“I wish I had not been so reserved.” — Joseph Cornell’s final words

Today is the birthday of artist Joseph Cornell.

“Cornell is superb. I first saw the Medici Slot Machine when I was in college. Oh, I loved it. To think one could have bought some of those things then. He was very strange. He got crushes on opera singers and ballet dancers. When I looked at his show in New York two years ago I nearly fainted, because one of my favorite books is a book he liked and used. It’s a little book by an English scientist who wrote for children about soap bubbles [Soap Bubbles: Their Colours and the Forces Which Mold Them, by Sir CV Noys, 1889]. His sister began writing me after she read Octavio Paz’s poem for Cornell that I translated. (She doesn’t read Spanish.) She sent me a German-French grammar that apparently he meant to do something with and never did. A lot of the pages were folded over and they’re all made into star patterns with red ink around them … He lived in what was called Elysian Park. That’s an awfully strange address to have.”

— Elizabeth Bishop (Octavio Paz’s poem about Cornell at end of post)

Living in “Elysian Park” on a street called “Utopia Parkway”, as Joseph Cornell did for the entirety of his life, is definitely a “strange address to have”, and a fitting one for this dreamy dream-like obsessive artist, who spent his life constructing eerie beautiful little boxes(worlds) filled with everyday objects (marbles, clay pipes, glass jars) that became magical talismans when placed inside the boxes. Here’s one of his most famous boxes, the one Bishop mentions in the excerpt above:

Medici Slot Machine

Cornell was indeed a very “reserved” man (although his art was anything but), and the publication of his journals and art notebooks – Joseph Cornell’s Theater of the Mind: Selected Diaries, Letters, and Files – is a fascinating insight into his mind (even more so than Deborah Solomon’s biography, the only biography of Cornell that we have – so it’s also worth the read, although her interpretation of his art leaves much to be desired.). The problem with Solomon’s biography is not Solomon. Or, it’s not only Solomon, who mused that Cornell loved to use clay pipes in his boxes because they “symbolized impotence”.

Much much more about one of my favorite artists, below the jump.


The main problem with the biography, though, is Cornell. Nothing happened in his life in terms of events. He did not have love affairs. He never traveled. You can count the trip on one hand. As a teenager, he attended Andover for a couple of years (he didn’t graduate). I think he went to the Jersey Shore once? I’d have to check. Other than that, he stayed in Queens his whole life, living in the house he was born in, with his mother and his brother, who had cerebral palsy. And so his life is not “in” his biography. His life is in his head, his heart, and the boxes he created. He was a devoted Christian Scientist. He never touched a drop of liquor. He took jaunts into Manhattan every day, to troll through the junk bins and second-hand shops along Second Avenue, gathering up all of the detritus, the junk people threw away, junk he would transform in his art. Slowly, his idiosyncratic work began to grow in reputation, and he was part of some pretty important art shows. He was associated with the burgeoning Surrealist movement. He had connections, he had friends, many of whom were wild bohemians. When these wild bohemians visited Utopia Parkway, the abstemious Cornell (well, he had a terrible sweet tooth, his only vice) would serve them milk and cookies. He died a virgin.

Joseph Cornell’s work speaks to me. It’s hard to describe why so I’ll try to put my thoughts into words. My attraction is primal, and almost pre-verbal.

Part of it has to do with the whole miniature thing, which I have written about before. As a kid, I loved anything that had to do with small-ness, things that were small, miniaturized, little mini worlds existing alongside our own. Like The Borrowers. Or Stuart Little. Like the people who lived behind the books in a bookcase on Captain Kangaroo. Or Gulliver’s Travels! I loved playing with “peeps” (Fisher Price people), and making up their little worlds. Or the dollhouse my dad made for me. I loved setting things up with tiny little furniture. I loved little mini people who used spools as tables, or matchboxes as beds. Did I want to become miniature myself? What is that all about? I have no IDEA, that’s why I say it’s primal – and clearly there’s some universality to it. Children love small things. Maybe it’s because children are small, and it’s exciting to create a world where YOU are the giant. Maybe. But there’s something more to it.

Joseph Cornell’s boxes, with their little cubby holes, faces peeking out through tiny windows, the little marbles in tiny drawers, the celestial maps pasted on as background … it speaks to a childlike view of the world. (It also speaks to an outsider’s view of the world. You could see it a couple of ways: the artist is outside the box, looking in. Or the artist is inside the box, looking out. Either way, there’s a separation.) You can imagine little creatures living in Cornell’s boxes.

Untitled (Celestial Navigation), 1958.

