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Deborah Solomon
Utopia Parkway: The Life
and Work of Joseph Cornell

(Bébé Marie)
early 1940's
All photos from
Utopia Parkway.

Medici Slot Machine

Soap Bubble Set

Taglioni's Jewel Casket

A scene from the movie
Rose Hobart

Deborah Solomon
Photo Jill Krementz
cornell's box of dreams

by Scott Cook

UTOPIA PARKWAY: The Life and Work of Joseph Cornell by Deborah Solomon. From Farrar, Straus and Giroux: New York, 1997, 426 pp., $30.00 hardcover.

Artist's lives are seldom exemplary. Instead of inspiring us to great works, they generally provoke pity or contempt. Their intrigues are petty; their strivings wear us out. Compared with the lives of kings and great patrons, upon whose fortunes their own depend, lives of artists are practically sublunary. What is the life of Rigaud, compared with that of Louis? At best, such chronicles provide us with an amusing store of gossip.

Today's Vasaris are more ambitious. Recent biography of the revelatory type elaborates causal relationships between those easy-to-find traumatic highlights of the individual's life and the works of art, we are asked to believe, that are the end result. This determinism of the flawed, in the skillful hand of Freud, say, produced truly dazzling results. Deborah Solomon's Utopia Parkway, The Life and Work of Joseph Cornell, despite its many merits, is an object lesson in just how wrong you can go with this approach.

That this should be so is especially a pity in the case of Cornell, and nobody will deny he was a "case." Cornell's own life pales before the lives he re-imagined and resurrected. Are not the Taglionis, the Grisis, the Cléo de Mérodes, as recovered in Cornell's famous and now much-appreciated boxes, a thousand times more interesting than the poor soul from Queens? How can we read about Cornell and not about, say, the much more incredible and vivid life of socialite decorator Nancy Lancaster?

What most of us know about Cornell's life, curiously like the long-suffering Hazlitt's, might be written out in longhand on a Post-it note. It is a small, not terribly engaging tableau of a doting, imperious mother, a frail, handicapped brother named Robert on whom Cornell in turn doted, a ruined childhood and a lifetime of pitifully remote attachments to dead ballerinas and living movie stars, the sort of fan-magazine love life that is precisely what one does not want to think about when looking at his mystifyingly serene -- and chic -- creations. But, in Solomon's novelistic biography, the quotidian and the lurid share top billing.

Like other big, fat "art & life" books of recent memory, the purpose of this one is, presumably, the forcible integration of the two. It proposes to make sense of the art by referring to the life. We wish that, still intoxicated from the sheer quantity of anecdotal detail with which Solomon's book is so generously stuffed, the two could have inhabited separate compartments instead of communicating vessels whose contents incessantly intermix. It is only after taking it all in that one's peevishness -- at the relentless reduction performed by one upon the other -- evaporates. Appetite returns, and we are ready for more.

We are desperate to know the color of the placemats at Bickfords and whether the napkins were cloth or paper. We long to inhale the odor of the Bryant Park bums, to watch the pigeons, to be tantalized by the wardrobes of a teeming army of shopgirls and waitresses. If we know the names of a Joanne or a Carolee, why not those of the other "teeners" as well? Having heard de Kooning spout about the "architecture" of Cornell's boxes, we want to know the brand of cigarette he smoked and the precise article of paint-smeared clothing he wore that day. Surely it is to Solomon's credit that, against all expectations, the decor of Cornell's drab existence should become an addiction. Alas, things are not so simple.

Her account of Medici Slot Machine (1942) states her case:

Medici Slot Machine was among the first pieces that Cornell completed in his basement workshop, and if we view the box as an idealized portrait of Robert, we come closer to understanding Cornell's sense of family responsibility and the guilt he may have felt for neglecting his brother as he devoted his full attention to his career.

Well, maybe so. Further on into her suave argument for this approach, she continues, thus:

Cornell's boxes have the quality of coded entries in a diary, and its not clear that he wanted them to be decoded. Perhaps he just wanted us to relish their aura of mystery and label them with words like "hermetic" and "enigmatic," and then sign off. Yet his boxes are not generic fairy tales. They have specific meanings that touch on the events and issues of the artist's day-to-day life, and it does not diminish Cornell to say that he was the most autobiographical of artists, obsessively relating his life story -- or lack of one -- in his work.

