Posts Tagged ‘Joseph Cornell

25
Sep
15

Exhibition: ‘Joseph Cornell: Wanderlust’ at the Royal Academy of Arts, London

Exhibition dates: 4th July – 27th September 2015

The Sackler Wing of Galleries

 

 

Now, Voyager

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“The untold want by life and land ne’er granted,
Now, voyager, sail thou forth, to seek and find.”

Walt Whitman (1819-1892). “Untold Want,” from Leaves of Grass. 1900

 

Joseph Cornell is my favourite artist who has ever lived on this Earth. I do not make this observation lightly, but after much consideration, thought and reflection.

I have always loved his work, from the very first time I saw it in a book. To then see a recreation of one of his 1950s exhibitions at the Art Institute of Chicago in 2001 was one of those seminal moments where you are lifted out of yourself, where your life becomes forever changed. For me that transcendent experience is up there with being alone with the Rembrandt portraits in the Louvre for 10 precious minutes. Both were among the most exquisite, poignant and beautiful spiritual experiences I have had in my life.

I am not an expert on Cornell, although I have read many books on his work and on his spirituality. He saw himself as an “armchair voyager”, a bit like a latter day Baudelaire, a man who has romantic notions of travel but never actually goes anywhere, who has romantic notions of love but never finds it, except in his imagination. Cornell never left his native New York. Cornell expressed his self through a passion for the artefacts he collected, through his assemblage of those artefacts into magical boxes that addressed unrequited love and faith – for Hollywood and movie stars, ballerinas, hotels, birds, the Renaissance, princes and princesses, the stars, games and chance. He was an avid collector, rummaging through the junk shops of New York and storing his collectibles for his art, something to which I have an affinity, being an avid op shopper (or thrift shopper) myself.

Here I can see an association with the words of Walt Whitman in his lines “Untold Want” from Leaves of Grass, those lines forming the title for the book upon which the film Now Voyager (1942) with Better Davis was based. “The untold want” of Whitman’s lines are whatever you yearn for and cannot get in the social context (“life”) and place (“land”) where you are born. Whitman says, stop “studying the charts,” and “now obey, thy cherish’d, secret wish,” – in other words he’s saying that your heart’s desire is the best indicator of where your destiny lies, but it is possible to miss out on it by not going for it. Fast forward to Now Voyager where frumpy Bette Davis has an affair with a married man, becomes independent, defies her tyrannical mother who promptly dies, and ends up circuitously looking after her lover’s daughter. They decide to have a platonic relationship “sustaining a romantic, unconsummated relationship and creating a ‘family’ by becoming the surrogate, adoptive care-giver for his daughter.”

There is a specific desire here. Davis and Whitman are freed to love without restriction in a romantic way, and after the end of Now Voyager, perhaps Cornell is channelling Bette Davis. He loved in his mind, he created boxes in his imagination (and then physically), he astral travelled through the stars, he created games of chance (such as penny arcades and slot machines) and shooting galleries (that exposed his inner mind) letting the air rush out into the world. He created surreality itself but he was never surreal, for his work is always based on the collision of realities. His boxes are tiny cosmos, like the Tardis from Dr Who, the interior (under a microscope, within four walls) larger than the exterior … yet, magically, they inhabit the whole world, they inhabit our mind. He used the alchemical reaction of elements, the elementary, to affect travel, love, life and change. And he did it in four dimensions for his boxes affect us as much today as he did when he created them. Perhaps that is why I like his work so much… he used seemingly mundane materials, multi/media objects, imagination and love to let’s our spirits soar into the universe. No other artist has ever affected me so much. No one ever will.

Undeniably, Cornell’s poetic theatres are joyous creations that free our soul from the everyday.

Perhaps it is through love, or in death, or the afterlife, that the Voyager can seek that untold want.

 

My Mind to me a Kingdom Is

Sir Edward Dyer (1543 – 1607)

1 My mind to me a kingdom is;
2 Such perfect joy therein I find
3 That it excels all other bliss
4 Which God or nature hath assign’d.
5 Though much I want that most would have,
6 Yet still my mind forbids to crave.

7 No princely port, nor wealthy store,
8 No force to win a victory,
9 No wily wit to salve a sore,
10 No shape to win a loving eye;
11 To none of these I yield as thrall, –
12 For why? my mind despise them all.

13 I see that plenty surfeit oft,
14 And hasty climbers soonest fall;
15 I see that such as are aloft
16 Mishap doth threaten most of all.
17 These get with toil and keep with fear;
18 Such cares my mind can never bear.

19 I press to bear no haughty sway,
20 I wish no more than may suffice,
21 I do no more than well I may,
22 Look, what I want my mind supplies.
23 Lo ! thus I triumph like a king,
24 My mind content with anything.

25 I laugh not at another’s loss,
26 Nor grudge not at another’s gain;
27 No worldly waves my mind can toss;
28 I brook that is another’s bane.
29 I fear no foe, nor fawn on friend,
30 I loathe not life, nor dread mine end.

31 My wealth is health and perfect ease,
32 And conscience clear my chief defence;
33 I never seek by bribes to please,
34 Nor by desert to give offence.
35 Thus do I live, thus will I die,–
36 Would all did so as well as I!

 

Dr Marcus Bunyan for Art Blart

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Many thankx to the Royal Academy of Arts for allowing me to publish the art work in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the art work. The excellent, educational text was written by Asha McLoughlin, Learning Department © Royal Academy of Arts.

 

 

 

 

“Cornell was a voyager, travelling through space and time to dimensions of the imagination and the spirit. He infused this sense of adventure and an infinite beyond into modestly scaled works whose fragments of reality give way to worlds to be explored.”

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Robert Lehrman, Joseph Cornell: Shadowplay Eterniday, 2003

 

“White is just what I mean. Not monstrously, but in wonderful variations. All I want to perform is white magic.”

