Joseph Cornell’s Boxes

Something about Joseph Cornell’s work speaks to me. It’s hard to describe why so I’ll try to put some of my thoughts into this post.

I think part of it has to do with that whole miniature thing I’ve talked about before. 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’m re-reading Gulliver’s Travels right now – and, incidentally, laughing out loud like a lunatic in public as I turn the pages – but I feel the same sort of thrill when I listen to Swift tell about how Gulliver made a chair, when he was in the land of the giants, and the materials he used to do so – and how things looked from the perspective of one who was so much smaller than everybody else.) I loved little mini people who used spools as tables, and matchboxes as beds. I wanted to become miniature myself.

So 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. He built boxes for Emily Dickinson. Her ghost haunts those boxes (of course even more so when you know which ones are the “Emily 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.

I’m getting ahead of myself.

Joseph Cornell lived in Queens on Utopia Parkway his whole life (and the name of that street could not be more perfect, in terms of his life and his outlook), never venturing further than the island of Manhattan, except for one trip to the Jersey Shore, I believe. He spent his days walking up and down the avenues of Manhattan, finding little trinkets and antiques and cigar boxes and stuff for his art at second-hand shohps and junk shops. He sat in Automats and fantasized about waitresses. He loved gum-snapping ordinary girls who liked to go to the movies and who smoked cigarettes. He never talked to these women who served him his coffee (or, he rarely spoke to them) – but they lived large in his dream-life, his fantasy-world. He would write about them in his diary. Then every night he would come home to his Christian Scientist mother, his beloved brother who had severe cerebral palsy (Joseph was his primary caretaker) – and sat in his workroom and made these extraordinary boxes. He was on the frontline of the modern art movement in this country, being influenced by the Surrealists. He hung out with all the famous artists of the day, who loved his work, revered its innocence, its ingenuity. Artists would trek out to his little house on Utopia Parkway, and they would sit in the backyard, and hang out with Robert, the sick brother (who sounds like he had a helluva sense of humor – he loved to talk like an overdramatic War of the Worlds radio announcer as a joke), and drink milk (Cornell never had a drop of liquor in his life and had the worst sweet tooth known to man – you read his daily intake in his journal and you feel the sugar coursing through his veins). Mrs. Cornell, the frowning disapproving mother glowered out the window at the motley crew of artist, ballerinas, and homosexuals in her backyard. Cornell would take his friends into his workroom and show them his latest boxes.

He wasn’t “modern” in how he lived his life. He died a virgin. His last words were, “I wish I had not been so reserved.” (which just pierce my heart). And yet the beauty and mystery of his work captivated the greatest artists of the day – and still captivate people. I adore them. They are fairy tales made manifest (and not just happy-ending fairy tales. Some of them are downright scary). There is often a very ominous sense in the boxes. Either of a space just emptied, or a space waiting for something. The emptiness is not static. It is potent. Waiting.

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. An actress would finish her performance, come back to her dressing room, and find this perfect amazing little box made by Joseph Cornell waiting for her on her table. He would never have hung around to have a personal interaction with her. He was too shy, too … weird, frankly. 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. Boxes that now are in the Museum of Modern Art, at the Chicago Institute … Those boxes have now traveled the world.

There’s much more about this man … way more … I worked on an “untitled Joseph Cornell” project for a couple of years, a play being developed – and did mounds of research. Lois Smith was involved with the project as an advisor, since she had known him. We got to see the box that Cornell made for her. We went to MOMA to a little screening room and watched some of Cornell’s “movies” (and I remember David and I being like: “Uhmmmm … stick to boxes, Joseph, mkay?”).

But mainly what we did was just look at those boxes. Over and over and over. We couldn’t get enough of them. Any clue about Joseph Cornell’s personality would have to be found there … because the information on him, otherwise, is rather slim. His diaries are impressionistic, non-revealing. Well, that’s not right. They are very revealing – and I love them – they’re contemplative, ruminative, almost Proust-like – he goes from one sense to another – a small rainbow in an oil-slicked puddle transports him back in time to a moment in his childhood with his brother … but Cornell writes none of this in a linear way. He truly is time-traveling in that diary. He isn’t creating a memory … he is actually experiencing it all over again. The diaries are tough reading, if you’re looking for biographical information.

