Where have all the Cornell boxes gone?

There is a wonderful Joseph Cornell box at the New Jersey State Museum on view in its “American Perspectives” exhibition. From the 1950s, it is a classic, with a rough brown wood box framing a planetary orb balanced on a wire. Other elliptical shapes add to the celestial theme — Cornell (1903-1972) loved to incorporate elements of astronomy and signs of the Zodiac. A conch shell and broken wine glass add to the sense of mystery.

“I believe Cornell is unique in the canon of American art,” says Margaret O’Reilly, the museum’s curator of fine art. “Although he was inspired by the work of Max Ernst, Cornell himself was not a Surrealist, although he is often defined that way.

“Now considered important works of symbolist art, the elements of theater and wonder at the world are found in nearly all his oeuvre,” continues O’Reilly. “While the scale of the works make them appear intimate, they reveal an expansive world view, yet very little that is personal about the artist. I believe he was exploring and containing the world outside his own somewhat reclusive existence.”

A quest to find additional collages and shadow box constructions of the pioneer of the art of assemblage turned up little in central New Jersey. A lifelong New Yorker, Joseph Cornell’s only connection to the Garden State may be that he obtained film footage from a New Jersey warehouse that he spliced together for his found film montages.

The Princeton University Art Museum has two prints by Cornell in its collection, with no immediate plans to exhibit them. But last year’s major Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948) retrospective got us thinking about Cornell. Dadaist Schwitters took the concept of collage and assemblage, established as a modern art form by Picasso and Braques, and “synthesized different strands of influence — cubism, expressionism, futurism, and dada — (in his) use of found objects,” said Kelly Baum, curator of modern and contemporary art, at the time of the exhibition.

Like Schwitters, Cornell used found objects to create poetry, and whereas Schwitters used discarded objects, Cornell used fragments of what he considered precious objects.

Although he exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in his lifetime, Cornell preferred to exhibit in “less pretentious” venues such as schools; he especially wanted children to see his boxes, and to touch them. For him, childhood represented the idyllic past.

For those craving a bit more of Cornell’s idiosyncratic universe, the Philadelphia Museum of Art is presenting an installation of rarely shown objects from its collection, as well as private collectors, through February. It has been paired with the exhibition “Dancing Around the Bride: Cage, Cunningham, Johns, Rauschenberg, and Duchamp,” because of the connection between Cornell and Duchamp.

During the years of their friendship, Cornell assisted Duchamp in assembling a series of editioned works, very likely including the specific version of Duchamp’s “Box in a Valise” (1935-43), on display here. Also on view is Cornell’s “Duchamp Dossier,” a lidded cardboard box containing an original work by Duchamp given to Cornell along with typed and handwritten notes, letters, postcards, exhibit announcements, and other documents collected from their friendship and correspondence.

There is an altered book by Cornell, “Untitled Book Object (Journal d’Agriculture Pratique et Journal de l’Agriculture,),” starting with a modern farming manual, published in 1911 in France, that has been transformed and manipulated with foldings, cutouts, and insertions of drawings and objects, including a picture of the Mona Lisa embracing pharmacy bottles and a bed pan.

Cornell had an astute collector’s eye, finding nuanced ephemera everywhere from newsstands and shops to second-hand markets in New York City. Boxes of sewing notions, bones, stones, shards of glass, postcards, small containers, labels, dolls, matchboxes, tree bark, and balls appealed to him. Some of these were similar to the childhood trinkets his mother would bring him after her trips to New York. Throughout his career he assembled these into “dossiers,” using notebooks, suitcases, and boxes.

Those balls often became planetary bodies, such as in a box construction titled “Sandbox,” in which a silver ball bearing appears to be the Pluto to a larger ring. The blue sand in the box forms concentric circles, suggesting orbit in a night sky.

Cornell was a stargazer and collected astronomic maps and zodiac illustrations. One of his constellation boxes, similar to the one at the State Museum has a blue orb suspended on two wires, from which dangles a gold bracelet (Saturn’s ring?) against a Zodiac background. Broken shards of mirror also line the inside of the box, reflecting a mysterious white plaster assemblage.

One of Cornell’s favorite childhood memories was visiting Luna Park in Coney Island, where visitors took “A Simulated Trip to the Moon.”

A Christian Scientist, he looked to the heavens for relief. Cornell sometimes put the orbs inside glass bottles, perhaps bottling the universe for medicine.

Critic Holland Cotter has called Cornell “a poet of light; an architect of memory-fractured rooms; a connoisseur of stars, celestial and otherwise, an archivist of time.”

He also archived birds and some of his boxes appear to be cages for them. They are like dioramas, a humorous take-off on something you would see in a science museum. In 1949-’50 he had an exhibit at the Egan Gallery in New York, “Aviary by Joseph Cornell,” with wall-mounted lattice supports for bird-related objects. In one untitled construction of a woodpecker habitat, he combined birds and spheres.

Julien Levy’s gallery was a premier venue for modern art, especially photography, and in 1932 Cornell was included in a surrealism exhibit there. He had access to daguerreotypes and albumin silver prints that became fodder for his own work. He obtained portraits of bygone stars, such as Mina Loy by Man Ray, and used it in a 1938 work, “Imperious Jewelry of the Universe.”

Cornell made portable shrines for all the stars he grew smitten with. He never married nor had a sustained relationship, but developed numerous crushes.

Born in Nyack, New York, Cornell’s father was a textile designer and merchant who carved wood boats and furniture in his leisure time. His mother had been trained as a kindergarten teacher. They lived in a large gothic revival mansion with two pianos. It was assumed that his sister was the one with artistic talent. While she was sent to study art with Edward Hopper, Joseph would escape for long stretches with his books. Cornell attended Philips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, but did not graduate.

When Cornell’s father died in 1917, the wealthy family fell on hard times and moved to a basement on Utopia Parkway in Queens, New York. Bashful and somewhat reclusive, he helped his mother to care for his younger brother, who was disabled with cerebral palsy. In his late 20s, Cornell taught himself art, but rather than drawing and painting, he cut up bits of paper and ephemera. It was the era of movies, and he was more influenced by the vaudeville theater his family attended (the family was less inclined to visit art museums).

Seeing Harry Houdini perform, his imagination was stoked by magic and vanishing. Whereas Houdini escaped from boxes, Cornell would escape into boxes.

He also worked as a textile and graphic designer and sold fabric and appliances to make ends meet. It was only after the show at the Egan Gallery that he could earn a living from his art.

Later in his career, Cornell made “readymade” films without touching a camera. These have been described as moving collages.

Today, many artists, including Rauschenberg, are indebted to Cornell. The artists exhibited in the neighboring exhibit, “Dancing Around the Bride,” “developed chance-based strategies to create work emphasizing art’s relationship to life,” according to exhibition text. Cornell’s compositions rely on the surrealist technique of irrational juxtaposition. “Cornell’s works are maps of the imagination, where connections among the most disparate things and ideas are drawn according to the imperious rules of memory and desire,” says Anna Vallye, postdoctoral curatorial fellow at Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Collages and Constructions by Joseph Cornell, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Benjamin Franklin Parkway at 26th Street, Philadelphia. On view through February.

Dancing Around the Bride: Cage, Cunningham, Johns, Rauschenberg, and Duchamp, Philadelphia Museum of Art. On view through January 21, 2013. www.philamuseum.org.

Joseph Cornell’s “The Earth’s Spin Box,” a construction from the 1950s, can be seen in the American Perspectives exhibit of works from the permanent collection at the New Jersey State Museum, 205 West State Street, Trenton. www.nj.gov/state/museum.

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