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Joseph Cornell quoted in Tracking the Marvellous: A Life in the New York Art World, John Bernard Myers, 1984

 

 

Unidentified photographer. 'The Cornell family' c. 1915

 

Unidentified photographer
The Cornell family
c. 1915
Joseph Cornell (far right) with his parents (Joseph I. Cornell, Sr. and Helen Storms Cornell) and siblings (l to r: Elizabeth, Helen, and Robert)
Joseph Cornell papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

 

Hans Namuth. 'Joseph Cornell' 1969

 

Hans Namuth
Joseph Cornell
1969
Courtesy Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona
© 1991 Hans Namuth Estate

 

 

Joseph Cornell (1903-1972), born on Christmas Eve in Nyack, New York, remains one of the most enigmatic yet influential American artists of the twentieth century. Almost entirely self-taught as an artist, Cornell lived quietly for most of his life with his mother and younger brother, crafting in the confines of his basement or on the kitchen table the ‘shadow boxes’ for which he is best known.

He rarely travelled, and almost never left New York, yet his work, based on collage and assemblage, resonates with references to foreign places and distant times. In the course of his life he befriended ballerinas, film stars, poets and generations of world-famous artists. He showed in a succession of New York galleries, participated in landmark group shows at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, and the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and was honoured before he died with major surveys at the Pasadena Museum of Californian Art and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.

A popular romanticised image of Cornell pervades as an ascetic outsider – a shy, eccentric man yearning for intimacy, unable to converse with the women who enthralled him but with a vibrant interior life of daydreams and an imagination capable of crossing oceans, centuries and the celestial realm. Yet this mythologised version of the man belies his active interest in the art movements of his time, and the innovative nature of his creations which have paved the way for today’s appropriation and installation artists, contemporary collage and archive based practices.

This exhibition at the Royal Academy brings together 80 of Cornell’s most remarkable shadow boxes, assemblages, collages and films, including many works held in private collections and a number never seen before outside of the USA. The first major UK exhibition solely devoted to Cornell in almost 35 years, it presents a rare chance to experience a concentrated survey of his oeuvre, and to journey inside the mind of an artist who described himself as ‘an armchair voyager’. The ‘wanderlust’ referenced in the exhibition title – the desire to explore and travel the world – is central to Cornell’s art, as was his penchant for collecting and his astonishingly wide-ranging interests. His creations transport the viewer into private universes, populated with objects and ephemera imbued with personal associations.

 

Cornell's basement studio, 3708 Utopia Parkway, Flushing, New York, 1964

 

Cornell’s basement studio, 3708 Utopia Parkway, Flushing, New York, 1964
Collection Duff Murphy and Janice Miyahira. © Terry Schutté.

 

 

From a basement in New York, Joseph Cornell channelled his limitless imagination into some of the most original art of the 20th century. Step into his beguiling world at this landmark exhibition. Cornell hardly ventured beyond New York State, yet the notion of travel was central to his art. His imaginary voyages began as he searched Manhattan’s antique bookshops and dime stores, collecting a vast archive of paper ephemera and small objects to make his signature glass-fronted ‘shadow boxes’. These miniature masterpieces transform everyday objects into spellbinding treasures. Together they reveal his fascination with subjects from astronomy and cinema to literature and ornithology and especially his love of European culture, from the Romantic ballet to Renaissance Italy.

Wanderlust brings together 80 of Cornell’s most remarkable boxes, assemblages, collages and films, some never before seen outside the USA. Entirely self-taught, the independence of Cornell’s creative voice won the admiration of artists from Marcel Duchamp and the Surrealists, to Robert Motherwell and the Abstract Expressionists, with echoes of his work felt in Pop and Minimalist art. Wanderlust is a long overdue celebration of an incomparable artist, a man the New York Times called “a poet of light; an architect of memory-fractured rooms and a connoisseur of stars, celestial and otherwise.”

 

“What kind of man is this, who, from old brown cardboard photographs collected in second-hand bookstores, has reconstructed the nineteenth century “grand tour” of Europe for his mind’s eye more vividly than those who took it, who was not born then and has never been abroad, who knows Vesuvius’s look on a certain morning of AD 79, and of the cast-iron balconies of that hotel in Lucerne?”

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Robert Motherwell on Joseph Cornell, Joseph Cornell’s Theatre of the Mind, 1993

 

“He uses selected, sought-for, desired objects. He must have been clipping all the time, poring through magazines, collecting things and haunting junk shops and flea markets, looking for the images that corresponded to his imagination.”

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Susan Sontag, Joseph Cornell: Worlds in a Box, directed by Mark Stokes, 1991

 

 

Lee Miller. 'Joseph Cornell, New York' 1933

 

Lee Miller
Joseph Cornell, New York
1933
Vintage photograph. ‘Joseph Cornell, New York Studio, New York, USA 1933’ by Lee Miller (96-2)
© Lee Miller Archives, England 2015. All rights reserved.

 

 

Early Life

Joseph Cornell was the eldest of four children – he had two sisters, Elizabeth and Helen, and a brother, Robert, who suffered from cerebral palsy and was confined to a wheelchair for most of his life. When Cornell was thirteen, his father died of leukaemia and Robert became Joseph’s responsibility (partly to assuage their overbearing mother). Robert however was a cheerful child and took pleasure in drawing and collecting model trains. Cornell considered Robert to be a pure soul, and willingly took on his brother’s care. A salesman and textile designer, Cornell’s father had left considerable debts for his family to manage and for several years Cornell’s mother was forced to take odd jobs to support the family, and move them into a succession of smaller rented houses. In 1917, with the help of his father’s former employer, Joseph was able to enrol at the Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts: a highly regarded private school. There he discovered an interest in American and European literature, poetry, history and French. Yet, away from his close knit family and after the relatively recent death of his father, Cornell struggled and was a mediocre student. He developed the first in a lifelong series of nervous crises and stomach problems, and left the Academy in 1921 without graduating.

