Utopia Parkway to hang out at Joseph Cornell’s. Cornell never touched a drop of liquor. He would serve his famous guests milk and cookies.
I am in love with Joseph Cornell’s boxes. I think part of it has to do with that whole miniature thing I’ve talked about before and how much I loved, as a kid, things that were small. Like the Borrowers. Or Stuart Little. Or like the people who lived in a bookcase on Captain Kangaroo. I loved little mini people who used spools as tables, and matchboxes as beds. I wanted to become miniature myself.
There’s something in the boxes of Joseph Cornell, with their little cubby holes, their faces peeking out, the little marbles in tiny drawers … that appeals to that childlike view of the world. You can imagine little creatures living in those boxes. He seemed to create them not just to be looked at but for them to be inhabited. Emily Dickinson’s ghost haunts her boxes, but he didn’t build them as gifts FOR Emily Dickinson (who, of course, was long dead). He built them as spaces that she might inhabit. It was like “preparing a place” for her. That’s why so many of the Emily boxes are empty. With open windows. Which is interesting, too. He always wanted to make sure that Emily had a way to escape.
The irony is is that the box itself was a kind of cage.
Sometimes you can feel the almost stalker-ish vibe of the artist beneath the beautiful little boxes. He was never a creepy stalker, he wasn’t really a sexual adult, he would never be aggressive with these women that he loved and admired. It was more like a revering thing, a heroine worship thing. He loved the girls who worked at Automats, but he also had intense fantasy relationships with certain actresses (Lois Smith, Lauren Bacall) and ballerinas. He made boxes for women he found gorgeous or mysterious. He preferred his fantasies to remain fantasies. If he actually talked to Lois Smith, and found out that she was different from his fantasy of her, it would have been devastating. He protected himself from that. But these women would be awestruck by the detail, by the tribute in these little boxes made just for them. These boxes are now in the Museum of Modern Art, at the Chicago Institute. These boxes have now traveled the world.
Cornell had his ways of escape. He knew, intuitively, that most women were trapped (and he had no experience with real actual women besides his mother, this was just his sense from movies – he was a huge movie-goer). Women needed protection. Women needed to be nurtured and needed to be saved. And so he created boxes where they could be free. Which is a paradox, naturally. Because … it’s a box. Who can get out of a box? Isn’t that just another way of trapping somebody? But in a way if he created that space for his fantasy then nobody could touch it. Nobody could wreck it, or make it unclean, or assign sinister cynical motives to it. It would be pure.
Joseph Cornell’s last reported words were, “I wish I had not been so reserved.”
This breaks my heart a little bit, because there is no reserve in his work, as delicate as much of it is. These boxes are passionate tributes. He didn’t only make boxes for actresses and ballerinas (and Emily Dickinson). He also explored fairy tales and myths and legends. He would become obsessed with something, and then box after box would reflect that obsession. His work is the opposite of reserved. It is so personal that it almost feels like an invasion of privacy to look at some of it.
I find some of the boxes to be downright ominous. There is a sense either of a space just emptied, or a space waiting for something. The emptiness is not static. It is potent. Waiting.
If you haven’t seen a Cornell box in person, you can’t really get the feel of them in a two-dimensional image. They are made to be seen in 3-D. They have depth. You can reach into them. You can roll little marbles down shoots in some of them. Things move. There are little springs. Hidey-holes. Drawers you can open. Sadly, you can’t touch any of them in a museum, and that’s probably rightly so, but I’ll leave you with one last story about Cornell.
The little kids in the neighborhood were not in awe of him. He was just “Joseph” who lived with his mother and his sick brother. And also he had this really fun workroom with boxes and sometimes Joseph would let the neighborhood kids come in and look around. He wanted the kids to touch them. He encouraged them. “See … watch how when I drop the marble in this little hole … watch where it goes ….” He would drop the marble, and look on, pleased at the googly-eyed look of amazement on the child’s face. He would even let the kids borrow some of the boxes, if they really wanted to. Of course this horrified the gallery owners who showed his work. That “toy” costs $200,000!!! Cornell wasn’t an idiot savante, he was an artist and he knew that what he created was art, but still, he loved to see little kids, especially, play with them. One little girl was particularly taken with one of the boxes, so he let her take it home with her. The next day she brought it back. He said, “So soon?” She said, “Yeah. I’m done with it now.”
