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.

Though much has been written about Cornell’s work, there is no more extensive or detailed account anywhere of his life. There are memoirs and biographical essays that strike a more personal note, and since Solomon’s book contains only poor black and white reproductions of his work, an illustrated accompaniment is fairly indispensable. The best, and most engagingly fanciful, of the memoirs is Dore Ashton’s An Album for Joseph Cornell. MoMA’s Joseph Cornell, edited by Kynaston McShine, contains a very good selection of essays on various aspects of his life and work, and beautiful reproductions. Other avenues into the enchantments of Cornell’s life and thoughts are his selected diaries, Joseph Cornell’s Theatre of the Mind, edited by Mary Ann Caws, and Charles Simic’s prose poems, an inspired labour of love called Dime Store Alchemy.

Cornell’s life as an artist began the day he showed his Ernst-inspired collages to Julien Levy, whose gallery brought Surrealism to America. Levy asked Cornell to design the announcement for his first Surrealist exhibition. That same year, 1932, Levy gave him a one-man show, where he exhibited tiny trinkets in bell-jars, and customised pillboxes. Two associations not altogether favourable to Cornell arose from the show. One was with Surrealism itself, a movement he maintained he never joined; though he admired the Surrealists and was clearly influenced by them, he would later note in his virginal way that the concept had ‘healthier possibilities than have been developed’. Solomon has a broader reason to claim him from Surrealism: he was a solitary man who worked on the margins of so many movements that he was able to influence art dramatically different from his own. Mark Rothko admired ‘the uncanny magic’ of the things he made. You could also say that in his work the blarings of Pop were quietly anticipated. Solomon makes a persuasive argument for Cornell as ‘the most undervalued of American artists’.

The second association, about whose detrimental effect Solomon is quite stern, was with toys. Julien Levy advertised Cornell’s work as ‘toys for adults’, and the critics followed suit. ‘Very simple, very strange, very chic’, read one review. The association continued. Later shows were described as ‘a holiday toyshop of art’ and ‘the playthings of aristocrats from another world’. In Solomon’s view, the idea of toys for adults ‘disfigures’ Cornell’s work. ‘We cannot, of course, take this notion seriously if we are to take Cornell seriously,’ she writes. ‘To see him as a glorified toy-maker is to miss the astounding artistry of his work.’ She is right to see that the critics’ remarks were meant to be disparaging, and the association with toy-making can’t have helped Cornell’s artistic reputation. But to eliminate the possibility of his being, among other things, a maker of toys is to miss one of the key elements of his work. Many of his boxes were designed to be played with, as you would with a slot machine. A marble could be dropped in one corner and would ring bells until it zigzagged to the bottom. Others are conceptual playthings, based on the idea of the remains of a toy; Forgotten Game is the title of one box made to look ruined. Even those which have no apparent mechanisms for play, past or present, can be played with (as Cornell’s young neighbour showed), or look like they have been played with. However arduous he found the process of putting the right pieces together – there is evidence in his diaries that he was often tormented by the exercise – the boxes in their final state always seem to have play as one of their ingredients. They are a natural reflection of the way he lived his life – of his belief that children were ‘the royalty of the universe’, his memories of Coney Island, his wanderings about New York, his obsession with this or that actress, his mania for collecting. ‘My work,’ he said, ‘was a natural outcome of love for the city.’ Dore Ashton remembers that he would call his boxes ‘poetic enactments, verbal bibelots, static theatre – anything but mere works of visual art’. Cornell had a lifetime of training for this not-art.

