Joseph Cornell (1903-72) regularly traveled from his mother’s house in Queens to dusty Manhattan shops to seek out chipped glassware, yellowed prints, tired toys, and other nostalgic detritus ripe for the metaphysical transformations found in his box assemblages. In his diaries, Cornell spoke of “sparkings,” serendipitous convergences of object, color, light, and maybe an attractive girl glimpsed through a bookstore window—the artist had a bright eye for ballerina-style physiques. Such simple inspirations seemed to orbit in his memory like erratic moons until he fixed them in beautiful juxtapositions that smolder with enigmatic drama. In Constellation Variant (1955-58), a brass ring and a print of a dour child have been suspended next to a toy sun smiling out from clotted whitewash; a broken soap-bubble pipe lies along the bottom of this small box, everything connected by wavering arcs radiating from the sun. These mundane objects journey from a playroom of the mind to the vast attic of the cosmos. Cornell’s best boxes are as limitless as dreams.
The six other artists in this box-motif show are well situated in the penumbra of Cornell’s weird beauty. The magic-realist painter Pierre Roy (1880–1950) depicted such items as wineglasses, fake butterflies, and little stones inside trompe l’oeil wooden frames, which perhaps influenced Cornell’s poignant constructions. Lucas Samaras’s 1965 container of cascading hair and drafting compasses ensnared by webs of fishing line seems a brooding homage to the master. More recently, Ted Victoria has employed lights, motors, and mirrors to project images of paper cups and other banalities onto the surface of his shadow boxes, ragged animations that dovetail with Cornell’s detritus aesthetic.
Although less well known, Cornell’s 2-D collages also bear scrutiny. Penny Arcade (circa 1960) could be read as an elder demonstrating to a young upstart how to achieve grace and impact with minimal fuss: Stenciled blue numbers that might be moonlighting from a Jasper Johns painting hover over the yellowed silhouette and lightly traced outlines of a rocking horse. Just below, a zinc penny on a coarse white ground provides the fulcrum for this small collage’s astonishingly vibrant rhythm.
The assemblages that emerged from the basement on Utopia Parkway recall the moment in Citizen Kane when Mr. Bernstein muses about a young woman he’d glimpsed half a century earlier: “A white dress she had on. She was carrying a white parasol. I only saw her for one second. She didn’t see me at all, but I’ll bet a month hasn’t gone by since that I haven’t thought of that girl.” Cornell is our curator of memories, combining their clarity and slippages into masterpieces of Yankee surrealism.
Mondays-Fridays, 10 a.m. Starts: Dec. 3. Continues through Jan. 10, 2008
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on November 26, 2008