This huge tragedy in his later life – when he got involved with a woman who ended up being bad BAD news (that was my part in the Joseph Cornell project – I played the bad BAD news girl) – she was an Automat type girl, but definitely at the end of her rope. Not much is known about her except that Cornell befriended her. He probably wanted to save her. He had her out to Utopia Parkway a couple of times. He was probably in some sort of rhapsody of pre-pubescent female worship. And this woman (a girl, really) – stole some of his boxes out of his workshop. To sell. He discovered this later. The girl (obviously not the brightest bulb) went to a gallery in Manhattan and tried to sell them. Naturally, the gallery owner became suspicious – because this girl was rather ratty-looking – pretty, but definitely edgy. Gallery owner calls Joseph Cornell and tells him, “There’s a young lady here with a bunch of your boxes.” Betrayal. Cornell, though, who was probably cut to the core (but again, you’d never know, this is just me guessing) – refused to prosecute. He knew she had a terrible life, she was a drug addict, a runaway, probably a prostitute. She didn’t need him prosecuting her. He let her alone. Not even a year later, she was murdered in the fleatrap hotel she was staying in on the upper West Side. Her killer has never been found, and the case remains a mystery. Nobody knows who did it, although it was assumed, at the time, that it was probably a drug-dealer. She ran with a very unsavory crowd.

Why I bring this whole thing up is: Not ONE word of this gets into the diaries. Or – if it does, it is so highly coded that you would never know. Cornell had his ways of escape. He knew, intuitively, that most women were trapped (and he had no experience with real actual women – 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 – (of Lauren Bacall, of the Automat girl he was in love with) then nobody could touch it. Nobody could wreck it, or make it unclean, or assign sinister cynical motives to it. It would be pure.

“I wish I had not been so reserved.”

Oh, Joseph. But your work. Your work.

There is no reserve in your work.

And when you look at the images below: if you haven’t seen a Cornell box in person, then just know that 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 – just because the wear and tear would be too much, and these are precious works of art.

But I’ll leave you with one last story about Cornell. This is my absolute favorite. Cornell lived in the same neighborhood his whole life. He never left. And when I mean never, I mean never. I think, on the whole, he spent maybe 5 nights away from his house in his whole life.

So the little kids in the neighborhood were so not in awe of him. He was just “Joseph” who lived with his mother and his sick brother. And also he had this amazing 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 to the tips of his toes 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 probably horrified the gallery owners who showed his work. Like: 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.

A beautiful thing. Cornell absolutely loved that response – and of all of the critical raves he got from his peers – that one was the one he held most dear.

“I’m done with it now.”

Verso of Cassiopeia 1


Celestial Navigation with Alphabet Cube

Mlle Farretti (one of his many ballerina boxes)

Parrot for Juan Gris (Cornell had a huge thing for parrots)

Penny Arcade Portrait of Lauren Bacall (here’s his most famous box probably – made for Lauren Bacall in 1946 – right after To Have and Have Not came out. Cornell was obsessed.)

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. The objects cease just being objects. All just my own interpretation of course – but that’s what I love about his boxes.

Pink Palace This one terrifies me. I love it. The terrifying fairy tale. I could write an entire novel about that palace. I have a postcard of the Pink Palace up on my bulletin board. 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 think this might be my personal favorite. If I were a millionaire, I would buy it. I just want to have it around.

Toward the Blue Peninsula – This is his most famous “Emily Dickinson box”. I could talk about what this box means and what Cornell was getting at for hours. My thoughts about this box never end.

Some more information on Cornell here.

If you’re interested in learning more: Utopia Parkway: The Life and Work of Joseph Cornell (ArtWorks), by Deborah Solomon

Also: Joseph Cornell’s Theater of the Mind: Selected Diaries, Letters, and Files

Guggenheim collection.

The Art Institute in Chicago has the largest permanent collection of Cornell boxes. When I lived in Chicago I used to just go and visit them if I had a couple of hours free. I find them relaxing.

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23 Responses to Joseph Cornell’s Boxes

  1. tracey says:

    You knew I would love this, didn’t you? ;-)

    I’ve gotta get that biography now, his diaries. I must know MORE!

    I kinda love the battered, forlorn look of the one with the alphabet cube. It’s interesting to me that some of them look so “finished,” so polished and others look more worn, almost thrown together. It just makes me wonder about his process — like, were some of them just created in a frenzy of whim and inspiration and some created more slowly and deliberately? Maybe it’s an odd thing to think, but still, I look at them and that’s one of the things I wonder.

    It’s kinda hard to stop looking at them, you know? They make me ache.

  2. red says:

    tracey – have we talked about him before?? I feel like we have. And yes, I knew you would just LOVE this stuff.