This, of course, especially the not quite parenthetical, deftly inserted afterthought, is persuasive, although the author admits that "Some people might find such an interpretation overly literal." True, it is not clear that Cornell wanted his boxes to be decoded in quite this way, but, then, why did he leave all those diaries around if he didn't? Surely Solomon cannot be blamed for reading them, or for declining just to sign off, can she? Well, there it is.

How effortlessly Solomon navigates between the banal and the vulgar is shown in the following passage which begins with this quintessential bit of correspondence:

Cornell reported on a neighborhood birthday party he had recently attended for a girl named Ginger [emphasis mine], where he rapturously consumed, "a swell piece of my own cake and half pieces from the girls' plates after the party. A swell piece of ice cream, too..."

Noting the "compulsiveness" of Cornell's hankering for sweets, Solomon calls our attention to another note "of the period," where Cornell regales his sisters with a bit of bridge and tunnel color:

"You should have been with me yesterday morning in the subway, one stop past Woodside... when two Scotchmen with kilts and carrying bagpipes got on. Full regalia, wing collars, diamond buckles and about the `cleanest' looking individuals I have ever seen; they actually seemed to shine."

Solomon continues, "Cornell recognized in this skirt-wearing twosome what some part of him [emphasis mine] felt he ought to be: a happy creature purged of the grubbiness of male sexuality."

Never at a loss for the bold generalization, Solomon regularly astounds us with such limpid portrayals as the following valentine for Surrealism:

But only the Surrealists, with their knack for self-promotion, could have thought to present themselves as the first men in the history of art to understand the workings of the irrational mind. You would think that depressives from Bosch to Goya had never lived. No artists were ever more self-conscious about the unconscious."

And so on. As unself-conscious as Solomon may be about the unconscious, in her first analysis of the box Cornell made, Untitled (Soap Bubble Set) of 1933, she courageously and unstintingly reduces this object's manifest content to the hydraulic rhythms of the "family romance." In statements such as these, one wonders in which branch of learning she could be said to shine most, psychoanalysis or art history.

"It makes sense that Cornell, who lived in a bubble, should seize on the theme of soap bubbles for his very first shadow box." Further on, in the midst on quite a respected account of Taglioni's Jewel Casket of 1940, the one ballet-related box of the period which, "for this viewer anyway, qualifies as a masterwork," we encountered this striking parallelism, "in much the same way that he was frugal with money, Cornell was retentive with meaning." The somewhat, well, loose application of an anal metaphor to the fledgling artist's work may be an epiphany to some, a giggle for others, but it in no way diminishes the éclat which she signs off on this one, "Put another way, the box contrasts the richness of the European past with the tawdriness of the American present."

This, in a nutshell, is the whole story. Elsewhere, in her discussion of Fortune Telling Parrot (1939), Solomon notes what is (for the viewer anyway), one of the quintessential features of Cornell's art: his resolute belief in his material. Here is Cornell writing gravely to Parker Tyler,

I am trying to finish a fortune telling parrot cage dedicated to Carmen Miranda (did you hear her again last night or have you seen her?)

One can readily imagine Tyler's reaction. As Solomon observes, the piece, though dedicated to Miranda, lacks the least trace of irony....Unlike Tyler and his friends [Tchelichev, Charles Henri Ford et al.], Cornell was too fervent a worshipper of female performers to have any sense of humor about it. That which so amused his friends instead filled Cornell with the ache of yearning.

As for the ache (not as deep as, say, Walt Whitman's), it's there, all right, as securely enthroned in its li'l kingdom as irony is banished forever from its precincts. And it was as much Cornell's unshakable belief, as well as his instinct for Woolworthian tristesse, that enabled him to construct vast and lofty worlds within the confines of a box.

