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I kept the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) title photograph of Joseph Cornell at work as the main wallpaper on my cell phone for over a month. It is a wonderful and unexpected image: a forty-four-year-old Cornell leans over an uncluttered worktable, where the empty shell of a large box and a few art supplies are neatly laid out. The lean frame of the artist forms a silhouette of dark hair and clothing against a white paper backdrop. It looks totally staged—somewhere between a cooking demo and a magic act. Perhaps it was the jolt of seeing a different Cornell, one that counters the photograph of the elderly artist, such as the iconic image used as frontispiece for the catalogue of the last Cornell retrospective twenty-six years ago in which an elderly Cornell sits in a lawn chair in the backyard of his house on Utopia Parkway. SFMOMA opens its show with a photograph that captures Cornell the maker, and it is a fitting emblem for Joseph Cornell: Navigating the Imagination. The vita contempletiva has been revisioned by Lynda Hartigan in her retrospective as the vita activa.
As viewers and readers of this exhibit and its major catalogue, we are encouraged to inspect the artist’s formative decades and influences. Hartigan states in her historically rich introductory essay: “This mapping of Cornell’s efforts emphasizes the 1920s and 1930s—decades cast in a shadow and subsidiary role because of the long-standing emphasis given to Surrealism’s role in his emergence as an artist” (18). Hartigan has organized this Cornell retrospective into eight themes: “Navigating a Career,” “Cabinets of Curiosity,” “Dream Machines,” “Geographies of the Heavens,” “Nature’s Theater,” “Bouquets of Homage,” “Crystal Cages,” and “Chambers of Time.” These themes—used effectively as chapters in the stunning catalogue—are drawn from ideas found within Cornell’s oeuvre and map categories embedded in Cornell’s conceptual families of work, and in the way he worked as well.
At the exhibit, which I viewed at SFMOMA, this thematic structure was quite useful museologically, offering the visitor a navigational tool that fostered a better understanding of Cornell as associative thinker, symbolist, and prince of poetic rubrics. Several galleries were devoted to each of the eight themes, offering an architecturally scaled extended tour inside a Cornell box, whose thematic/navigational units offer a non-GPS guide through Cornell’s work and thought process. Hartigan’s structure offers, in both museum and book, a shift from the more familiar organization of an artist via chronological or media-driven models. (However, the catalogue quite helpfully lists its 190 plates in chronological order.)
To wander within and between the conceptual groupings of an artist whose varied practices of media/mind are ever elusive and delightful was a joy—one experienced again, but afresh, through the brilliant photography of the catalogue. For instance, the galleries displaying works themed under “Geographies of the Heavens” included (among many others) reworked seventeenth-century engravings from the 1930s, Soap Bubble Sets from the late 1940s, collages from the 1960s, and one of Cornell’s “explorations” of 2D images assembled over a twenty-year period. With over 170 total works on display (and even more plates), the thematic rubrics keep one moving intellectually, and encourage those new—and not new—to Cornell’s artwork to experience his constant mental and material leaps. These leaps are the “stuff” that keeps Cornell scholars working: the constant possibility of new associations and recombinations of means and meanings. Per Hartigan: “This exhibition is organized thematically to suggest [Cornell’s] understanding of the imagination as an echo chamber where possibilities and connections can be discovered through subtle repetition and variation” (main introductory panel to the exhibit). The process of discovering these connections and expanding on them in one’s imagination over time and space (in a fashion akin to browsing) can be distilled into the word “extensions”—a key term in Cornell’s creative vocabulary. Navigating the Imagination achieves this state with comprehensive grace.
One of my favorite visual souvenirs of the exhibit occurred in the gallery devoted to “Crystal Cages,” where a large vitrine held three big (and quite famous) boxes: Palace (1943), Untitled (Pink Palace) (ca. 1946–1948), and Untitled (Window Façade) (ca. 1950–53). The choice to display the two horizontal Palaces on either side of the vertically oriented Window Façade was ideal: the miniature realism of the palaces bracketed the abstractness of the minimal window box, encouraging viewers to enjoy the formal and metaphorical doubling of the latter’s panes with the countless rows of tiny windows and colonnades in the Palaces. For me, this combination of boxes collapsed cities and chronologies in a flash, evoking concurrently San Francisco, New York, and Paris, united by cool white paint and a winter day. This is in part what Cornell meant by “extensions.” It may be a very simple moment, but one thick with visual experience and symbolic import.
Another example of this kind of layered and expanded sense of looking occurred in one of the final galleries, “Chambers of Time,” as I studied Untitled (Cockatoo with Watch Faces) (ca. 1949), a work I had not seen before. It is an imposing box, all white, with a small hand-crank music box below and several dozen watch faces surrounding the central cockatoo cutout. SFMOMA’s attention to lighting allowed me to notice yet another formal and temporal dimension: the use of shadows, which Cornell considered as integral to the composition and meaning of the work as the lack of hands on the watches. The curatorial intelligence behind this show, put into motion through strong exhibition design, let viewers trace their way through the countless layers in Cornell’s oeuvre.
As mentioned, the thematic organization of eight conceptual units is continued in the catalogue in the form of eight chapters that follow Hartigan’s opening essay, “When Does an Artist Become an Artist?” This seventy-five-page overview has something to offer readers with various levels of familiarity with the artist, while emphasizing the early Cornell, particularly within the cultural context of New York City in the 1920s and 1930s. Hartigan has embraced the role of narrating the life of Cornell, but she has always done so by situating it within the context of the work and the larger historical “box.” In the process, she provides insights into this artist’s project that only someone with decades of experience in the Cornell archive can bring (she is the curatorial force behind the Joseph Cornell Study Center at the Smithsonian American Art Museum [SAAM], though she now directs the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, which was the second venue for the exhibit after SAAM).
The catalogue is a treasure trove of information—from the object notes for the catalogue’s 183 plates to Hartigan’s appendices. The latter includes a “select dual bibliography” consisting of a 152-item bibliography of primary and secondary sources “that reflect the range of discussions and documentation of Cornell’s work to be found during and subsequent to his lifetime” (more than 1,500 resources), along with a bibliography of 150 books from the “approximately 4,000 books, catalogues, and periodicals that Cornell collected, read, annotated, and clipped from” (377). The latter offers a profile of Cornell’s mind that is as delightful as his oeuvre: from Bachelard to Maeterlinck to Simon Weil. Again, the (re)combinations are infinite.
Cornell was the king of remix—he “sampled” from literature, science, religion, psychology. His effort also served as “reminder that simple materials in the hands of an open mind can deliver the ‘charge’ of a person, time, as expressions of the beautiful and fleeting” (83). The artists at Studio Blue have created a visually enticing catalogue that “extends” the Cornell experience through excellent design and layout. There are also “ah ha” moments for readers, akin to those in the exhibition. For me, the doubled profile in Untitled [Recling Nude in Snow] (ca. 1960) is something I noticed studying the plates that I missed looking “live.” The presentation of so much of Cornell’s source materials and images of previously unpublished works gives this catalogue added historical clout within Cornell studies.
Cornell never met a detail he didn’t like, at least when it came to his own highly meticulous process. Navigating the Imagination—as exhibit, as catalogue, and (above all else) as scholarship—is an homage to the artist and his viewers in its absolute attention to those details that inspire and recombine within the moments of lived experience.
Associate Professor, Department of Visual Arts, California State University, Fullerton
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