Boxing the City

Gaby Wood

  • Utopia Parkway: The Life and Work of Joseph Cornell by Deborah Solomon
    Cape, 426 pp, £25.00, June 1997, ISBN 0 224 04242 4

He was Primarily an archivist, but an archivist of a world that didn’t exist. He was a compulsive collector, a browser, cross-indexer. When he died the basement where he worked was full of cardboard boxes marked with labels like ‘stamps’, ‘maps’, ‘Dürer’, ‘plastic shells’, ‘glasses’, ‘cording’. He left a diary, which he called a ‘repository laboratory, picture gallery, museum, sanctuary, observatory, key’. And he left his art, wooden cabinets filled with what he considered to be the most felicitous combinations of those objects and images: photos of Lauren Bacall arranged to look as if they could be in a penny arcade, a Renaissance prince framed in a vending machine, a baby doll in a forest of twigs, a painted lady in a French hotel, marbles among the stars and ballerinas in the sky – each box a dreamed universe or fantasised cohabitation.

Joseph Cornell spent most of his life at 3708 Utopia Parkway in Queens, a plain middle-class house where he lived with his widowed mother and his younger brother Robert, who suffered from cerebral palsy. He was known in the neighbourhood as a loner who collected odds and ends, as a silent member of the Christian Science Church, as a ‘scary kook’, as a haunted-looking man who was friendly to children. One visitor to Utopia Parkway recalls seeing a little girl walking across the lawn towards Cornell. She was holding one of his boxes. ‘I’m tired of this one,’ she said. ‘Can I have another?’ Cornell, who was usually self-paralysingly sensitive to criticism, calmly wandered off to exchange her box. Some critics have suggested that he started making his shadow boxes to amuse Robert, or that he was influenced by the miniaturised life of Robert’s train set. Deborah Solomon finds no evidence for this, though it appears that the meals Joseph made for Robert ‘always consisted of the most incredible colours ... He used to squeeze violets on top of mushroom soup to make it lilac-coloured.’ If he had not seen some Max Ernst collages on his wanderings about Manhattan and decided to cut up his collected photostats on the kitchen table, Cornell might have been known only to Utopia locals.

Although he left traces of his scattered preoccupations in diaries and ‘dossiers’, it is clear that Solomon has had to do a good deal of digging to get anywhere near the day-today life of her terminally private subject. She has conducted what must be hundreds of interviews over several years, and the book is full of facts, a solid account of the wheres and whens. But perhaps Utopia Parkway’s most unusual feat is its most unassuming: Solomon doesn’t need the different parts of her subject’s character to add up. She has a warm reverence for the man who thought biographical details should remain ‘in the realm of lore and legend’, and she tells his life as a convoluted fairy tale which mostly took place within Cornell’s own mind. But she is not afraid to let him come across as unpleasant, doesn’t rush to excuse him. There was more than a touch of the dirty old man about him: he used, for example, to leer at teenagers from what he called a ‘ringside seat’ at the window of a coffee shop. Solomon presents the evidence of his fascinations coolly, leaving the reader to wonder what to make of the pieces of the person. There is an untold story lurking between the cracks of his gifts to the women he admired. Or perhaps the only way to tell the story is as Solomon does, to let it seep through the cracks. In the year he died, Cornell remembered that he sent one of his boxes to a starlet called Sheree North, but never heard from her. When Audrey Hepburn gave a performance as Ondine in New York in 1954, he sent her one of his owl boxes in tribute. She had it sent back to his home. Tilly Losch, the international good-time girl, and a recipient of Cornell’s object-gestures, had to ask her friend Robert Motherwell whether ‘this mad, distant suitor was for real or not’. Solomon’s narration is so calm, so objective, that it is only at moments like these that there is a sudden swerve in point of view. One wonders whose version this is, and if there might be another, if only Audrey Hepburn had remembered what she thought when she received the voodoo-like gift. Cornell wanted to give his boxes to women because he felt, as Solomon writes, ‘they could understand their purity of spirit.’ His friend Dore Ashton wasn’t sure that he ‘exactly’ saw himself as an artist but felt there was ‘considerable reason to believe that he saw himself as a magician. On occasion he hinted that what he made could transform the right recipient.’ One woman had a more tangibly unpleasant time. Pat Johanson, whom he hired as his assistant in 1961, became afraid of him when she sensed that he only wanted to look at her. After finding several copies of Playboy lying open on the worktable in the basement, she shuddered at the sight of the ‘shoeboxes filled with little pink plastic dolls from Woolworth’s, with arms in one box and legs in another and torsos in another’, and left the same day.

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