Small as his creations are, there is nothing petty about them; mere littleness is unknown to the miniature universe in which Cornell's soul dwells. And if "the zeal with which he hunts after an old portrait or a piece of broken glass is ten times more entertaining than if it were lavished on another object," there is never, with Cornell, any hint of pleasure taken in the trivial for the trivial's sake, as is the case, for instance, with Hazlitt's Horace Walpole (some of whose pursuits foreshadow Cornell's, with a difference of emphasis only).

Cornell's record-buying sprees in the city and the "windfalls" they produced are affectingly described by Solomon, as she notes, "Cornell's records meant so much to him that sometimes he couldn't bring himself to open them...Like many of Cornell's other collectibles, his records apparently brought him pleasure only in the moments when he first discovered them." Both, on the other hand, bring a certain high seriousness to their respective enterprises -- Walpole being a ravenous and similarly "retentive" collector who did not disdain to create -- whose effect is that of a strangely liberating metamorphosis. It transforms kitsch into something rather like the holy.

Vatic pronouncement such as this one remind us of the Maid of Orléans:

"I heard a voice, and I saw a light."

What else is there? This apparition, Cornell tells us, appeared to him in a pet-shop in Maspeth, Long Island, anchoring it as firmly in the banal as would any film by Robert Bresson. And, oddly enough, it is Solomon's treatment of Cornell's films -- virtually unknown to anyone but the sessile acolytes of the medium -- that provide us with the clearest Pricean picture of the being that was Joseph Cornell.

Cornell was the original artist without means. He could not paint; he could not draw. Speaking of Rose Hobart, the primordial American compilation film, Solomon observes, "He may be the only moviemaker ever who had no idea how to operate a movie camera." Her account of Cornell's engaging Stan Brakhage as a cameraman for his movie about the demise of the Third Avenue El, Gnir Rednow, evokes the comedy of a filmmaker who refused to film, asking the future giant of the "New America Cinema" to do his shooting for him. This cult of ineptitude is high-fantastical. It is the essence of Cornell, and shows us with marvelous indirection how close he is to such diverse personalities as Wilde, Duchamp, and Warhol, without all the fuss of chapter and verse.

Unsatisfied with Brakhage's work, Cornell appropriated it as he had the footage of East of Borneo which became Rose Hobart; after 12 years of Cornellian rumination, he reclaimed it by showing it backwards and upside down. Brakhage's appreciation of Cornell is unique: "I know this will sound preposterous, but I think Cornell's contribution to the art of film far exceeds anything he did in any of his boxes or his collages." Preposterous? Not necessarily. At any rate, one sees Cornell quite clearly through his experiment with film and his frustration with what to him made the most transparent of mediums as recalcitrant as a block of stone. Often he put aside footage he was discouraged to edit. A diary entry reads, "No matter how much might be taken on film... there is always something the camera cannot catch." Art lacks the fullness of life. This was Cornell's oft-repeated complaint. How could he catch it?

Nothing could be more touchingly to the point than Solomon's observation that "Cornell, of course, always preferred staying at home and dreaming about performers" than actually going to see them perform. The story about Audrey Hepburn's bewildered rebuff when presented with a box by poor Joseph, and the latter's subsequent depression and retreat into his "past" imaginary romance with the 19th-century ballerina, Fanny Cerrito, rekindled once more in mid-life crisis, is illustrative of the wheels within wheels that drove the way-back machine of Cornell's life inexorably backward.

Like Walpole's correspondent, the antiquarian Thomas Cole, for whatever mysterious reason Cornell lived most comfortably in the past, among his cherished, long-dead female companions. "I ... hope," wrote Cole in 1765, "by the latter end of the week to be among my admired friends of the 12th or 13th century." Cornell, unfortunately, had no such like-minded individual with whom to share his peculiar enthusiasms. If he had, he might not have been the artist that he was, or one at all, which is, perhaps, what Solomon has been saying all along. To her credit, it is both the sheer quantity of the ore that Solomon has mined as well as the sudden glittering insights such riches yield up to the attentive (if not retentive) reader that are the principal joys of this very amusing book.

SCOTT COOK writes on art, films and video.