Joseph Cornell: Wanderlust

Discovered Cornell by way of the documentary about Yayoi Kusama and immediately needed to know more. I grabbed both this catalog and a biography about him (Utopia Parkway by Deborah Solomon, which I gave up in disgust after 100 pages of her assumptions and mean-spirited comments about Cornell’s mother). The essays in this are excellent, especially that by Sarah Lea, and the extensive photographs of his work will stun you into silence. He was a man living in 20th century New York as well as 19th century Europe, despite never having traveled far from NYC. The basic facts of his life are known to all, born 1903, father dies when Joseph is 13, goes to Phillips Exeter Academy but then returns home and gets a job to support his mother and disabled brother, Robert. He lives with them until their deaths in 1966 and 1965, respectively. Joseph died in 1972. All of his work was done in the basement of the house that he lived in with his mom and brother in Queens, somewhat far removed from the bustling NYC art scene. Despite his remoteness, he was great pals with a variety of art superstars like Duchamp, Rothko, De Kooning, Warhol, as well as Susan Sontag and Lee Miller.

Reviewing his work I’m struck by the massive influence he had on other artists like Bruce Connor, whose own shadow boxes are direct descendants of Cornell’s. Also Cornell’s 1936 film montage from found footage (Rose Hobart) provoked a jealous reaction from Dali who said Cornell stole the idea from his subconscious. This prefigured Conner’s A Movie, as well. Need to try and find a copy of Thimble Theater (1938), Gnir Rednow (1960s), the wonder ring (brakhage’s 1955 film with cornell), centuries of june (1955 with brakhage)