Isn’t that so perfect. She had done what she needed to do with the box. Maybe she played with it for a good 5 hours straight, hiding in her room with a flashlight late at night … and so she was “done with it” after that. I relate to that little girl.
His last show before he died was a show entirely for kids. The boxes were placed at the eye-level for short little people, and at the reception afterwards, soda and cake was served. Also, at that show, the kids were allowed to touch the boxes. To take things out of them, play with them. Again, the gallery owners must have been having apoplectic fits during the entire show (there are some great pictures), but Cornell was insistent. Kids always got the boxes. They understood EXACTLY what Cornell was doing. They didn’t worry about symbolism and meaning. They just wanted to crawl inside the boxes and open the little drawers and take out the marbles, and … you know … play with them.
Onto Deborah Solomon’s biography. I am not sure if there have been more recent biographies published, I haven’t checked, but at the time we did the Joseph Cornell Project, this was the only one. It was extraordinarily helpful to get the timeline of his life, when events happened, because his journals are completely non-linear and very tough reading if you are not already versed in Joseph Cornell’s symbols and dreamspaces. Solomon puts all of that in order for us. I flipped through the book this morning and laughed at some of the things I have written in the book. Her art analysis obviously annoyed me. Every paragraph where she told us what a certain box “meant” had some caustic comment written by me in the sidelines. One eloquent comment was, “Oh, shut UP.” I am not big on neat little symbolic analysis anyway – not for literature, movies, or any artform (this means this, and this symbolizes this … Oh whatever, just make a Power Point presentation but don’t call it art.) This is obviously just my personal opinion, but here’s my deal: I actually feel close to Joseph Cornell’s boxes, in the way that I feel close to my own long history of celebrity crushes/historical figure crushes/writer crushes. These are fantasies and obsessions which make no dent in the real world, although they are, in many ways, how I mark time. “Oh, 2006 was the Dean Stockwell year,” is a typical way of how I remember what was going on at a certain time. Joseph Cornell’s boxes have that kind of potency, that kind of dreamlike reality, and to iron them out into neat little symbolic Power Point presentations strips them of their magic. I honestly don’t care WHAT the parrot symbolizes, or the blue sky, or the empty box. What is important to me is how I imagine myself into those boxes, how they open up worlds of speculation in my mind, mini-movies, where I think about Emily Dickinson, her character, her writing, and what she might have thought about the boxes Cornell made for her. (That was part of the fun of our Cornell project: these kinds of speculations.)
So to hear Deborah Solomon say that he used “clay pipes” in many of his boxes because they “symbolized impotence”, I want to tell her to go soak her head. And I do, in the margins of the biography. Repeatedly.
I can think of 10 other things that clay pipes might have meant to Joseph Cornell. Or maybe he just liked them because he liked them when he was a kid. Maybe the shape was pleasing to him. Maybe the object brought back memories and associations. I would rather not have it nailed down in some sort of Freudian way. Or maybe they did remind him of impotence (he apparently was impotent). But to say “here is what this magical box means” … is grating to the extreme. I know, I know, it’s a biographer’s job to analyze stuff, but Deborah Solomon rode my last nerve.
Still a worthwhile book, though, if you are interested in the art scene in New York in the 40s and 50s, and Joseph Cornell. His boxes really mean something to me. If I were rich, I would want to own one of them. I like to contemplate which one I would buy if I had the money. I am in love with Pharmacy, but I also love his boxes that have collages of star maps and constellations on them. Magical. All of them.
Take a look at some of his work.
Verso of Cassiopeia 1
Medici Slot Machine
Celestial Navigation with Alphabet Cube
Mlle Farretti (one of his many ballerina boxes)
A Swan Lake for Tamara Toumanova
Parrot for Juan Gris (Cornell had a huge thing for parrots)
Observatory Box Variant
Pharmacy – this one always seemed eerie to me. The little glass jars with objects inside: it seemed like it could be poison, or the means to a suicide. It takes on meaning, whatever it is. It fluctuates every time I look at.
Pink Palace This one terrifies me. I have a postcard of the Pink Palace up on my bulletin board, given to me by Ted, the director of the Cornell Project. If you see it in person, then you’ll see that you can reach into the space: the pink palace is set back, there’s a hole for it, and the stage ‘set’ surrounds it like a proscenium. It gives it even more of a feeling of isolation and creepiness.
Soap Bubble Set. I love this one so much.
Bebe Marie. I had a nightmare about this box.
