Souls in Glass
by Joanne O'Leary
A review of Utopia Parkway: The Life and Work of Joseph Cornell by Deborah Solomon (Other Press, 2015)
Wanderlust, at the Royal Academy of Arts (July to September 2015)
What makes a life worth writing down? Joseph Cornell loved biographies, but (as Deborah Solomon reflects) is an unlikely subject for one. Picasso and Pollock seem to prompt and repay biographical encounter – as though their outward devastation (smashed cars, blind drunkenness, scorned women) gauged aliveness and gave to either’s art a face and pulse – but Cornell’s work was the stuff of interiors, and his life was correspondingly ‘shy’ (though he hated that word and smarted when his friend, Robert Motherwell, used it). His bachelorhood on Utopia Parkway, a suburban street in Queens, was matched for stark inwardness only by the shadow-boxes that made his name. And although these contraptions were sometimes papered with ads for French hotels – Hôtel de l’Etoile, Hôtel du Cygne, or Hôtel Bon Port – Cornell’s sojourns in them were merely quixoticisms, dreamt up from the guidebooks to fin-de-siècle Paris that he hoarded. Aside from childhood holidays, and a stint at school in Massachusetts, he never left New York State, refusing even to venture as far as Minneapolis for his first solo show. New York was Cornell’s glass box. He loved to ride the El train (about whose final days he made a short film with Rudy Burckhardt) because it allowed him to peer into miles of inter-borough windows. And his afternoons were likelier to be spent in a terry-cloth bathrobe, feeding peanuts to blue-jays in his yard, or at his local Bickford’s eating cherry pie, than in a dilapidated loft in the East Village. As Solomon reminds us, Cornell didn’t drink, never learned to drive, and died a virgin. But his longing, and the unlived aspects of his existence, sent him clamouring for another world, one comprised of dead effects.
He scoured Manhattan for trifles and curios: the dolls, cordial glasses, marbles that he would arrange, alchemize, and stultify in his strange glass-fronted rooms. ‘A room’, Cornell jotted in 1949, might be a ‘compensation for the ephemerality of a career’. His scrupulous ‘dossiers’ (whose sources ranged from Delacroix’s journals to Opera News) enabled Cornell to build up files on exalted ghosts (nineteenth-century ballerinas such as Fanny Cerrito, and sopranos such as Guidatta Pasta) as well as current crushes such as Tamara Toumanova and Susan Sontag. Meanwhile, his urban paper chase – for stamps, ticket stubs, film stills, reproductions of Renaissance paintings – was its own sort of omniscience, earned at the expense of what some might call ‘authenticity’ or artistic omnipotence. Cornell did not conjure from scratch. At the zenith of abstract expressionism, he chose to work purely in assemblage. From his early collages (made from nineteenth-century engravings), to the neo-surrealism of his Pink Palaces; from the oiled and opulent hinges of his Medici slot machines to the starker, whiter, boxes of the 1950s (aviaries, observatories, and dovecotes), Cornell’s aesthetic was that of the magpie.
Not only was there a vicarious thrust to Cornell’s sensibility: the works themselves were slight and folksy things. When Thomas B. Hess, the editor of Art News, wrote that Cornell’s ‘Aviary’ boxes were ‘personal, precious, diverting and almost insignificant’, he took for granted (to parrot Virginia Woolf) that genius inheres more commonly in what we think of as big rather than small. But Cornell’s boxes teach us something different from the colossal scale of a Pollock or a de Kooning. Their structures, in which he experienced what and whom he loved, are strangely diminutive, or hologrammatic. Cornell’s art is an inventory, a catalogue, a reckoning up. And yet, it is also a defence against knowing, and been known, or against knowing too much. That is to say that Cornell wanted to retain things in a peculiar way, as though to possess an actual thing, or person, was to betray one’s desire for it, or them. He told Leila Hadley (a twice-divorced mother of four with whom he had the most fleeting of physical encounters in the early seventies) that he feared losing his ability to make art if he ever had penetrative sex, and found fodder for this misgiving in Balzac’s oft-cited post-coital groan: ‘j’ai perdu un livre’. Sexual consummation was subterfuge because Cornell’s genius, what he called the ‘white magic’ of his art, depended on a stunted innocence, a childish whimsy, and a dwarfed present that put off a future that would and could never come. (Think of Bébé Marie, a box from the early 1940s: it suspends an expensive Victorian doll on the cusp of dwindling innocence by situating her in a nightmarish forest lit only by a thicket of silver twigs that at once reveal and obscure her face.) Analogously, from childhood, Cornell refused opportunities to train in traditional artistic methods, even though his sister, Elizabeth, took art lessons from another native of Nyack, Edward Hopper. It is as though he knew, somehow, even then, that he needed not to know what he was doing. His boxes are emissaries between despair and rapture because they trade on the unschooled and untried, on second-hand knowledge and second-hand things. His over-identification with objects and people was a taxidermy of desire. This art of insides depended on being an outsider. What Solomon’s biography does well is to show us what biography itself might have to do with Cornell’s oddball majesty.