He was born on Christmas Eve 1903 in Nyack, New York, and died in 1972 on Utopia Parkway, less than forty miles away. His father was a travelling salesman for a textile firm, his mother the granddaughter of one of Nyack’s wealthiest citizens. He had two younger sisters quite close to him in age; Robert was seven years his junior. The Cornell family outings of Joseph’s youth would be revisited over and over in his mind until his death. He saw Houdini at the Hippodrome and sirens in a water tank. He played in the penny arcades at Coney Island and whizzed down water slides at Luna Park. He was transfixed by ‘the magic of the lights’ around Times Square, an area which became a future stamping-ground. He would for ever associate the cinema with the nickelodeons and kinetoscopes of these early days, and could always derive more in the way of fantasy from a coin-op (whether fortunetelling booth or chewing-gum dispenser) than from the work of his predecessors in art. As it happened, his sister Elizabeth was thought to be the artistic member of the family. She was sent to take painting classes with Edward Hopper, the son of the man who owned the local dry goods store. Joseph preferred to stay at home, immersed in Hans Christian Andersen or the Brothers Grimm.

The nostalgia Cornell had for the amusements of his youth, and the reverence with which he incorporated them into his work, give the impression of an idyllic childhood. In fact, his father, the man who inspired his love of vaudeville and magic, died of leukaemia in 1917. Cornell was sent to Andover that year, where he became an awkward, withdrawn student, concerned that he ought to be working to support his mother. Solomon suggests that the events of his childhood ‘perhaps matter less than the dream he was spinning in response’. Certainly there were anticipations of his later reveries. He once staged a show in the barn at home, for which he mocked up a ticket entitling the bearer to ‘Candy’ and a ‘Relic Museum’. On his holidays from Andover he would collect jars made of Sandwich Glass (reproduced in many shadow boxes). When he left school in 1921, he joined his family where they had settled in Bayside, Queens. Because of the new film studios in nearby Astoria, W.C. Fields, Gloria Swanson and Buster Keaton all lived within walking distance of the Cornell home. That there were stars close by gave him a thrill (D.W. Griffith once took a break from filming to explain the plot to Robert, a keen spectator), but they had to be sealed off by a screen or by silence to be adored. What Cornell loved about silent film, he wrote in 1942, was its power to ‘evoke an ideal world of beauty, to release unsuspected floods of music from the gaze of a human countenance in its prison of silver light’. Sound, when it came, was for him ‘an empty roar’. He must have found the new proximity unbearable, his arm’s-length idols bursting loudly out of their silver prison.

Cornell himself made an important contribution to avant-garde film, mainly by influencing younger directors who worked with him (Larry Jordan, Stan Brakhage), since he made very few films. He never held a camera, but directed others to film what he had in mind, then asked them to take full credit. He also left a few instructions for the re-editing of some of his earlier films, though editing was what he could do. As of 1936, Cornell made 17 short collage films, the first and most complete of which is Rose Hobart, a re-editing of a 1931 Hollywood talkie called East of Borneo. Cornell scrambled the compulsory Hollywood fluidity, taking out all connecting shots and logical progressions, inserted bits of scientific footage, and projected it through a blue filter at silent speed. His film collages, like his paper collages, were inspired by his collector’s habit. He used to screen movies at home for Robert, mostly French trick films by filmmakers like Méliès and Zecca – his own films, too, play radically with tricks of editing and projection. He later said he liked ‘certain parts of L’Age d’Or ... as well as anything that I could ever see in Méliès’. Again, his interests coincided with those of the Surrealists, this time to fairly crushing effect. Cornell might have made more films, and might have been less wary of showing those he made, had Salvador Dalí not stormed out of a screening of Rose Hobart in a jealous rage, thinking Cornell must have stolen an idea of his.

By the Thirties, Cornell had one of the largest collections of film stills in individual hands, and sometimes loaned them to exhibitions. His fandom was his true apprenticeship. The list of his heroes runs from Nerval and Mallarmé to the Romantic ballerinas Carlotta Grisi and Fanny Cerrito to Hedy Lamarr and Lauren Bacall. He had files on Saint-Exupéry and Debussy, he left marked copies of Borges and Rimbaud in his collection. He once told an interviewer that seeing Fanny Cerrito on top of the Manhattan Storage Warehouse on 52nd Street had changed his life. His fascination with this 19th-century ballerina spanned several decades and inspired multiple boxes. His ‘sightings’ of Cerrito in the summer of 1940, when he was working as a designer at Ethel Traphagen’s textile studio, were like religious visitations. Once, at about five o’clock, he looked up from his desk towards the building opposite. A uniformed guard passed by every evening to close the windows: that night the guard had been replaced by Fanny Cerrito, who glided by and appeared to Cornell in each window frame as she went.