Upon his return home, Cornell assumed the role of ‘man of the house’ and became a sample salesman in his father’s trade for a wholesale textile business, the William Whitman Company on lower Madison Avenue. Cornell found the job mundane and himself unsuited to its demands. In his twenties, a time when the stress of supporting his family was exacerbating his stomach ailments, he converted to Christian Science. This religion teaches that reality is purely spiritual and the material world an illusion, so disease and other afflictions associated with the physical body are thought to be manifestations of a troubled mind that ought to be treated with prayer, not medicine. Joseph remained an active member until his death and recruited his brother Robert and sister Elizabeth into the fold.

In 1929, Mrs Cornell moved the family to an unassuming house at 3708 Utopia Parkway in Flushing, Queens, New York. Here, Cornell would live with his mother and brother until he died. His main escape from the tedium of domestic life and the awkward social interactions thrust upon him at work was to walk the city streets in his lunch hour, browsing the second-hand bookshops on Fourth Avenue, the flea markets and dime stores, collecting keepsakes and scavenging for relics and once-precious fragments of other people’s lives. Cornell loved to explore Manhattan and the ‘teeming life of the metropolis’, which seemed to him the epitome of glamour. These wanderings led to Cornell amassing a vast personal archive of treasured finds – books, prints, postcards and three-dimensional ephemera such as clay pipes and watch springs – often tinged with the romance of foreign places and the nostalgia of times past, which would in due course form the material elements of the very personal poetry that is his art.

 

Joseph Cornell. 'Untitled (Schooner)' 1931

 

Joseph Cornell
Untitled (Schooner)
1931

 

Joseph Cornell. 'Untitled [Sagittarius, Scorpio, and Lupus Constellations]' c.1934

 

Joseph Cornell
Untitled [Sagittarius, Scorpio, and Lupus Constellations]
c. 1934
Collage with ink on paper
14 x 18.6 cm
Drs. Steven and Sara Newman. Photo Collection of Drs. Steven and Sara Newman, Chicago, Illinois, USA
© The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation/VAGA, NY/DACS, London 2015

 

Joseph Cornell. 'Untitled (M'lle Faretti)' 1933

 

Joseph Cornell
Untitled (M’lle Faretti)
1933
Box construction
27.9 x 20.3 x 5.1 cm
Private Collection
Photo: Michael Tropea, Chicago
© The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation/VAGA, NY/DACS, London 2015

 

 

Play and Experiment

Although he did not complete his formal education, Cornell was extremely well read and kept abreast of Manhattan’s literary, musical and artistic events. Not only did he regularly attend the theatre and the ballet, but he also became an avid cinema-goer, thriving on the excitement of the city. Indeed, Cornell often waited at the stage door of theatres and opera houses for a glimpse of the female performers he idolised. He also spent time in art galleries, and in 1931 at the Julien Levy Gallery he came across collages by Max Ernst (1891-1976), a pioneer of Surrealism, who combined high art and popular imagery in his work.

Although Cornell was never officially part of the Surrealist movement and came to dismiss Surrealist associations with his own practice, it had a major influence on him, most notably inspiring his embrace of unexpected juxtapositions in his assemblages and his experimental films, like Rose Hobart (1936). Rejecting Surrealism’s more violent and erotic aspects – the shock effect of jarring images – Cornell preferred instead what he described as the ‘white magic’ side of Surrealism, and the poetic connections between everyday objects.

By 1931 Cornell had shifted from simply collecting objects to creating them. He began to make collages and assemblages first in a style resembling Max Ernst’s, then in his own manner. The basis of collage – piecing together and assembling – would be central to Cornell’s works throughout his life, be they two- or three-dimensional. At this early stage he took images from the dense dossiers of engravings and clippings that he had accumulated by this time, fashioning compositions from seemingly unrelated cutout images to create whimsical pairings, which often revealed his dual interests in science and the world of children. Both these themes would recur and overlap throughout his career…

After viewing a number of Cornell’s small surreal collages, such as Untitled (Schooner), 1931, Julien Levy invited him to show in his exhibition, Surréalisme, which opened in January 1932. Later, Levy offered Cornell a solo show, the first of several that were held at his gallery. Entitled Objects by Joseph Cornell: Minutiae, Glass Bells, Shadow Boxes, Coups d’Oeil, Jouets Surréalistes, it included a series of collages and small three-dimensional objects such as bell jars and pillboxes. All the works were made at his kitchen table at night as his mother and brother slept.

Uneasy about his work being associated with Surrealism, Cornell later wrote to Alfred H. Barr, founding director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York and organiser of the 1936 exhibition, Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism, in which Cornell’s work was to feature: “In the event that you are saying a word or two about my work in the catalogue, I would appreciate your saying that I do not share in the subconscious and dream theories of the Surrealists. While fervently admiring much of their work I have never been an official Surrealist, and I believe that Surrealism has healthier possibilities than have been developed.” Regardless of Cornell’s own attempt to distance himself from the movement, Surrealism provided him, at least, with a context in which he could make his collages and objets, and understand them as deserving of a mature and discerning audience.

Around this time, Cornell encountered the collages and box constructions of Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948), composed of urban detritus, and the ‘readymades’ of Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), which are ordinary, unaltered manufactured objects designated by the artist to be works of art. In Duchamp, Cornell discovered an unlikely friend; the two regularly corresponded throughout their lifetime. When Duchamp visited New York in the 1940s, he enlisted Cornell to help him with a new project, a miniature ‘museum’ of his work, known as the Boîte-en-valise or ‘box in a suitcase’. Cornell already had his own ‘valise’ experiment, Untitled (The Crystal Cage: Portrait of Berenice).