Conell seemed to create his boxes (I say “seemed” because he didn’t talk all that much about why he did what he did) not just to be looked at, but for them to be inhabited. He built boxes “for” real-life people. He built many boxes for Emily Dickinson. Because we know they are “for” Emily Dickinson, her ghost haunts those boxes. Let’s go a bit deeper though, let’s riff on this because it’s important: Cornell didn’t build the boxes as gifts FOR Emily Dickinson (who, of course, was long dead anyway). He built them as spaces that she might inhabit were she to return. He was “preparing a place” for her. That’s why so many of the Emily boxes are empty, and why they feature open windows. He wanted to make sure that Emily had a way to escape. OR, we are looking at a box where she just recently jumped OUT of the window. And so there is irony in his Emily Dickinson boxes: In creating his tribute to her, he has created yet another cage from which she longs to escape.

Toward the Blue Peninsula -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.

“A suggestion of that wonderful feeling of detachment that comes over me every so often — a leisurely kind of feeling that seems to impart to the routine events of the day a certain sense of ‘festivity.’… Into the city and all the way up to the Museum of the American Indian to find it closed! Compensation in the buoyant feeling aroused by the buildings of the Geographic Society in their quiet uptown setting. An abstract feeling of geography and voyaging I have thought about before of getting into objects, like the Compass Set with map. A reminder of earliest school-book days when the world was divided up into irregular masses of bright colors, with vignettes of the pictorial world scattered, like toy picture-blocks.

— Joseph Cornell, journal entry, 1941

Celestial Navigation with Alphabet Cube

He sat in Automats and fantasized about waitresses. He loved gum-snapping girls who smoked cigarettes and liked to go to the movies. 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 wrote about them in his diary. Then every night he would come home to his Christian Scientist mother, his beloved brother (Joseph was his primary caretaker), and sat in his workroom and made these extraordinary boxes.

This shy retiring man was on the frontline of the modern art movement in this country. Artists would trek out to his little house on Utopia Parkway, and they would sit in the backyard, hanging out with Robert, Cornell’s sick brother (who was a wisecracker, he loved to talk like an overdramatic “March of Time” radio announcer as a joke). Mrs. Cornell, the frowning disapproving mother, glowered out the window at the motley crew of artists, ballerinas, and homosexuals in her backyard. Cornell would take his friends into his workroom and show them his latest boxes.

Untitled (Solar Soap Bubble Set Series), 1955

He wasn’t “modern” in how he lived his life. And yet the beauty and mystery of his work captivated the greatest artists of his day and still captivate people. His boxes are fairy tales made manifest. And if you know your fairy tales, then you know that many of them are terrifying. Some of Cornell’s boxes are downright scary.

Bebe Marie.

There is often a very ominous sense in the boxes. (I just noticed the strangeness of that sentences. The boxes themselves are not ominous. It is the atmosphere INSIDE the boxes – fraught with emotion and unknowable meaning – that is ominous.) The boxes seem like either a space that was just emptied, or a space waiting for something. The emptiness inside the boxes is not static. It is potent. Waiting.

Observatory Box Variant

Or, for example, his box called “Pharmacy”.

“Pharmacy” is eerie. All those little glass jars with strange objects inside … it seems like it could be poison, or the means to a suicide. It takes on meaning, whatever it is. The objects cease being objects. He has transformed them by how he has placed them.

“Bebe Marie” is his most frightening, but “Pink Palace” is a close second.

I have a postcard of the Pink Palace on my bulletin board, given to me by my friend Ted (more on Ted in a second). If you see it in person, then you’ll see that you can reach into the box: the pink palace is set back, there’s a hole for it, and the stage ‘set’ surrounds it like a proscenium. But it feels like an abyss, like the palace is floating surrounded by empty space, giving the whole thing a feeling of isolation and creepiness.

And, hm, the Pink Palace reminds me of something. What could it be? Hm. Let me think … Oh! I know!

Wes Anderson’s entire ouevre could be said to take place in a Joseph Cornell box. His work IS a Joseph Cornell box. (I just wrote about this in my review for French Dispatch.)

Sometimes there is a stalker-ish vibe coursing through the beautiful little boxes. Cornell wasn’t a creepy stalker (although who knows, maybe some of those Automat attendants were creeped out by his focus on them). He wasn’t really a fully-formed sexual adult. He would never be aggressive with these women. It was more like he revered and worshipped them, and the way he dealt with those feelings was by – metaphorically – creating a cage for both the object of his worship AND his uncontrollable feelings – all of which went into the box he made for her. He had intense fantasy relationships with certain actresses (Lois Smith, Lauren Bacall), and he fell madly in love with ballerinas. (The 1940s and 1950s saw the resurgence of serious ballet in this country, and Cornell was a devoted acolyte). An actress or ballerina would finish her performance, come back to her dressing room, and find a perfect weird little box made by Joseph Cornell waiting for her on her dressing-room table.

