Little Boxes

Reading between the lines.
March 26 1997 3:30 AM

Little Boxes

The cloistered life and fantastic art of Joseph Cornell.

Utopia Parkway: The Life and Work of Joseph Cornell

By Deborah Solomon

Farrar, Straus & Giroux; 380 pages; $30

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Joseph Cornell was like the simple son in the fairy tale who picks up odds and ends--a dead bird, a broken jug, perhaps a rusty nail--as he mooches toward the palace with his strong and handsome brothers, who mean to vie for the princess's hand. He is the least likely of the suitors, but the odd fragments he has assembled serve as answers to the princess's dark riddles, which leave his brothers stammering. Cornell's art consists of useless found objects that, when arranged in boxes and placed behind glass, seem like answers to forgotten riddles set long ago by brilliant and perverse princesses. Kant analyzed the concept of beauty as implying purposiveness without any particular purpose, and Cornell's boxes have that kind of beauty, since they convey a sense of meaningfulness while resisting the assignment of any specific meaning. The boxed objects, of little intrinsic worth, are transformed into the components of a revelation we can only guess at, through hidden affinities we cannot doubt. Cornell found his materials in bins and boxes in dusty secondhand shops in the less glittering precincts of Manhattan. He fitted them together late at night, over the kitchen table in an undistinguished house on Utopia Parkway in Flushing, Queens, after his handicapped brother and a tiresome, widowed mother, with whom he shared the house, had gone to bed. The actor Tony Curtis--a friend of Cornell's who would have been the one to put your money on in a contest with a princess for a prize--said: "His boxes were like dreams and you had no idea where they came from. A stamp, a photograph, a rubber band, a butterfly, marbles that had perhaps outlasted the lives of children they were made for ... all these different objects were somehow tied together and interrelated to one another like ... like ..." And here, predictably, like the marvelously endowed brothers in the fairy tale, Curtis stammers.

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Cornell's life was in certain respects very like his art. A meaningless job, which anyone could have done, an undistinguished education, a home like any other in a crushingly ordinary neighborhood, a daily commute, no particular vices, and nothing to speak of in the line of contact sexuality--a white, Anglo-Saxon, middle-class life which, in external respects, was lived by innumerable unmarried sons answerable to family responsibilities, and marked by the lonely longings of a protracted virginity probably not all that unusual at the time, especially when, in Cornell's case, there were no riddling princesses to overcome his natural shyness and unprepossessing looks. His art came out of his hobbies, and from celibate crushes on women marked, as a general rule, by an a priori unattainability, though in truth one gets the sense that attainment was less central to his fantasies than were the ritual adorations of a fan. It was such adoration that defined his hobby, which consisted in rummaging expeditions in search of memorabilia in which the ballerinas and actresses of his distant passions were present, as the loved one is fetishistically present in scraps and ribbons, snapshots and locks of hair, faded clippings and yellowing dance cards. The miracle is that he found a way to make art out of the substance of his affective life, and to turn his ephemera into visual poetry that no one else--certainly not Tony Curtis, who aspired to be a box-artist himself--could match. Cornell's boxes are like reliquaries infused with deflected eroticism and the magic of hopeless wishes.

The life and art are reciprocal in that it is hard to imagine Cornell's art made by someone with a life greatly different from his. This makes biography unusually relevant to critical appreciation in his case, one of the rare examples in which someone's art is almost a transcription of lived experience--transfigured, to be sure, by a kind of magic that biography would have no way of accounting for. More than in any of the recent handsome artistic biographies--James Breslin's life of Rothko or Gail Levin's life of Edward Hopper or even John Richardson's stupendous biography of Picasso--we actually come away from Deborah Solomon's fascinating account of Cornell's life with an enhanced understanding of the art. Remarkable as those other artists are, they all went to art schools and learned to paint and draw, and in consequence, their lives are, in most essential respects, not unlike those described by Giorgio Vasari in his The Lives of the Artists of 1550. A change in the concept of art in the 20th century made it possible for Cornell to become an artist directly, using his eccentric peregrinations in secondhand shops and the feelings that provoked them as the only preparation he needed. He had the historical genius to recognize that media such as collage "eliminated the need to paint and draw," Solomon observes. "Books could provide almost all the materials. Everything was ready-made and in reach of anyone who chose to put it together." The occasion was Cornell's discovery of a curious box by Max Ernst, La femme cent têtes, that consists of collages made out of snipped and pasted cuttings from 19th century engravings, fitted wickedly together to form a semipornographic narrative. Cornell stumbled onto the art world of New York surrealism--a complex of artists, dealers, collectors, and critics and, above all, a body of thought about art--which enabled him to be an artist, and even an admired one. Had it not been for those encounters, he might have lived out a reclusive life in Queens, filling scrapbooks. Without the transformative agency of the art world, he would have been what we now call an outsider artist--if he had been an artist at all. He hit upon the device of the box, with which his vision is inextricably bound up, in 1931.

The surrealist art world was like an opening onto a plane of reality that a middle-class unmarried son and brother, a commuter and breadwinner with solitary hobbies and an autodidact's knowledge of the history of theater, of opera, and of dance, might otherwise have never entered. There he met actresses and ballet stars who inspired real art, even if he interposed between himself and them the internal distance which always separates the fantasist from his objects. The story of his life and of his art from that point forward is the story of these attenuated relationships, lived out on two planes at once, like waking dreams. The boxes and the collages are monuments to abstract affairs with flesh-and-blood women whom Cornell's psychology required him to flatten into paper effigies so that his imagination could go to work. He even sustained a short, worshipful relationship with Susan Sontag, whose image he used for one of his boxes. He was, the Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama reported, "deeply impotent," the adverb acknowledging that normal sex was something Cornell only believed he wanted, the way he might have thought he ought to learn to draw in order to be a real artist. His art was made up of outward embodiments of inward fixations. The affairs were made up of wishes collaged with phone calls and unsatisfying visits, letters, and diary entries, gifts of art, and the frugal lunches of weak tea and store-bought cake on which Cornell physically subsisted.

Inasmuch as the sublimated sexuality of his relationships is so central to the form and spirit of Cornell's art, only the kind of biography licensed by our decade's disregard of privacy could hope to explain how the art came about and what it meant to be an artist. Deborah Solomon has narrowed the distance between the life and the art, chronicling everything with a sympathy and even a generosity one would hardly have dreamt possible in our cynical and deconstructive age. But biography has its limits, even if it will take us further with Cornell than with perhaps any other artist, Picasso himself included. It is no criticism of Solomon's lively and fascinating book that she has not sought to explain how an array of the most ordinary objects--a cordial glass, a bubble pipe, an egg, some glass disks, a map--should release powers of evocation in one another and quiver into an image that overcomes the personal and the biographical to attain universality, profundity, beauty, and truth. Facing that riddle, we all stammer.

Arthur Danto is Johnsonian Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at Columbia University and art critic for The Nation.

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