 

Joseph Cornell. 'Object (Soap Bubble Set)' 1936

 

Joseph Cornell
Object (Soap Bubble Set)
1936
Box construction

 

Joseph Cornell. 'Object (Soap Bubble Set)' 1941

 

Joseph Cornell
Object (Soap Bubble Set)
1941
Box construction
46.4 x 31.4 x 9.5 cm
The Robert Lehrman Art Trust, Courtesy of Aimee and Robert Lehrman
© The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation/VAGA, NY/DACS, London 2015
Photo: Quicksilver Photographers, LLC. Exhibition organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, London, and Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

 

Joseph Cornell. 'Object (Soap Bubble Set)' 1941 (detail)

 

Joseph Cornell
Object (Soap Bubble Set) (detail)
1941
Box construction
46.4 x 31.4 x 9.5 cm
The Robert Lehrman Art Trust, Courtesy of Aimee and Robert Lehrman
© The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation/VAGA, NY/DACS, London 2015
Photo: Quicksilver Photographers, LLC. Exhibition organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, London, and Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

 

Joseph Cornell. 'Pharmacy' 1943

 

Joseph Cornell
Pharmacy
1943
Box construction
38.7 x 30.5 x 7.9 cm
Collection Paul Schärer
Photo Dominique Uldry, Bern
© The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation/VAGA, NY/ DACS, London 2015

 

Joseph Cornell. 'Pharmacy' 1943 (detail)

 

Joseph Cornell
Pharmacy (detail)
1943
Box construction
38.7 x 30.5 x 7.9 cm
Collection Paul Schärer
Photo Dominique Uldry, Bern
© The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation/VAGA, NY/ DACS, London 2015

 

 

Collecting and Classification

In the 1930s, Cornell began to make the ‘shadow boxes’ for which he is best known – glass-fronted box constructions containing intimately-scaled arrangements of found objects and paper ephemera, assembled in a sort of three-dimensional collage. The 1936 exhibition Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism at MoMA, New York, showed one of his first shadow boxes, Untitled (Soap Bubble Set) (above). This was the first in a long series of the same name and recalls the children’s pastime of blowing bubbles, as well as the eighteenth-century European painting association of bubbles as memento mori, a reminder of the transience of life. Precisely what led Cornell to the idea of the box remains unclear. In a Life magazine article from 1967 he said that it came to him during one of his walks through Manhattan, as he passed a collection of compasses in the window of an antique shop:

“I thought, everything can be used in a lifetime, can’t it, and went on walking. I’d scarcely gone two blocks when I came on another shop window full of boxes, all different kinds […] Halfway home on the train that night, I thought of the compasses and boxes, it occurred to me to put the two together.”

Before Cornell developed his own carpentry skills, his early shadow boxes were housed in prefabricated, semi-antique wooden boxes, popular during the Victorian era for displaying small paintings, ship models, ladies’ handiwork and mementoes. In the nineteenth century, a similar tradition existed in China, where hardwood boxes with sliding glass covers and papered or silk-lined interiors were used to display fine ceramics, especially figurines made for export. Cornell’s approach also recalls European traditions that began to appear in his research dossiers during the 1930s: small seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Dutch and Flemish kunstschranke or kunstkammer – cabinets that housed separate elements assembled to represent the world in miniature. In the mid 1930s, Cornell’s neighbour Carl Backman taught him some basic carpentry skills, which allowed him to construct his own boxes. The boxes are often hard to date accurately, as Cornell would tinker with and refine his constructions over several years, returning to them gradually. However, except for his early boxes which tend to be singular, we can see patterns emerging in his practice as he worked on larger ‘families’ of works that share discernible visual motifs, often unfolding over a decade or more. These series include: ‘Hotels’, ‘Pharmacies’, ‘Aviaries’, ‘Dovecotes’, ‘Observatories’ and ‘Night Skies’.

The ‘Pharmacy’ assemblages, with their compartmentalised structures and associations with collection and classification – a nod to the ordered world of museum display – are a good illustration of one of Cornell’s ‘families’. Here, in this early example of a series that stretched over a decade with at least six similar works, we see a small specimen case containing four ordered rows of five glass jars. Its title appears to refer to medicine and healing, yet as a practising Christian Scientist, Cornell was forbidden to take medicine. Instead, in this miniature apothecary, he has created tonics for the soul and the imagination, with each fragile jar containing an object or substance that has poetic connotations – shells and sand for travel, feathers, delicate butterfly wings, tiny snippets of parchment. The interior is lined with mirrors, creating echoing reflections of the jars that line the shelves. Though its contents may seem trivial, each jar is imbued with significance, its humble items elevated and made precious through the language of their display. Looking into this box, we see a world of associations, nostalgia and elusive meaning.

By the time Cornell created Pharmacy, he had stopped working, and was pursuing his art full time. From this point on, Cornell regularly exhibited and sold his artwork. He also did freelance design work and picture research for magazines such as Vogue and House & Garden. He set up a workshop and storage area in the basement of the house on Utopia Parkway. Working in his new studio, which he sometimes referred to as his ‘laboratory’, Cornell was able to conceive works with more complex craftsmanship than he had been able to do when working at the kitchen table. While most days were spent at home, he would still escape into New York in search of inspiration and to visit friends. A keen diarist, he would sit in Manhattan coffee shops, indulging his notorious sweet tooth with sugary snacks while furiously scribbling notes on scraps of paper that would later be typed up into more formal diary entries.

As well as being an avid people-watcher, Cornell enjoyed ornithology and expressed his love of birds in the ‘Aviary’ and ‘Habitat’ series, which speak of their exoticism and beauty. Birds often symbolise freedom, their flight paths linking the heavens and the earth. In myths and religion, small birds in particular have been used to represent the souls of children freed from their earthly bonds.

 

Joseph Cornell. 'Palace' 1943

 

Joseph Cornell
Palace
1943
Box construction
Glass-paned, stained wood box with photomechanical reproduction, mirror, spray-painted twigs, wood and shaved bark
26.7 x 50.5 x 13 cm
The Menil Collection, Houston
Photo: The Menil Collection, Houston. Photography: Hickey-Robertson
© The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation/VAGA, NY/DACS, London 2015

 

Joseph Cornell. 'Untitled (Tilly Losch)' c. 1935-38

 

Joseph Cornell
Untitled (Tilly Losch)
c. 1935-38
Box Construction
25.4 x 23.5 x 5.4 cm
Collection of Robert Lehrman, courtesy of Aimee and Robert Lehrman
Photo: The Robert Lehrman Art Trust, courtesy of Aimee and Robert Lehrman. Photography: Quicksilver Photographers, LLC
© The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation/VAGA, NY/DACS, London 2015

 

 

“Creative filing
Creative arranging
As poetics
As technique
As joyous creation”

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Joseph Cornell, diary entry, 9 March 1959

 

“On the way to ART OF THIS CENTURY from Julien’s, carrying De Medici girl Slot Machine and bird with cracked glass saw Marlene Dietrich in polo coat and black beanie cap on back of hair waiting at curb of Jay Thorpe’s for a taxi. First time I’d seen her off screen and brought an unexpectedly elated feeling. Working in cellar that night on Soap Bubble Set the green glass locket portrait of her on the floor evoked very special feelings.”