He figured out early that states of emotion could climax through an act of imaginative will. This owed in no small part to his overbearing mother, Helen, a socialite and prima donna who frequented bridge parties and shopped for hats in Manhattan, but married beneath her station (if in excess of her own charisma and allure) the ill-fated Joseph Sr., a handsome whistler of tunes from Gilbert and Sullivan operas. Even before he expired in a sanatorium, Joseph Sr. wanted an out, eluding his wife by taking off on fishing and golfing trips at fashionable resorts. When he was lost to a disease resembling leukaemia in April 1917, Helen re-routed her swaddling attention onto his namesake, her firstborn son. Hadley asked him, later in his life, why he never travelled, and Cornell responded that he couldn’t because that’s what his father did. If the boxes represent the stasis and dangerous heimlich to which his mother impelled him, they are also a paean to his father’s escape: to holidays and death. Recognising this muddy bothness, Solomon’s most incisive thoughts concern Cornell’s fascination with Houdini – whose metal rings and suspended chairs haunt the shadow-cabinets – and how Cornell escaped into, and Houdini out of, contrived spaces.
A troubling passage in Solomon’s account has Helen persuading Joseph not to attend a memorial service for his younger brother, Robert (a cerebral palsy sufferer to whom Cornell was devoted, and for whom he cared almost until Robert’s death), by pleading that the three-hour journey to the cemetery was more than she could handle, and insisting that her golden boy should instead spend the day with her in Westhampton. It seems inevitable that Cornell’s personal and aesthetic sensibility was modified under Robert’s presence; that his brother’s confinement to a wheelchair taught Cornell something about the pain of impairment, and enabled him to believe, whether damagingly and wrongheadedly or not, in the rapture of paralysis. Carloee Schneemann, one of the many struggling actresses with whom Cornell was infatuated, remarked on the brothers’ ‘intense closeness, like they were the same being, only one had been stricken’. And say the experience of caring for his younger brother didn’t just teach Cornell about empathy, about access to a subjectivity cognate to, but separate from, his own. Say it also compelled him to godliness, to the creation of a box world that condensed everything that he and Robert might have wanted to see. (The art dealer Alexander Iolas remembers Joseph squeezing violets on top of Robert’s mushroom soup to make it lilac-coloured).
When de Kooning spoke about the ‘architecture’ of the boxes (a ‘mot’ that obsessed Cornell), the elder artist might have had in mind how the younger one had learned to play God. Imagine Cornell beginning to work on these cabinets, constructing a ‘shell’ and proceeding to stain and varnish the outside of it into time, before padding the interior with ornamental effects: velvet, aged wallpaper, and carbon copies of what he longed for – in one of them, the dancer Tilly Losch suspended as a cartoon-marionette, in the agony of a struck pose. Cornell’s art can seem shy and trifling, but its claustrophobia is also a contrived solipsism. Consider the cosmology of Custodian (Silent Dedication to Marilyn Monroe), a late collage involving a cut-out from a constellation chart, in which Monroe (on whom Cornell had kept a dossier since the 1950s) is present only as titular directive, a self visible at the cost of its stellification, legible at the expense of Monroe’s estrangement from the human, in the cooling matter of a star. Cornell trapped souls, converted them to relics; he venerated and embalmed them. He shrunk the world to an appropriate scale, and people into souvenirs small and slight enough to be carried around.
This is life as a facsimile; it is the deflection and destruction of want in the guise of its preservation. His boxes were where Cornell put everything that he didn’t care to lose, even – and especially – by acquiring it. They embalm possibility. There is a fascism to their loneliness. And Cornell was slow to part with his toy worlds, astounding even Rothko in his disdain for the commerciality of his art. Bereft at the sale of his boxes, he thought of Duchamp’s Valise, and mulled over making miniatures of many works to put inside a suitcase, as a way of keeping his collection together.He grew to love his cage. For all the talk of dreamscape and reverie, Cornell’s art is frightening. It shudders against us. To ignore this aspect of the work is to trivialize it. John Ashbery ends a 1967 review of the Guggenheim show with an assurance that ‘We all live in [Cornell’s] enchanted forest’. A flat thought. Frank O’Hara got closer to the quick, writing of Cornell’s ‘meticulously- / detailed disaster’: ‘Out of the / prescient rock in his heart / he has spread a land without / flowers of near distances’.
Yes, Cornell was intrigued by the shiny surfaces of popular culture, by vaudeville and dimestore magic tricks, by dancers, and by mirrors, and by escape routines. But there is (when you think of it) something terrifying about Houdini playing with stopped breath. Cornell’s famous ‘Aviary’ show at the Egan gallery in 1949 dismissed ballerinas for birds spying themselves in a broken mirror, perched incongruously on a set of drawers, or preserved metonymically, as in Abandoned Case and Abandoned Perch, as a smattering of lost feathers. A chastening of his aesthetic, Solomon suggests. But I do not believe that Cornell’s ballerinas learned to dance any more than his birds learned to fly. (If they did, that would be disappointing too, no less so than his gridded, empty dovecotes.) Mostly, these boxes are against the body. To make a break is to risk an exit wound, as in Habitat Group for a Shooting Gallery, where a bullet breaches a glass-pane, and ushers in death rather than flight; a cockatoo’s head lopped off in a spatter of blood. This is about as physical as Cornell got. Small wonder that he was drawn to that other homebird, Emily Dickinson, who became the basis of a number of his boxes. Towards the Blue Peninsula is a white cabinet within which a window faces a vertical cage-like structure and beyond it is the blue of sky and forlorn longing. Souls in glass, stuffed birds, gorgeous nowheres – the opening lines of Dickinson’s lyric (from which this box borrows its title): ‘It might be lonelier without the loneliness.’
[Originally published in the Cambridge Humanities Review, Issue 11, pp. 16-17.]