Mlle Faretti

A Swan Lake for Tamara Toumanova

He wouldn’t hang around to get an autograph, or interact with her. That would ruin the fantasy. If he actually talked to Lois Smith, and found out she was different from his fantasy of her, it would have been devastating. These women were 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. Cornell’s boxes have traveled the world.

His most famous box – perhaps because of the fame of its subject matter – is the one he made for Lauren Bacall.

Penny Arcade Portrait of Lauren Bacall

Cornell made this box in 1946, right after To Have and Have Not came out. Cornell was obsessed. And who can blame him.

Lauren Bacall caught wind of the box he made for her, saw what it looked like, and declared that she must have it!

Speaking of movies: Cornell was a compulsive movie fan. He went to the movies constantly, sometimes every day. This movie love translated into another one of his artistic explorations, that of experimental filmmaker. Interesting to consider that movies are, in essence, collages. Assemblages of shots. Similar to Cornell’s processes of making his art. Using his love of collage, he would chop up existing films, and piece them back together, exploring surrealist dream-like connections or lack of connections. Here’s an interesting article about Cornell’s films, which are housed at MoMA, last time I checked.

Here’s one, from 1938:

And another one, called “Jack’s Dream”:

His most famous film is the 18-minute “Rose Hobart”, compiled in 1936:

If you haven’t seen a Cornell box in person, then you can’t really get the feel of them from a two-dimensional image. They are made to be seen in 3-D. They have depth. The depth is part of the art. If you were allowed to touch them, you could reach inside. You can roll little marbles down shoots in some of them. Things move. There are little springs. Hidey-holes. Drawers you can open. Of course you are not allowed to touch them, but your fingers itch … you want to play around with them, open the drawers, open the little glass jars, roll the marbles around. The desire to touch them is often irresistible.

Planet Set, Tête Etoilée, Giuditta Pasta (dédicace)

This leads to one of my favorite stories about Cornell.

The little kids in the Utopia Parkway neighborhood were not in awe of the kindly old man living in their midst. He was just “Joseph” who lived with his mother and his sick brother. Sometimes Joseph would let the neighborhood kids come in and look around his workshop, let them take a look at all the boxes. He encouraged the kids to touch them. He’d show them how it was designed, i.e. “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. Kids love miniature things! It’s a universal!

Here’s the most amazing thing: He would even let the kids borrow the boxes, if they really wanted to. If a child “connected” to a certain box, he’d let them take it home for a sleepover. This horrified the gallery owners, the dealers, the museum curators. That “toy” costs $200,000!!! Cornell wasn’t a naive savante, he was an artist and he knew what he created was art, but still, he loved to see little kids play with them. He was on their level. 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, “Yes. I’m done with it now.”

Isn’t that so perfect? She did whatever it was 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. She got it out of her system. Cornell absolutely loved that response. 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.”

In 1972, Cooper Union hosted a “children’s only” exhibit of Cornell’s work. This was a dream long in the making for Cornell. Only kids were allowed. The boxes were not behind glass. Cornell was there. And the kids were allowed to play with the boxes.

Children understood best what Cornell was about.

Verso of Cassiopeia 1


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

There was a tragedy in his later life, a sordid painful experience involving betrayal of the worst kind. He “got involved” – in his way – with a woman named Joyce Hunter who ended up being bad news. She was one of those girls he met at Automats and/or diners, movie hat-check girls, the types of girls he loved. Not much is known about Joyce except that Cornell befriended her. He had her out to Utopia Parkway a couple of times. It’s hard to know what his intentions were. Maybe just kindness, maybe he sensed she needed saving. And this woman (a girl, really) stole some of his boxes out of his workshop. He only discovered this later. The girl (obviously not the brightest bulb) went to a gallery in Manhattan and tried to sell the boxes. Naturally, the gallery owner became suspicious. The girl was pretty, but kind of ratty-looking, with an edge in her demeanor. Gallery owner calls Joseph Cornell and tells him, “There’s a young lady here with a bunch of your boxes.” Cornell was probably cut to the core (but again, you’d never know, he never spoke about it this is just me guessing), but still, he refused to prosecute. He knew she had a terrible life. She was a drug addict, a runaway, and a prostitute. She didn’t need him going after her. He got the boxes back, but he let her alone. Not even a year later, she was murdered in a fleatrap hotel on the upper West Side. Her killer was never 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.

For this gentle harmless man to be taken advantage of like that … it’s just terrible.

