Though in reality he never traveled far from his home on Utopia Parkway in Queens, 20th-century artist Joseph Cornell often dealt with impressions of being at sea, or voyaging in space, or looking into the night sky, as in "Ideas Are Like Stars . . ." A visual poet with a fascination for constellations, trade winds and migratory patterns of birds, he also had an extraordinary ability to evoke such imaginings in others by combining paint, sculpture and collage elements into the distinctive boxed constructions that have spawned so many imitators, but no peer.
The Joseph Cornell Study Center, tucked away on the third floor of the National Museum of American Art, was created six years after the artist's death in 1972, when the contents of his studio were presented to the museum by his sister. Since then, scholars, students and numerous artists, from George Segal to William Christenberry, have spent time there trying to better understand both Cornell's work and his system of storing and codifying reams of material. In addition to 250 finished and unfinished works from the 1930s to the '70s, the archive includes Cornell's vast collection of rare and popular books, magazines and sheet music, along with many objects he used in his boxes -- everything from 17th-century maps to cork balls, cordial glasses and feathers.
Eighteen years after his death, he remains one of the more intriguing loners in the history of 20th-century American art. The public is invited to come and learn more, from the dozen Cornells on permanent display in the third-floor Lincoln Gallery or, by appointment (call 202-357-2156), at the study center.