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Joseph Cornell, diary entry, spring 1944

 

“Original inspiration of the bird store, windows, simplicity of magic, pet shop.”

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Joseph Cornell, c. 1943, Joseph Cornell Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC

 

 

Joseph Cornell. 'Untitled Object (Mona Lisa)' c. 1940-42

 

Joseph Cornell
Untitled Object (Mona Lisa)
c. 1940-42
Box construction
3.5 x 7.6 cm
The Collection of Marguerite and Robert Hoffman
Photo: Brad Flowers
© The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation/VAGA, NY/DACS, London 2015

 

Joseph Cornell. 'Untitled (Owl Habitat)' c. mid- to late 1940s

 

Joseph Cornell
Untitled (Owl Habitat)
c. mid- to late 1940s
Collection Jasper Johns Photo Collection Jasper Johns
© The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation/VAGA, NY/DACS, London 2015

 

“Some of his boxes are less cryptic, and more naturalistic, such as Untitled (Owl Habitat), from the 1940s. The snowy owl trapped behind a pane of glass is not a fancy piece of taxidermy fit for a natural history diorama, but a mere paper illustration pasted onto plywood. The midnight-blue forest the owl inhabits is contrived from painted bark and lichen. Cornell, of course, was himself a famous night owl. In some ways the owl box can seem as close as he ever came to self-portraiture, with its majestic creature alone in the woods, eyes wide, watching.”

Deborah Solomon, May 2015

 

Joseph Cornell. 'Habitat Group for a Shooting Gallery' 1943

 

Joseph Cornell
Habitat Group for a Shooting Gallery
1943
Mixed media
39.4 x 28.3 x 10.8 cm
Purchased with funds from the Coffin Fine Arts Trust; Nathan Emory Coffin Collection of the Des Moines Art Center, 1975.27
Photo: Collection of the Des Moines Art Center
© The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation/VAGA, NY/DACS, London 2015

 

 

While visually distinct from the ‘Pharmacy’ series, Habitat Group for a Shooting Gallery (above) continues the theme of arrangement and classification in Cornell’s work, with the cut-out illustrations of macaws, a parrot and a cockatoo mounted like museum specimens or dioramas against a bright white background. However, this dynamic construction has an uncharacteristic aura of violence, and contrasts with other pieces where the box is seen as a safe environment in which objects could be placed, secure and cherished. In this case, the glass that protects the sanctuary of the box has been cracked, its contents exposed to external elements. The central ‘bullet hole’ directly in front of the cockatoo’s crown acts as a focal point for the assemblage, guiding our eye in and then out to the four corners of the box. Bold splashes of colour convey a sense of theatricality and drama (Cornell referred to some of his boxes as ‘poetic theatres’), and the game counters placed over each bird evoke the targets of shooting galleries in penny arcades. Scattered feathers at the bottom of the construction, the shot glass and splotches of paint all suggest a violent event. In a rare moment of political commentary in Cornell’s work, this habitat serves as a metaphor for the horrors of the Second World War, with the birds embodying the innocence of victims caught up in the destruction of war.

 

Observation and Exploration

One of the great paradoxes in Cornell’s life was the gulf between the multitudinous references in his work to distant times and foreign places, and the fact that he himself never physically left the USA. He was a devotee of nineteenth century European culture and a collector of Baedeker Guides (to travel, published in the 1830s), timetables and travel literature, yet he never went abroad – not because he didn’t have the means to do so but because, as one commentator noted, he ‘preferred the ticket to the trip’, which makes his evocation of a traveller’s sense of wanderlust even more remarkable. Cornell let dreams of voyages, particularly to Europe, remain imagined and thus unrealised, preserving his reveries in the same fashion as his glass-fronted boxes. Recurring often in his work are poignant emblems of transience and travel – birds, celestial maps, exotic-sounding hotels and luggage tags – but they remain frozen in their boxed confinement. Thus, fittingly, the central paradox in Cornell’s life found expression in the very medium for which he is now best known.

“Original inspiration of the bird store, windows, simplicity of magic, pet shop.”

Joseph Cornell, c. 1943, Joseph Cornell Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC

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Cornell also dreamed of celestial navigation and was fascinated by the night sky and planets. In Soap Bubble Set (1948, below), Cornell arranged fragments collected during his Manhattan wanderings against the backdrop of an antique lunar map, the roundness of the moon alluding to the titular spherical soap bubble. In his shadow boxes, soap bubbles came to symbolise the relationship between science and childhood imagination, knowledge and wonder, as well as serving as an allegory of vanitas and the ephemerality of life. White Dutch clay pipes, the signature motif of the ‘Soap Bubble’ series, are positioned symmetrically in side compartments, laid out like scientific instruments in a lab, gleaming against the dark velvet interior of the case. These pipes, used as toys for blowing bubbles, suggest the element air, while at a lower level a fragment of driftwood (probably scavenged by Cornell while beach combing on Long Island) grounds us in the natural world and hints at the weathering effects of wind and water over time. A cordial glass stands alone, delicate and vulnerable, empty in this construction but in others from this series cradling a marble, perhaps as a metaphor for forces securing the planets in place. At the top of the construction, the artist has hung a row of seven cylinders, the number possibly invoking the Copernican model of the solar system (in which seven planets orbit the Sun). The overall impression is of a poetic understanding of science, the infinity of space made bearable by the inclusion of objects whose culturally recognisable associations position us, along with Cornell, on Earth.