    Funny thing: Cornell never thought of anything as “finished” and gallery owners would have to keep him from tinkering with his work during a freakin’ gallery opening. Like Cornell woudl take out his screw driver and start messing with one of his boxes.


    Solomon’s biography is very good. I mean, he really had no life outside of his art – no marriage, no girlfriends, no trips, nothing – he didn’t go to art school – he took care of his brother, he went to church, he ate 15 donuts a day, and he made art. Out of little alphabet blocks and star maps he found.


    Put it on your wish list, Tracey, and I’ll get the book for you … I owe you one. :)

  3. red says:

    Oh – and he would get into obsessive modes. He made many boxes for Lauren Bacall – and I think he even sent some to her – she referred to receiving it in one of her autobiographies …

    So it was almost OCD-ish. He kept making boxes on a certain subject until “he was done with it” (like the little girl said). In terms of Emily Dickinson – that was a lifelong obsession. I don’t know how many boxes he made “for” her but there are many. Always with open windows – blue sky – and sometimes there’s a parrot.

    Amazing, right?

    If I were Joseph Cornell, I would have made 6 boxes for Dino by now. hahaha

  4. tracey says:

    Not to mention your vast, museum-sized collection of Cary Grant boxes.

    I’m sure you’ve mentioned him to me before, somewhere, I just can’t remember exactly where, but I think I will put that biography on my wish list. Hehehe. ;-)

  5. red says:

    And you would have made, let’s see, 10 boxes for Philip Yancey.

    We could decorate your new coffee shop with our collective boxes. hee hee

  6. tracey says:

    Okay — that’s a good idea, actually.

  7. red says:

    You could have a “junk” box in the corner so people could make their own boxes to add to the decor.

  8. tracey says:

    Okay. That’s pretty cool, Sheila. When are you coming by to add yours? ;-)

  9. brendanq says:

    also fascinated with joseph cornell. melody brought me to this little gallery on the upper east side that displayed a bunch of them. did you come with us that day?

    total purity. you never sense an artist, know what i mean? they’re like looking at outer space. as personal as they are, they obliterate context.

  10. Mr. Bingley says:

    “I wish I had not been so reserved.”

    Wow. That is such a killer line!

    How is it that there has not been a movie about this fellow’s life made yet? With a last line like that, after all the energy he channelled into such gorgeous creations. It seems to me someone would be chomping at the bit to play him.

  11. Mr. Bingley says:

    From the Wiki page you linked to:

    “Cornell premiered the film at the Julien Levy Gallery in December of 1931 during the first Surrealist exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Salvador Dalí, who was in New York to attend the MoMA opening, was present at its first screening. During the screening, Dali became incensed and overturned the projector, claiming that Cornell had ‘stolen the idea from his subconscious’. Traumatized by this event, the shy, retiring Cornell rarely showed it again.”

    red, get working on the script for this! The title, of course, is “Boxes”.

  12. susanna says:

    Did you ever see the movie version of “white oleander?” suitcase medium.

  13. red says:

    Bingley – yes, that story of Dali is so hysterical. Dali would never end his life saying, “I wish I had not been so reserved”, huh?? We had that scene in the play we were developing. My friend David, with a huge swoopy mustache, played Dali – and just started SCREAMING – Dali kept calling Cornell a “skunk” – which, I’m not sure why that was the insult he chose, but he kept saying it. “YOU SKUNK!”

    hahahahaha Such a funny image! But yes, traumatizing for poor Joseph.

    I’m not sure why there hasn’t been a movie – it would definitely be a challenge since his life was so internal and not much happened (no stormy marriages, nothing).

    The way we did our play (and I’ll post some pictures this weekend, maybe, of our workshop production of it in Connecticut) – but anyway, our play had all of the characters he was obsessed by – IN the play. Like Cornell had long long conversations with Emily Dickinson – long conversations with the Medici princess (another character in a couple of his boxes) – There were also ballerinas whirling through, with Joseph trying to capture them …

    If there were a film I think it would need to have those fantasy elements to it. Cornell walking down Second Avenue with Lauren Bacall walking beside him … what would he say to Lauren if he could??

    His fantasy life made real – I think that could make a very interesting film! (Along with the Dali scene, of course!)

