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, Deborah Solomon’s thorough biography is quite good.
And his diaries are fascinating, works of art in and of themselves.
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.