Ironically, Cornell’s first recorded response to the cosmos was fear. According to his sister Elizabeth, after having returned from school for the Christmas holidays, he woke her one night, ‘shaking like a leaf’, and stood at the window while confessing his anxiety about the concept of infinity. His concern translated to intrigue later in life and his shadow boxes abound with references to astronomy and space exploration. Cornell kept up to date with the latest scientific discoveries and was a keen stargazer, regularly observing the night sky from his backyard, or his kitchen window, sometimes referred to as his ‘observatory’.

In 1949, Cornell joined the Egan Gallery in New York, run by Charles Egan. Around this time we can see a fresh approach emerging in his work, as he branched away from the more theatrical Victorian constructs of his early career, which can appear comparatively dense. This may have been a reaction to Abstract Expressionism, a new movement developed by American painters such as Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) and Robert Motherwell (1915-1991) who used abstraction and gesture to convey expressive content. The Egan Gallery’s roster of artists included notable Abstract Expressionists such as Willem de Kooning (1904-1997) and Franz Kline (1910-1962).

 

Joseph Cornell. 'Soap Bubble Set' 1948

 

Joseph Cornell
Soap Bubble Set
1948
Box construction
36.8 x 52.1 x 9.8 cm
Mr. and Mrs. John Stravinsky
Photo © 2014 Christie’s Images Limited
© The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation/VAGA, NY/DACS, London 2015

 

Joseph Cornell. 'Andromeda: Grand Hôtel de l'Observatoire' 1954

 

Joseph Cornell
Andromeda: Grand Hôtel de l’Observatoire
1954
Box construction
46.5 x 33 x 9.8 cm
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Partial gift, C. and B. Foundation, by exchange, 1980
Photo © SRGF, New York. Photography: David Heald
© The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation/VAGA, NY/ DACS, London 2015

 

Joseph Cornell. 'Andromeda: Grand Hôtel de l'Observatoire' 1954 (detail)

 

Joseph Cornell
Andromeda: Grand Hôtel de l’Observatoire (detail)
1954
Box construction
46.5 x 33 x 9.8 cm
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Partial gift, C. and B. Foundation, by exchange, 1980
Photo © SRGF, New York. Photography: David Heald
© The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation/VAGA, NY/ DACS, London 2015

 

Joseph Cornell. 'Untitled (Medici Princess)' c. 1948

 

Joseph Cornell
Untitled (Medici Princess)
c. 1948
Box construction
44.8 x 28.3 x 11.1 cm
Private collection, New York
Photo courtesy private collection, New York
© The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation/VAGA, NY/ DACS, London 2015

 

 

Cornell continued to explore themes of astronomy and celestial navigation in the ‘Observatory’, ‘Night Skies’, and ‘Hotel’ series (the latter also playing with the notion of a hotel as a microcosm of the wider world and, for Cornell, the universe). This work, Andromeda: Grand Hôtel de l’Observatoire (1954, above), combines many of the motifs prevalent in these series, yet is noticeably pared back. The deep, contemplative blue of the composition suggests a starry night sky, and the cracked, aged, white frame evokes the faded grandeur of forgotten European hotels, built for wealthy travellers between the 1880s and 1920s but now fallen into disrepair. Cornell scrapbooked the names of the hotels in this series from adverts in turn-of-the-century guidebooks to European cities.

Despite the smallness of the box, Cornell has created a sense of space within by foregrounding a delicate silver chain and white dowel against the rich starry expanse beyond. The female figure we see in the background is Andromeda, a character in Greek mythology who was chained to a rock as a sacrificial offering to a sea monster because her mother, Cassiopeia, had angered the sea god Poseidon and the Nereids by boasting of her and her daughter’s beauty. Andromeda was rescued from her plight by the hero Perseus, who then married her. Upon her death, she was placed in the skies as a constellation alongside her husband and her mother. Like her rescuer, Cornell has liberated Andromeda from the chains that bound her to the Earth. She is not attached to the silver chain, which both recalls the myth and suggests a ladder to the heavens. With the lightest touch, Cornell has skilfully created both the physical presence of a beautiful woman, and her heavenly equivalent as a constellation in the night sky.

As well as seeking inspiration across galaxies and the limitless expanses of space, Cornell would also delve into myth and history, both factual and personal, to seek out the characters who reside in his shadow boxes. In one of his most famous series, the ‘Medici Slot Machines’, Cornell superimposed memories of his own happy childhood (before his father’s death) onto reproductions of portraits of Medici princes and princesses by the Renaissance artists Sofonisba Anguissola (1532-1625), Bronzino (1503-1572) and Pinturicchio (1454-1513). By mixing his personal history (Cornell recalled with fondness the outings to penny arcades and shooting galleries of his youth) with these Florentine children, and further juxtaposing Old Master paintings with symbols of popular amusement, he created a mysterious world that contrasts high and low culture with haunting beauty.

This elegiac composition centres around Bronzino’s posthumous portrait of Bia de’ Medici. Bia, the illegitimate but beloved daughter of Cosimo I de’ Medici, died from a fever aged 6, and Bronzino used her death mask as a model. Around her neck, she wears a medallion with her father’s profile on it. Cornell has effectively enshrined Bia in this box, simultaneously surrounded by the trappings of childhood (marbles, jacks, toy blocks), and, notably, the metal spirals of watch springs in the upper corners, which act as a metaphor for time cycles and life repeating itself. A bright red ball in front of the young girl attracts the viewer, as do the sightlines, mimicking the cross-hair targets of amusement park shooting galleries, which converge over one eye. Bia is flanked by columns, decorated with Baedeker maps of Italy, and further side compartments stacked with repeated images, like the spliced frames of a film, recalling Eadweard Muybridge’s (1830-1904) early sequences of animal and human movement, as well as foreshadowing Pop artist Andy Warhol’s (1928-1987) multiple silkscreen homages to celebrities like Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe. There is a concealed drawer at the base of the box, containing a bundle of letters tied with thread, and a paper fan, perhaps a nod to the attributes of the courtly life of a princess. Cornell’s creations often included kinetic elements like marbles or toy balls, although they are seldom activated now, as the assemblages are too delicate. In this box, the unfixed objects placed around Bia accentuate her stillness and steady gaze. Perhaps because of the blue staining of the glass, we become more aware of the wall that separates us from this young girl, frozen in a world that we can look in upon, but not enter. She looks out at us directly, but is she imprisoned or merely on display?