  14. red says:

    And when I say long conversations – I mean that there was an actress (a wonderful actress, Morgan McCabe) who played Emily Dickinson. She was terrific. Another actress played the Medici princess – captured within this floating frame – as though she carried her box around with her wherever she went – and the actor playing Joseph would try to engage her …

    We also had an actor playing his sick brother, of course … and the woman who played Emily Dickinson also doubled as Joseph’s disapproving mother … We had a lot of doubling-up like that. The actress playing the Medici princess also played one of the ballerinas Cornell obsessed over …

    What we wanted was to have our play actually be LIKE a Joseph Cornell box. Which is hard to do … but the set was a rendition of one of Joseph Cornell’s boxes – totally not realistic – with little objects here, there, everywhere …

    It was actually really cool.

  15. red says:

    Oh, and another cool factoid for anyone who’s interested:

    Near the end of his life, one of the galleries who showed his work in New York did a big retrospect – it was a glittery event – but they also had a special afternoon show – just for children. Which was always kind of Joseph’s dream. And there are these great pictures from that afternoon – of little kids running around, and moving alphabet cubes out of ONE box and into ANOTHER box, and taking out the little glass jars and looking at them, and rolling marbles down shoots, etc. – all in this gorgeous Soho gallery seating – and Joseph stands among them, just beaming. I think it’s a great idea – it would be great if more galleries did such a thing. Kids Only days. Maybe they do, what do I know.

    But especially with stuff like Cornell’s – which also have the feel of Victorian-era toys for children. Children just GET Joseph Cornell. They get him on a level adults just never can, because they see the boxes as things they want to touch, hold, and play with.

    Cornell loved that. He related.

  16. red says:

    Bren (or should I say: Dakota Fanning?) – I remember when you guys went – no, I didn’t go with you that day! I love that you love his work and I think your comments about never sensing an artist there are just wonderful – very true.

    I wish I could OWN one of them.

  17. ricki says:

    Those are utterly fascinating. I love art where you look at it and go, “That person had something very complex going on in their subconscious and they’re revealing a little bit of it here.”

    Just like I’m moved by novels or movies that don’t have a pat ending that ties everything up…these boxes are so open-ended. I feel like if I looked at them every five years across the course of my entire life, I’d see them differently and react differently each time. Maybe even every five weeks.

    It also kind of makes me itch to do something like that, except I know what I would do would not be as good, it wouldn’t be as mysterious or open-ended.

    And I have to say I kind of understand his feeling…about having this kind of fantasy of a person and being devastated when that person actually opens their mouth and it turns out they are maybe kind of bigoted or shallow or they have some trait you find unattractive, it kind of destroys your image of them forever. I sympathize with that. I suppose everyone’s had it happen but some people it does kind of send into a spiral of having a hard time trusting or even liking people again…

  18. red says:

    ricki – I so so relate to that part of Joseph Cornell too. I love that he found, in his boxes, a way to keep his fantasies alive – and to keep him young. He never EVER became disillusioned. EVER. Even after that ratty little beeyotch stole his boxes, betrayed his kindness, revealed herself as the worst opportunist. I’m sure on some level he just slammed the door shut on her, didn’t let the bad-ness of her personality taint his essential hope and love for people … but I think one of the reasons why he was able to do that was because he just kept making boxes. Emily Dickinson was his GUIDE through his life. It was a lifelong love affair. There are many similarities between the two, if you think about it. She lived a cloistered quiet life, where not much happened – at least externally. And yet internally? Her inner life? Was as wild and as free as it gets!!

    You should try to make some boxes! It might be really fun!

  19. Carl V. says:

    I love this type of art and is one of the main reasons why I try to hit the Kansas City Plaza Arts Festival every September as they feature a variety of artists whose work falls into this category. There is something both nostalgic and fresh about it and it speaks to me as well.

  20. red says:

    Carl – I love the nostalgia in it too. They’re nostalgic without being sentimental. I know some critics think they ARE sentimental … but it is my suspicion that those people have a problem with nostalgia, in general.

    Just a guess!

  21. Ken says:

    Terrifically creative.

    Two snap impressions, take ’em for what they’re worth–

    Pink Palace: Jack Skellington at the Overlook Hotel.

    Toward the Blue Peninsula: A prison cell.

  22. Josephine says:

    I’ve never heard of Joseph Cornell before your post. (I don’t know how that happened.) I feel embarrassed at my ignorance, but at the same time really happy my introduction to him was so complete and enthralling. Just think, you introduced Joseph Cornell and his art to a new wide-eyed soul! Excuse me, I have to LEARN MORE NOW.
    Thank you!

  23. red says:

    Josephine – I’m so glad to have “introduced” you! I don’t know where you live – but if there is a museum near you you might want to see if they have any Cornell boxes. It’s a whole different thing to see them in person!!

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