On leaving school he became a textile salesman, like his father. He never sold much: he hated his encounters with customers, and though a puny man, had to cart his sample trunk through the streets. His only consolation was to scour the bookstores on Fourth Avenue, a favourite being one which sold theatrical memorabilia. After the Depression (and after his first two exhibitions) Cornell left for Traphagen’s, where he found the work no more inspiring. He held other nine-to-five jobs – defence work during the war assembling and testing radio controls, a job in a garden centre – until 1945, when he felt that he could support himself on his art and artwork for magazines alone.

It’s hard to imagine Cornell having an ordinary job at all, since his working days as a dreamy New York flâneur barely leave time for one, and read something like art works in themselves – continuations of, or precursors to, whatever not-art he thought he was making. His boxes were only the best known result of his working life. André Breton repeatedly said that the Surrealists were not trying to make art, they were trying to revolutionise life. Life, Breton claimed, was the pursuit of adventure ‘dans le langage, dans la rue, ou dans le rêve’. Though Cornell separated himself from the Surrealists, it may be that he beat them, however unintentionally, at their own game. While he was cutting out constellation maps to line his boxes, he was also tracing his own constellations in his favourite routes around the Manhattan grid. As he was thinking of ways to make his boxes look like games or slot machines, he was inventing his own sort of living board-game, making stops in bookstores and five and dimes, and rewarding himself with lunch from an automat. His regular haunts were the automats on 11th Ave & 50th St, one on 86th St, Grand Central Station, the Graybar Building, Times Square, Bryant Park, the 4th Ave bookstalls, Union Square, Canal Street, Chinatown. There is even something magical about his ability to live until the age of 69 on the diet of a spoilt child. On a typical day in 1946, for example, he would eat a few doughnuts, caramel pudding, cocoa, white bread, peanut butter, peach jam, a Milky Way, some chocolate eclairs, half a dozen sweet buns, a peach pie, a cake with icing, and a prune twist. One art dealer who tried to woo him over lunch was slightly taken aback when Cornell asked with some trepidation if he could just have an ice-cream soda.

His love life was just as much a prelude or accompaniment to his work. He died a virgin, unable to do anything that might taint his dreams, even if his dreams were of less than perfect women. His first love was the ticket-seller at the Bayside Motion Picture Theatre. He had seen her behind glass every time he went to the movies and when he finally plucked up the courage to give her some flowers he was so brusque the girl mistook the flowers for a gun and called the manager, who beat him up. In his sixties Cornell developed a crush on a waitress at the Strand Food coffee shop behind the New York Public Library, and would sit for hours while she put more coins in the jukebox at his request. She herself was like one of his boxes, high and low combined, a Tom Waits figure in a Nerval imagination. She was high in another way, too, and Cornell gave her money to feed her child and her habit. When she stole several of his boxes he refused to press charges. She was found murdered at the end of that year. Cornell was inconsolable, and said many times that he wanted to help ‘victims of drug addiction’.

A diary entry from 1944 shows how Cornell’s days and his obsessions, his finished and unfinished work, combined.

On way to ART OF THIS CENTURY from Julien’s, carrying De Medici girl Slot Machine & bird with cracked glass saw Marlene Dietrich in polo coat and black beanie cap on back of hair waiting at curb of Jay Thorpe’s for a taxi. First time I’d seen her off screen and brought an unexpectedly elated feeling. Working in cellar that night on Soap Bubble Set the green glass locket portrait of her on the floor evoked very special feelings.