Toward the Blue Peninsula – This is his most famous “Emily Dickinson box”. My thoughts about this box will never end.
Finally, let’s get to an excerpt from Deborah Solomon’s book. One of his most famous boxes is the box he made for Lauren Bacall in 1946, after he saw Howard Hawks’ To Have and Have Not. Cornell became obsessed with Lauren Bacall. He saw To Have and Have Not five times (I know the feeling). His feelings for her became too much, too overflowing, he had to make something for her. (Image of the Lauren Bacall penny arcade box at the bottom of this post.)
The excerpt below deals with the making of that box, and Cornell’s surrounding life at that time. It details a Cornell show called “Romantic Museum”, a show I so wish I could have attended. I do not mind Solomon’s analysis here. I think she is right on to see in the Lauren Bacall box a paean to the entire movie-mad American public, not to mention how intense was the fire of Lauren Bacall’s first stardom (To Have and Have Not was her debut – it is one of the most extraordinary debuts on record.)
In the course of his thirteen years at the Levy Gallery, Cornell had sold very little work, and he wondered whether he could do better financially with another art dealer. What’s surprising, perhaps, is not that he wanted to leave the Levy Gallery, but that he stayed for as long as he did; his relationship with Levy was by far the most enduring professional relationship of his life. Cornell’s feelings toward art dealers were most contradictory: he resented it when they couldn’t sell his work, and resented it even more when they could. The key to his longevity at the Levy Gallery perhaps lies in his very lack of sales. In 1956, the art dealer commented in a letter that he could not locate the sales book for his Cornell exhibitions but had “a feeling that I sold nothing except to myself”. Several pieces had also been purchased by James Thrall Soby during the brief period when he was a partner in the gallery.
In the fall of 1946, Cornell followed Pavel Tchelitchew and others of the Neo-Romantics to a tony new showplace. The Hugo Gallery was located at 26 East Fifty-fifth Street, on the second floor of a quaint brownstone. Alexander Iolas (pronounced “Yo-las”), who was Greek, plump, and greatly elegant, gold rings on every finger, had begun his career as a ballet dancer in Paris but, after a ruinous episode as the director of the de Cuevas ballet, had retired from dancing and moved to New York to open his gallery. The place was named for his financial backer, the Parisian socialite, Valentine Hugo, whom he preferred to introduce as the Duchesse de Gramont.
Today, the Hugo Gallery is only a footnote to the 1940s art scene, remembered, if at all, as a belated promoter of Surrealists and the less engaging art of the Neo-Romantics. And the name of Alexander Iolas, unlike that of Peggy Guggenheim and Julien Levy, remains unburnished by legend. Yet the gallery was once as fashionable as the European artists it promoted. When it first opened – on Thursday, November 15, 1945 – an extravagant party was held on the premises; an article by Edward Alden Jewell in the next morning’s Times reported on everything from the “first-rate” paintings to the sumptuous decorations, the work, he surmised, of “most of the florists in town”. The entire dance world, or so it seemed, turned out for the reception, surely less for the chance to contemplate paintings by Chagall and de Chirico than for an up-close view of Pavel Tchelitchew and Tamara Toumanova.
The gallery’s inaugural exhibition, entitled “Fantasy”, was organized by Cornell’s devoted friends from View, Charles Henri Ford and Parker Tyler (the latter was cutely quoted in the Times story lauding fantasists everywhere, “from the humblest worker to the most eccentric genius”). It was a natural fit for Cornell, who enjoyed the scene that revolved around the gallery. Stopping in from time to time, he never knew whom he would see. Two weeks after the gallery opened, Cornell reported in his diary with his customary attention to haberdashery: “Met Dali 1st time years – blue dress top coat, black suede shoes . . . talked for about half hour. He is going to make a film for Disney.” (Fortunately for art lovers, he never did.)
Iolas wasted no time in tapping Cornell for his gallery. Only one month after the place opened, Cornell was included in a Christmastime show, “The Poetic Theatre”, along with Dali, Tchelitchew, and the rest of the gallery’s European regulars. As the only American to exhibit at the Hugo, Cornell once again found himself among a group of artists to which he could never fully belong. But Iolas was supportive of his work and convinced him to stay on at the gallery for the next four years. “Cornell was such a genuinely poetic person, almost to the extent that he was on the very brink of the ridiculous,” Iolas later said. “But he was certainly by no means mad. I liked his work because it was a plunge into the past, totally unique. He was in that scene a necrophiliac, pulling you with him back into that past where he found beautiful visions.”
