The world that Joseph Cornell made from swan feathers and fireflies and movie magazines -- is concrete yet apparitional, intimate yet vast. It whirled out of his panic.
Late one night, when young, he woke up gripped by terror. He had glimpsed, he told his sister, the cold infinitude of space. The poet-painter William Blake, while still a little boy, had been seized by the same dread. God, Blake told his mother, had just pressed His forehead against the windowpane.
Both men became masters. Cornell's art, like Blake's, is marvelous, mysterious, austere yet ecstatic. God's universe had chilled him. Cornell made one of his own.
Working in the clutter of his little house on Utopia Parkway, Queens, he dreamed, and then made manifest, a rich and love-drenched world, a world of many muses, of crystal cages, cockatoos, and floating ballerinas. He dreamed of Mozart in the snow, and falling stars, and butterflies, 18th-century France and Napoleonic Egypt.
Cornell made his universe, his icy Russian steppes, his shining moons, his silver seas, from materials that another man might have viewed as trash--from plastic sea shells, rusted keys, bits of lace and driftwood, toy blocks and jacks and marbles, birds' nests, empty perfume bottles, old movie stills and postcards, shreds of maps and children's books, dime-store bracelets, stamps, balls of cork, clay bubble pipes, and printed pages torn from National Geographic.
Now, for the first time, his objects of pure poetry, his boxes and collages, have been reunited with their sources. Each famous box on view here is accompanied by the prosaic, often dull materials that coaxed it into life. "Joseph Cornell: An Exploration of Sources" is a wonderful exhibit. It marks the 10th anniversary of the artist's death. Organized by Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, it goes on view today at the National Museum of American Art.
Joseph Cornell (1903-1972) loved innocent young girls and many women of great beauty: Lauren Bacall, Greta Garbo, Hedy Lamarr. But he loved best from afar. He glimpsed them on the screen, or from a New York subway car, and took them to his heart. He was an armchair wanderer, a time-traveler of sorts, less familiar with the present than he was with the past. He never went to Europe, and rarely left New York, but the endlessly romantic Europe he imagined is one central subject of his elusive art. Ballet is another, astronomy a third.
Shoe boxes and cartons -- labeled "Nostalgia for the Sea," "watch parts," "clay pipes," "owls" -- lined his studio's walls. He collected quotes and glimpses, too, and old infatuations, and saved them as assiduously as he did old magazines. It is easy to imagine that his visions somehow forced his materials into order. But the process somehow worked the other way around. These materials, this show demonstrates, somehow forced his vision. He looked at them -- and saw.
Cornell's boxes, those public presentations of his private thoughts, suggest the Medieval cabinet of wonders, the Victorian sample chest, and the proscenium arch. One of them, "Soap Bubble Set [Lunar Space Object]" (1959), contains a cork ball painted white, a ring suspended on a rod, a seashell and a broken pipe and a photo of the moon. All these objects interact, but they do so in obedience to the nonlinear, nonlogical rules that govern reverie. That cork sphere calls to mind the floating moon; that broken pipe suggests, perhaps, the disappearance of a soap bubble -- or of a grown-up's musing. Cornell had that clay pipe and that fishing float before he made the box.
He admired enormously Tamara Toumanova, the "Black Pearl" of ballet, who kindly let him have snippets of the tulle and feathers from the costume in which she danced "Swan Lake." These authentic objects made the dancer present, and he used them in his art.
Beauties he had glimpsed (Garbo or Bacall), and beauties he invented (young Berenice of "The Crystal Cage") and beauties he had read about were, in Cornell's reveries, equally alive. No muse moved him more than Marie Taglioni, the nearly legendary dancer who introduced the toe-shoe to ballet.
One object on display includes an image of the dancer, bits of tinsel behind blue glass, and the following inscription: "In the winter of 1853, on the frozen wastes of Russia, the carriage of the sylphide, Marie Taglioni, was halted by a highway man, for which audience of one, this ethereal creature was commanded to dance upon fur rugs spread over the icy landscape. And ever since on certain starlit nights a white form still swirls to the music of the winds--scattering bejeweled fragments to the glistening carpet of ice and snow." Cornell had somewhere read of that highwayman, that dance, and he used the vision more than once in his works of art. But never twice in the same way.
A chance occurrence, Cornell's glimpse of ice falling from a New York ice wagon, had made that vision manifest, and it was forever after as real to Cornell as if he'd seen the dance. His two dreams of Taglioni somehow did not conflict. "I have been discovering in the most unexpected & delightful manner," he wrote, "that it is possible to see 'lightning strike in the same place' more than once.' "
Late in life he found an "intense and sheer delight in the commonplace, the dingy, the banal" that was equal to the joy he'd taken earlier in fur rugs and stars. A penny or a bit of bark would now allow him to set out on a voyage as intense and lovely as those that had once taken him to Paris or the stars. The museum's Joseph Cornell Study Center owns the contents of his studio, and the "sources" on display, the photographs and clippings, the bits of lace and ribbon, place his famous works of art in telling, poignant context. His art, which somehow blends the common and the magical, the imagined and the palpable, the soarings of French Symbolism and strict New England probity, allows each patient viewer a journey into dream--and an effortless return. The show closes Feb. 27. CAPTION: Illustration, Cornell's 1959 "Soap Bubble Set [Lunar Space Object]": cork ball, seashell, broken pipe, moon photo, ring National Museum of American Art