Cornell was inspired to make his Medici Slot Machine by a new chewing-gum dispenser he had spotted in the subway. When he used part of his ‘dossier’ on Lauren Bacall to make his Penny Arcade Portrait of Lauren Bacall, his intention was to make ‘a portrait of a machine’. He exhibited the dossier – photographs, fan magazines, plans and notes – with the box, and in it he describes with careful eloquence the nature of his fantasy:

One might assemble, assort and arrange into a cabinet – the contraption kind of the amusement resorts with endless ingenuity of effect – worked by coin and plunger, or brightly coloured pinballs – travelling inclined runways – starting in motion compartment after compartment with a symphony of mechanical magic of sight and sound borrowed from the motion picture art – into childhood – into fantasy – through the streets of New York – through tropical skies – etc etc – into the receiving tray the balls come to rest releasing prizes as the honky-tonk piano-tinkling of the ‘Hong Kong Blues’ fades out.

Cornell’s ‘revolutionised’ life – his wanderings, his collecting, his observations and his jottings – was not enough. He needed to do something with it all. In a letter to Marianne Moore he wrote: ‘there seems to be such a complexity, a sort of endless “cross-indexing” of detail (intoxicatingly rich) in connection with what and how I feel that I never seem to come to the point of doing anything about it.’ He usually did do something about it – turned what and how he felt into a box or a collage. At the same time the struggle of that conversion overflowed into his work. Looking at a lot of it at once can be dizzying, because of the miniaturisation and confinement – intricate collages made from Victorian engravings, tiny things enclosed in glass-covered cases – and also because of its repetitive proliferation: endless attempts at the perfect configuration of tiny glass jars, the same cut-out parrot on different backgrounds, rows of marbles arranged in compartments only slightly different from each other. After a while, you get the rather uncomfortable feeling that an anxious investment has been made in each object, something like an overwhelming will to turn experience into thing. If Cornell’s work is a natural outcome of his love for the city, these boxes can’t just symbolise the city: they must be the city, they must be a worthy receptacle for whatever happened during the day.

Many critics have tried to force Cornell’s boxes into symbolism, and certainly the odd conjunctions – a portrait of a Renaissance prince flanked by numbers from a lotto game with real jacks in a slot underneath him, for example – make that tempting. But he himself would always reject these interpretations. ‘How does one know what a certain object will tell another?’ he would say. Another reason the boxes resist symbolism might be that they are at the wrong end of the symbolic equation. They can’t lead anywhere because they have already come from somewhere. The objects are the thing they mean to be, they are the final, endlessly studied summing-up of an experience, the concrete remains of a moment in time. The jacks, the rubber balls, the fanzine photos and coin-op workings are literal; metonyms rather than metaphors, disturbing distillations. If the objects are to take the viewer anywhere, it must be backwards; they are remnants always, never invitations or incitements. Cornell the archivist used real objects to document a world that wasn’t real. But in his boxes he did not simply transform real objects into parts of an imaginary world, he saw those objects as already having been in the world he imagined. When he found them, he recognised them: they were littered treasures, fragments of his own platonic vision waiting to be collected.

Which is why what he left behind in the way of cardboard-boxed minutiae was as much a part of his work as the wooden-boxed formulations. In his cabinets or dossiers the detective work is usually left to the viewer, but sometimes Cornell would invent a story to match the thing. In his ‘valise construction’ (files, collages, photos, a calligram), Portrait of Berenice, he offers the following provenance for a piece of ribbon. He sees a young girl in a bright red coat getting off the subway. She passes right in front of his house, ‘kicking the leaves out of her way’, stops, and ‘all of a sudden’ produces a ‘piece of light violet silk ... from a brown bag’ which she examines for a long time: ‘After she was on her way, under the pretext of going in another direction I was able to go back and retrieve a thread.’