“Peering into glasspanelled boxes to inspect their contents is not unlike looking through a telescope in order to bring the distant closer. Windows, doors, compartments, drawers, cross-hair targets – all of these elements grant access or focus as we navigate the world Cornell has framed.”

Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, Joseph Cornell: Shadowplay Eterniday, 2003

 

 

Joseph Cornell. 'Untitled (Celestial Navigation)' 1956-58

 

Joseph Cornell
Untitled (Celestial Navigation)
1956-58
Box construction
30.8 x 43.2 x 9.2 cm
The Robert Lehrman Art Trust, courtesy of Aimee and Robert Lehrman
Photo The Robert Lehrman Art Trust, courtesy of Aimee and Robert Lehrman
Photography: Quicksilver Photographers, LLC
© The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation/VAGA, NY/DACS, London 2015

 

That he visited the opera and the ballet in New York is not surprising, as his miniature dioramas also recall stage sets with a scenic and narrative quality. As Mary Ann Caws writes in Joseph Cornell’s Theatre of the Mind, “Cornell’s shadow boxes invite us to peek, to peep, and finally to yield to our imagination… We meet in the confines of this tiny frame, this microcosm of complicity.” The boxes are filled with potential energy, as if just about to move, and are spaces in which multiple scales co-exist: time and history, the natural world and the cosmos. They are places of curious juxtaposition: take Untitled (Celestial Navigation) (1956-58, above), in which the universe is depicted through everyday objects.

 

Joseph Cornell. 'L'Égypte de Mlle Cléo de Mérode cours élémentaire d'histoire naturelle' 1940

 

Joseph Cornell
L’Égypte de Mlle Cléo de Mérode cours élémentaire d’histoire naturelle
1940
Box construction
11.9 x 27.1 x 18.4 cm (closed)
The Robert Lehrman Art Trust, courtesy of Aimee and Robert Lehrman
Photo The Robert Lehrman Art Trust, courtesy of Aimee and Robert Lehrman
Photography: Quicksilver Photographers, LLC
© The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation/VAGA, NY/DACS, London 2015

 

 

Longing and Reverie

For Cornell, a relationship with a woman (other than his mother) seemed unattainable. He never married, and for him the female figure took on an elevated accumulation of hope and desire of almost mythic proportions. Throughout his life he developed obsessions with opera singers, waitresses, film stars, shop girls and most vividly, ballerinas (alive or dead). In the 1930s he discovered the international revival of the Romantic ballet, and spent the next 30 years exploring his fascination with the ‘queens of the dance’. His favourites included Romanticera prima ballerinas Marie Taglioni (1804-1884) and Fanny Cerrito (1817-1909), and their modern counterparts Tamara Toumanova (1919-1996) and Allegra Kent (b. 1937). He also became good friends with Pavel Tchelitchew (1898-1957), the Russian Surrealist painter and set and costume designer who, as a well-known figure on the international dance scene, introduced Cornell to dancers and other balletomanes.

This box (Naples, 1942, below) is a tender homage to Fanny Cerrito, a nineteenth-century ballerina who captivated Cornell (he first came across her likeness in a bookstore on Fourth Avenue, on a souvenir lithograph from 1842). Cerrito was best known for her 1843 performance in Ondine, a ballet based on a fairy tale about a knight who falls in love with an ethereal water sprite. For her first entrance on stage, Cerrito posed in a giant cockleshell, rising up on a platform through the stage. In this assemblage, Cornell celebrates her birthplace of Naples, illustrating its famously narrow streets festooned with lines of laundry. The luggage label and the handle of the box, which recall a suitcase, give a sense of travel and distance, but the seashells propped up in the corners of the box and the faded sea-green paint that borders the scene speak to Cerrito’s most famous role.

 

Joseph Cornell. 'Naples' 1942

 

Joseph Cornell
Naples
1942
Box construction
28.6 x 17.1 x 12.1 cm
The Robert Lehrman Art Trust, Courtesy of Aimee and Robert Lehrman
© The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation/VAGA, NY/DACS, London 2015
Photo: Quicksilver Photographers, LLC

 

 

Another example of Cornell’s devotional works is this stunningly austere piece entitled Toward the Blue Peninsula: for Emily Dickinson (1953, below). The purity of this box and the inclusion of a grid-like structure recall the signature style of Piet Mondrian (1872-1944), a Minimalist artist who radically simplified the elements of painting to reflect the underlying spiritual order of the visible world that he believed in. Cornell admired Mondrian’s work and mentioned him in his 1946 diary: ‘Mondrian feeling strong. Feeling of progress and satisfaction.’

As the title suggests, this shadow box was created for the nineteenth-century American poet Emily Dickinson (1830-1886), with whom Cornell felt a deep affinity. Like Cornell, Dickinson lived with her family, never travelled far from home or married, and translated her intense longing into her art. A withdrawn and enigmatic woman, she rarely left the upstairs bedroom in her home in Amherst, Massachusetts, where she wrote her poems. Dickinson’s bedroom inspired the setting for this simple, white-washed box that resembles an abandoned aviary. At first, almost everything about this box suggests containment – the white mesh cage, the dowel perch and bird feeder – but we find no resident here. In fact, the mesh has been cut open and to the left we see a rectangle of clear, refreshing blue suggesting a window open to the sky – the infinite beyond into which our bird has flown. Emily Dickinson sometimes referred to herself as a ‘little wren’ and often, like Cornell, included birds in her work. Here, Cornell ensures that she has been set free, present only in spirit, with two small scraps of printed paper at the bottom of the case the only physical reminder of her presence. The empty box is silent, a vacuum left after the action has occurred. The title of this work comes from a poem by Dickinson that begins: ‘It might be lonelier / Without the Loneliness / I’m so accustomed to my Fate.’ It ends:

It might be easier
To fail – with Land in Sight –
Than gain – My Blue Peninsula –
To perish – of Delight –

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Here, Dickinson is asking whether longing is better than having, a question that clearly spoke to Cornell and his own deep-seated yearning. Better that dream remain imagined but unrealised, the poet advises, lest it disappoint. It seems these are words that Cornell heeded his entire life.

