’Art & Soul
Navigator of the Mind
Joseph Cornell impacted minds with his work and intellect. He touched the fringes of art movements of the day like Surrealism, Dada and Pop. Cornell was even a bit ahead of these movements in some ways without belonging to any of them
B.N. Goswamy

Writing in the New York Times not long ago, Holland Cotter spoke of him as “a poet of light; an architect of memory-fractured rooms; a connoisseur of stars, celestial and otherwise; …an archivist of time, immersed in it, buoyed up and pulled down”. That just about sums up Joseph Cornell, to the extent that it is possible to sum this gifted artist — who died some 40 years ago — and his irresistible, seductive work, up.

Tilly Losch. Box by Joseph Cornell; ca. 1935; 9 inches x 10 inches (approx). Coll. Robert Lehrman, Washington D C.I remember having taken, as long ago as 1968, a group of my students to view the Triennale — India’s very first — to the Lalit Kala Akademi in Delhi. It was an impressive show, the first-ever assembly of contemporary art from all over the world to be seen in one go in our land. Several works we saw stand out in my mind even today.

Among them are the magical boxes of Joseph Cornell: small lyrical constructions of wooden cases — the size not much bigger than a large shoe box. Here under a glass cover, one could see a grid of small shelves filled with a miscellany of seemingly unconnected objects: marbles inside tiny champagne glasses, a fading antique map, a bird’s egg, a compass, bits of bottle corks, some shells, skein of a coloured thread. Or something like that. One stood in front of them, unable to take one’s eyes off, and wondered. What did they all mean, these objects? Why were they all there, together, in a box? Were they saying something that one was on the point of comprehending but falling short of it, each time one tried? Was it all a trick, some sleight of hand? Whatever they were, they left an imprint. Each object kept coming back to the mind, bringing with it associations, memories, even questions.

That is, it turns out, exactly what Cornell’s work was aimed at doing: to activate the mind by creating associations and raising questions. It is not that he was a Surrealist or a Pop artist. He firmly rejected labels. He was, simply, himself, doing what he knew how to do best in his child-like but highly sophisticated manner. One knows that he never went through formal training in art. One also knows that he lived the life more or less of a recluse, not associating with many people, and devoting himself to looking after his mother, and his brother who was born with cerebral palsy. But, whether working in his early years, as a textile sample salesman, or later as one looking for a job, his mind was constantly occupied with looking at objects and making up his mind about what they said to him divested of their context. He was a voracious reader, an addict of the performing arts and films, a knower of European and American culture, both classical and popular. Inwardly turned as he was, even inclined towards spirituality, he could not resist the lure and the glamour of the world of stars of his own times — Greer Garson, Lauren Bacall, even B-grade actresses like Rose Hobart and Tilly Losch — for he would often make magic boxes in which they would feature somewhere, and then send them to them as gifts from himself.

Most of his life he lived in very modest quarters on Long Island but every now and then, he would make forays into Manhattan, for, compulsively as it were, he would collect all kinds of ‘seemingly random images, artefacts, and ephemera of the past and the present’.

 Solomon Islands. Box by Joseph Cornell, 1940-42; 12 inches x 17 inches (approx) Private Collection, France. (L) and White Sand and Clear Marbles. Box by Joseph Cornell; early 20th century; 9 inches x 15 inches (approx). L.A. County Museum of Art, Los Angeles

It is as if he was constantly hunting: ‘browsing through bookstalls, record stores, variety shops, used-magazine outlets, and five-and-dimes for hidden treasures’. He would collect and then keep arranging them. For him, imagination was “an echo chamber where possibilities and connections can be discovered through subtle repetition and variation.”

Consider, thus, a magic box of his — Solomon Islands — which is reproduced here: the objects it contains and the references it creates, or can create, in the viewer’s mind. The name is taken from the Islands in the Pacific that the Spaniards conquered in the 16th century and the stories, false and true, connected with that conquest. When you open the lidded box, you see 20 compasses set into a removable shelf.

Under this layer is a gathering of shells, feathers, several paper fish, a sea horse, a starfish, a butterfly, and bits of vegetation: all suggestive of the open and free environments of an island. Interspersed among these objects are leaves of a French account book, a message in a tiny bottle, fragments of a star map and the map of an Italian city: recalling on the one hand, the things carried by mariners of old and, on the other, colonial intrusions into native waters. It goes further: the map of the archipelago pasted on the box’s inside cover is cut up into five strips, a reference possibly to the sectioning of the islands of the south Pacific by European powers between themselves in the 19th century. There are layers to be discovered here, and made sense of, even as the assemblage as a whole loses nothing of its stunning visual appeal.

Joseph Cornell touched the fringes of the art movements of the day, and was even a bit ahead of them in some ways — Surrealism, Dada, Pop, and so on — without belonging to any of them. In fact, many of the far more celebrated names in those movements — thus, Duchamp, Dali, Warhol — openly acknowledged their debt to him. The man worked with collages, sculpture, assemblage, installation, even films. There is the famous story of how when Cornell was in the midst of showing a more or less abstract Surrealistic film which he had made up through joining strips of old films and named after the actress Rose Hobart, Salvador Dali, who was in the audience, suddenly lost his cool, knocked the projector down in dramatic temper and stomped out, saying that this man had ‘stolen one of his dreams’!

Meaning, of course, that he (Cornell) was far ahead of him. Cornell impacted minds with his work and intellect. An artist, into making collages himself, recalled the time when he saw at first hand, a group of Cornell’s magic boxes in the Art Institute of Chicago.

“Peering into these curiously spare yet cluttered worlds” he wrote, “was transcendent. I could feel isolated parts of my own childhood rising in the back of my throat, in full exquisite intensity, and then, I was sailing, too, into that great beyond.”











Broad brush

CONTEMPORARY ART: A visitor looks at a sculpture entitled “Still Life” (2002) by artist Ron Mueck during the press day for his exhibition at the Fondation Cartier pour l’Art Contemporain in Paris. The exhibition is on till September 29, 2013. Photo: Reuters (L), A tribute: People walk around a sculpture called “Hommage à Alexander Calder” (Tribute to Alexander Calder) by Belgium’s artist Arne Quinze, set on the square in front of Nice’s modern art museum (MAMAC) in Nice, south-eastern France. Photo: AFP (R) and  (M top) Mural magic: An abandoned home is boarded-up with a colourful mural made by community members to help combat blight in the Brightmoor neighbourhood of Detroit, Michigan in this file photo. Detroit’s street art murals are one of the attractions that are part of Hostel Detroit’s “ambassador” programme that pairs volunteers with visitors on free cultural tours of local art, architecture, and music.  Photo: Reuters (Bottom) 
Urban Life: “September 26” a painting by US artist Ryan Sullivan is pictured during the media preview of the exhibition “Empire State. New York art now” at the Palazzo delle Esposizioni in Rome. The exhibition shows how artists might re-imagine urban life, and how the city of New York might continue to be a site of contestation. The exhibition will run till July 21. Photo: AFP