Interesting though: Not ONE word of this went into the diaries. Or – if it does, it was expressed in such highly coded language you would never know. Cornell had his ways of escape. He sensed, intuitively, that most women were trapped in one way or another (he had no experience with real actual women. This was just his sense from going to the movies). Women needed protection. Women needed to be saved. And so he created boxes where they could be free. This is a paradox, naturally. He put women in boxes. Who can get out of a box? Isn’t that just another way of trapping somebody? But, looked at another way, if he created a space for his fantasy woman (Lauren Bacall, Toumanova, the Automat girl he loved) then nobody could touch the fantasy. Nobody could wreck it – like the girl who stole his boxes wrecked it – nobody could make his fantasy unclean. It was his, it was safe.

Untitled (Tilly Losch), c.1935-38

So to get personal for a moment, although everything I write is personal.

For a couple of years, I worked on an “untitled Joseph Cornell” theatre project, a play in development about his life, directed by Ted Altschuler, a great friend of mine. We did our initial workshop at Juilliard. There was a cast of six, and together we did mounds of research, and then “riffed” on all of it in improvisations, slowly piecing together a narrative. The conception was that the play would take place IN one of his boxes, with his various obsessions – the Medici princess, Lauren Bacall, Emily Dickinson – taking on corporeal form. The great Lois Smith was an advisor to our project, since she had known him, since he made a box for her. We actually got to see the box that Cornell made for her. She got us in to MoMA’s private screening room, where we watched his movies. Morgan McCabe, a wonderful Chicago-based actress, played Emily Dickinson, bringing her knowledge and copious talent to bear, so much so that there were times when you felt you were in Dickinson’s presence. I took on the role of the little hustler dirtbag Joyce Hunter. We played around with ideas about how all of these figures intersected in his dreamspace.

But mainly what we did was just look at those boxes. Over and over and over. 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. What would happen in the boxes talked to each other? What if Lauren Bacall found herself in Emily Dickinson’s box? What would happen? We brought in our own props, things we thought Cornell might have picked up on his wanderings up and down Second Avenue, his perusing of junk shops and second-hand book shops: we accumulated nearly an entire room full of objects, which we could race over and grab if we felt we needed them during improvisation. We also created a giant 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.

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.


Guggenheim collection.

While I am enraptured and transported by all of his work, if I had to pick a favorite, I think it would be “Soap Bubble Set”.

I could lose myself for hours in that box.

It’s so painful to think that “I wish I had not been so reserved.” were his final words.

Joseph Cornell’s work is the opposite of reserved.

I’ll end with where I started: Here is Octavio Paz’s poem dedicated to Joseph Cornell, and translated into English by Elizabeth Bishop:

Objects and Apparitions

by Octavio Paz
translation by Elizabeth Bishop

for Joseph Cornell

Hexagons of wood and glass, scarcely bigger than a shoe box, with room in them for night and all it’s lights.

Monuments to every moment, refuse of every moment, used: cages for infinity.

Marbles, buttons, thimbles, dice, pins, stamps, and glass beads: tales of time.

Memory weaves, unweaves the echoes: in the four corners of the box shadowless ladies play at hide and seek.

Fire buried in the mirror, water sleeping in the agate: solos of Jenny Colonne and Jenny Lind.

“One has to commit a painting,” said Degas, “the way one commits a crime.” But you contructed boxes where things hurry away from their names.

Slot machine of visions, condensation flask for conversations, hotel of crickets and constellations.

Minimal, incoherent fragments: the opposite of History, creator of ruins, out of your ruins you have made creations.

Theater of the spirits: objects putting the laws of identity through hoops.

The “Grand Hotel de la Couronne”: in a vial, the three of clubs and, very surprised, Thumbelina in gardens of reflections.

A comb is a harp strummed by the glance of a little girl born dumb.

The reflector of the inner eye scatters the spectacle: God all alone above an extinct world.

The apparitions are manifest, their bodies weigh less than light, lasting as this phrase lasts.

Joseph Cornell: inside your boxes my words became visible for a moment.

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5 Responses to “I wish I had not been so reserved.” — Joseph Cornell’s final words

  1. Bill Wolfe says:

    Cornell is one of those people who create art – like the early Beatles songs or John Ford Westerns – that’s great in a way that makes you think you could do it, too. Which you believe right up until you try to do it. And that serves to show their greatness even more.

    On a different note, wishing a peaceful Christmas. And many thanks for your writing here.

    • sheila says:

      Yes, his stuff is simple – with found objects – everyday objects – but together they vibrate with some weird meaning. He was a strange man but gentle and lost in his dreamworld, which you can really tell from his work.

      Thanks for the kind words.

  2. John T says:

    I’m guessing this may be the result of an auto-correct intervention, but Untitled Lily Losch should read Untitled Tilly Losch. Wonderful read (which I haven’t finished yet!).

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