In December 1946, about a year after he joined the gallery, Cornell had one of the most intriguing exhibitions of his career. It was called “Romantic Museum at the Hugo Gallery: Portraits of Women by Joseph Cornell,” and the title alone says much about Cornell’s unique sensibility. The phrase “romantic museum” might appear to be an oxymoron, since the cataloging, taxonomic approach of museums seems to go against the notion of romance. Yet Cornell was an artist who was always cataloging amorous images inside his museums of the mind. He spent all year preparing for the show, which celebrated his favorite movie stars, divas, and ballerinas. While women had often surfaced in his work, Cornell had never before devoted an entire show to them, and his “Romantic Museum” would take his adulation of female performers to new heights.
For this exhibition Cornell conceived one of his most ambitious works. The untitled piece, known as Penny Arcade Portrait of Lauren Bacall, is a small, striking, blue-tinted box that occupies a place of pride in Cornell’s oeuvre as his one major homage to an actress. He had tried making film-related pieces before (a collage for Hedy Lemarr, boxes for Greta Garbo), but his Bacall tribute stands apart as a powerful evocation not only of one man’s lonely fandom but of an entire movie-adoring age in America. It captures a time when the Hollywood studios were at their zenith, fan magazines were perfecting the genre of the gushy puff piece, and the American public was discovering the pleasure that comes from basking in the aura of manufactured stars.
Cornell first became fixed on Bacall one rainy Monday afternoon after stumbling alone into a movie theater in Flushing. Bacall was making her film debut in To Have and Have Not, in which she plays a woman named Marie Browning trying to get off the island of Martinique during World War II. Abetted by a vast Warner Brothers publicity campaign, the twenty-year-old actress was touted as “the look” and became an overnight sensation. Cornell initially felt that the movie, co-starring Humphrey Bogart, was little more than “pure Hollywood hokum,” as he jotted in his diary on February 26, 1945. But that did not diminish his feelings for its superbly photogenic female lead. He found himself haunted by close-ups of Bacall’s large, handsome face, and noted its “interesting Javaese modeling” – as if it were a wooden mask.
Cornell was nothing if not a loyal fan. In coming months, he saw To Have and Have Not five more times, closely followed gossip about Bacall in newspapers and magazines, and compiled a bulging dossier relating to her career. Stored in a blue cardboard portfolio, the dossier came to include personal notes, publicity photos of Bacall in a checkered blazer, clippings from the World-Telegram on her marriage to Bogart (“Bogey, a Bit Nervous, Sips Martini, Then Leads Lauren Bacall to Altar”), multiple copies of Screenland and Silver Screen magazines (15 cents each) with cover stories about Bacall, and pages torn from Mademoiselle that include snapshot photos of Bacall as a little blond-haired girl, smiling sweetly for the camera beside her pet cocker spaniel, Droopy.
It pleased Cornell to think of Bacall in girlish terms. As he studied photos of her, he believed he saw things that no one else could see. Underneath her veil of sophistication, “underneath all this cheesecake”, lingered the creature that no one really knew, “a girl of Botticellian slenderness with a jeune fille awkwardness.” In his boxed portrait of her, Cornell hoped to cut through the “usual cheap Hollywood publicity” and capture Bacall as the virtuous heroine he believed her to be, willing her into the fantasy of chastity that had always seduced his imagination.
The masterpiece Cornell made in her honor – Penny Arcade Portrait of Lauren Bacall – is modeled on the penny-operated game machines Cornell recalled fondly from the amusement parks of his youth. He had already explored this concept in his Medici Slot Machine of 1942, yet the Bacall box takes it one step further: the box has moving parts and is meant to be “played”. The viewer operates it by dropping a wooden ball into a trapdoor at the top of the box, right side, then watches the ball flash in and out of view as it descends in a zigzag past images of the Manhattan skyline, the young Bacall and her cocker spaniel, and Bacall the actress as captured in a looming close-up of her face. The ball makes a plink plink plink sound as it drops onto glass runways, before finally landing in a mirror-lined compartment at the bottom of the box. All in all, the box is ingeniously playful. Its wandering ball suggest a man who is in and out of Bacall’s life and has a special familiarity with the details surrounding her.
In spite of his intense feelings for Bacall, Cornell apparently made no effort to communicate with her. One suspects he would have been elated to hear Bacall exclaim of his box years later, “I love it and wish I had it!”