"Joseph Cornell: Habitations of Reverie," Oct. 30, 2002-Jan. 18, 2003, at Allan Stone Gallery, 113 East 90th Street, New York, N.Y. 10128
Visiting the recent exhibition of Joseph Cornell's work at the Allan Stone Gallery in New York City, one cannot help but want to touch, to play, to see how things work and move, to be fully entranced by a mysterious object's self-sufficient presence. Toys, games, collages and Cornell's famous box constructions -- in all over 30 objects -- were gathered from private collections, including that of Allan Stone, whose gallery has long supported Cornell's work.
The exhibition's scale is small enough to be intimate, yet large enough to indicate the range of Cornell's work and his recurrent motifs. Accompanied by an exquisite catalogue, the show features such iconic constructions as Cornell's spatially accumulative Untitled (Windows) from the 1940s, proto-Minimalist works like Grand Hotel-Hotel Taglioni (1954) or Untitled (Medici Princess) (1948). Described equally as a poet, Yankee trader and "crazy" by Allan Stone in the catalogue's introduction, in this exhibition Cornell again reveals himself to have been a master of reverie and metaphor.
Cornell offers curiosity cabinets that beckon us to examine their strange functions and contents, yet are enclosed and prohibit the engaged play that seems to define those very objects. Throughout his work, Cornell evokes a reverie of childhood, yet there is also the denial of the possibility of fully retrieving that moment of child's play. The glass front of his boxes, as in Soap Bubble Set (1960), allows our gaze, but only our gaze, to access the objects within -- a pipe, solar ball, glass, butterfly stamp and orbital map -- all objects a child might have collected and set into mysterious correspondence.
Cornell gives us a glimpse of childhood, but maintains the impossibility of return: childhood becomes a preserve of fragments. An untitled construction from 1950 exemplifies this reverie of childhood, with its exotic stamps, broken glass and pipe, and a drawer with starfish. However, Sand Fountain from the 1950's suggests a certain violence, for its golden sand has spilled from a jagged glass; to leave childhood is the fundamental rupture, for it is at that moment loss is realized and time is enunciated. Metaphorically, the space and time reverie seeks to recollect are sealed off from our experience -- these are constructions of lost time and the losses of time.
Among Cornell's central motifs found here, most notable are his constructions that allude to constellations and their narratives of myth, such as the wonderful Jupiter in Pisces (1958), Untitled (for Tina) from 1960, or Cassiopeia #3, and the constructions of aviaries such as the 1948 Untitled (Bird Habitat) or the 1950 White Cockatoo. The play between the expansive and the microcosmic are hallmarks of Cornell's constructions. In the box construction Untitled (for Tina) Cornell combines star-fish and constellations to compress scale. The interstellar blue painted background of Jupiter and Pisces creates a dramatic illusory space before which floats a lunar orb. Fragments of printed star-maps allude to the celestial expanses, archival sources, the possibilities of navigation and powers of transformation where points of light coalesce into figures. Fairfield Porter compared these cosmological boxes to a ship's cabin where "the view out the window is the stars, the constellations, which, as abstractions of the stars, are constructions of the human spirit."
If the constructions allude to the celestial and notions of transcendence, offering metaphors for the imagination's possibilities, Cornell's aviaries, bird habitats and cockatoo series suggest the constraints of imaginative flights. His use of the cut-out cockatoo suggests both the exotic -- a souvenir from some far-flung navigation -- as well as the mass-produced fancy. Less allusive perhaps than Cornell's celestial boxes, the aviaries, cockatoo and bird habitats tend to be brilliantly white, spare constructions, often with partial grids suggesting entrapment or captivity.
In White Cockatoo, a string tethers the lightly blanched bird cutout to its perch. Behind it, as though a record of desire or memory, is a clipping of a newspaper ad for hotel rooms in Florence. While the box may hold the cosmos, it may also be the imagination's cage, or a room of ambivalent solitude.
Less well-known are Cornell's toy-like objects: bottles with sand-paintings, pocket-sized boxes and the various "sandboxes." The earliest of these objects in the show dates from1939; they include a cut-out book with a silver spoon in its compartment is a silver spoon, a celestial pocket-watch, a game-box and a spiral game under a bell-glass. Here we see perhaps Cornell's closest approach to European Surrealism's penchant for hermeticism. These are games without rules or instructions, purely ironic and, oddly, distant from childhood reverie.
In comparison, Cornell's magnificent 1948 Untitled (Medici Princess) combines elements from his games -- hidden compartments, balls, blocks and spiraling watch springs -- yet also evinces an understanding that reverie is nostalgic and accumulative, and as such the locus of desire and loss. The gaze of the princess confronts ours, testing our own voyeurism. The replication of images, including the princess' own, underscores the elegiac quality of desire.
Perhaps more than any other visual artist, Joseph Cornell is beloved for the poetry of his work, which combines elements of physical construction, dream and expansive metaphoric play. Octavio Paz has called Cornell's constructions, "Monuments to every moment. . . cages for infinity." And like poems, each of Cornell's works is autonomous. Writing on Cornell's work, John Ashbery has stated that each work has "its own natural laws and its climate: the thing in its thingness; revealed not commented on; and with its own ambience intact."
Like poems, Cornell's works are meticulously crafted, built from the fragments of other objects, but also homemade. Cornell's work remains fresh and inventive; as we approach the centenary of Cornell's birth, this show reminds us of Cornell's singularity, and in each work the intimacy of the cosmos.
JAMES MCCORKLE is a poet and essayist; his book of poems, Evidences, is forthcoming from Copper Canyon Press in 2003.