In the early 1960s, Cornell did finally break with tradition and became attached to a young woman, a New York waitress named Joyce Hunter. This was Cornell’s first real-life romance and he was dazzled by her, making her several gifts of his boxes and collages. Joyce eventually stole artworks from his home (though he refused to prosecute her), and was later murdered by an acquaintance in an unrelated incident in December 1964. Her death devastated Cornell, and marks the beginning of his decline into isolation; his brother Robert died in 1965, his mother a year later. In the winter of 1965 he began a series of collages dedicated to Robert’s memory…

Now alone in his family home, Cornell still received visitors (an invitation to Utopia Parkway had become something of an art-world trophy) but conditions in the house declined as his involvement in Christian Science and the metaphysical world increased. He would write letters to the ghosts of his former life – Robert, his mother, Joyce Hunter. Cornell became more and more interested in sharing his work with a younger audience and one of his last exhibitions in 1972 was expressly for children: A Joseph Cornell Exhibition for Children at the Cooper Union School of Art and Architecture, where cake and soda pops were served instead of the traditional champagne and canapés. He often said children were his most enthusiastic and receptive audience, and lent boxes to children in his neighbourhood for their enjoyment. Cornell continued to work until the end of his life, although he stopped making new boxes sometime in the 1960s, after which he focused on ‘refurbishing’ earlier boxes by breaking them down and reconstituting them. His main focus was a renewed interest in creating collages, which he saw as freer and more spontaneous than box construction. He also concentrated on making films and re-editing earlier cinematic work. Following prostate surgery in June 1972, he spent several months recuperating with family in Westhampton before returning to Utopia Parkway in November. Cornell died of heart failure alone at home, just a few days after his sixty-ninth birthday.

 

Joseph Cornell. 'Toward the Blue Peninsula - for Emily Dickinson' c. 1953

 

Joseph Cornell
Toward the Blue Peninsula – for Emily Dickinson
c. 1953
Box construction
36.8 x 26 x 14 cm
The Robert Lehrman Art Trust, courtesy of Aimee and Robert Lehrman
Photo The Robert Lehrman Art Trust, courtesy of Aimee and Robert Lehrman
Photography: Quicksilver Photographers, LLC
© The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation/VAGA, NY/DACS, London 2015.

 

 Joseph Cornell. 'Untitled (Pinturicchio Boy)' 1942-52

 

Joseph Cornell
Untitled (Pinturicchio Boy)
1942-52
Box construction
35.4 x 28.4 x 9.8 cm
Photo: Tim Nighswander/Imaging4Art.com, courtesy Glenstone
© The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation/VAGA, NY/DACS, London 2015

 

Joseph Cornell. 'A Parrot for Juan Gris' 1953-54

 

Joseph Cornell
A Parrot for Juan Gris
1953-54
Box construction
45.1 x 31 x 11.7 cm
The Collection of Robert Lehrman, courtesy of Aimee and Robert Lehrman
Photo The Robert Lehrman Art Trust, courtesy of Aimee and Robert Lehrman
Photography: Quicksilver Photographers, LLC
© The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation/VAGA, NY/DACS, London 2015

 

 

Conclusion

What can we make of the life of Joseph Cornell? From his shadow boxes we get the impression of a man who preferred fantasy to reality, finding inspiration and affinity with long-dead characters from history, from Renaissance princesses to Romantic ballerinas. But Cornell was also conscious of and responded to the changing landscape of twentieth-century art – Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art and Minimalism – and had a tremendous influence on other artists during his lifetime. He had an appetite for subjects that were as far ranging as his imagination, and was able to express, with the deftest of touches, huge concepts within intimate, self-contained spaces. Cornell’s cloistered worlds seem to encompass the entire universe in microcosm – its infinity, wonder, mystery and power all contained within a small box. Their appeal can only be accentuated by the fact that their creator conjured these worlds purely from imagination rather than experience. His last reported words to his sister Elizabeth on the day he died were, “You know, I was thinking, I wish I hadn’t been so reserved.” While this restraint may have caused him regret in his daily life, we see little trace of it in his art, which seems instead to be a magical, generous invitation to the viewer as a gateway to reverie, and to dream.

Written by Asha McLoughlin
Learning Department
© Royal Academy of Arts

 

 

Joseph Cornell: Wanderlust offers an overview of the American artist’s inventive oeuvre, surveying around 80 of his remarkable box constructions, assemblages, collages and films. The last major solo exhibition of Cornell in Europe took place nearly 35 years ago, originating at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1980, and travelling to the Whitechapel Gallery in the UK. With very few works on permanent display in European museums, the exhibition is an opportunity to see rarely lent masterpieces from public and private collections in the United States, Europe and Japan.

Cornell (1903-1972) never left America and hardly ventured beyond New York City, yet through his art he set out to travel through history, the continents of the globe and even the spiritual realm. His works are manifestations of a powerful ‘wanderlust’ of the mind and soul.

Collecting was central to Cornell’s creativity; he amassed a vast and eclectic personal archive of paper ephemera and found objects, eventually numbering tens of thousands of items. This material revealed his wide-ranging interests from opera, ballet, cinema and theatre to history, ornithology, poetry and astronomy. Europe held a special place in Cornell’s imagination, and many of the works selected for this exhibition highlight his love of its historic cultures, from the Belle Époque to the Italian Renaissance. Inspired by these interests, he incorporated his collected materials inside glass-fronted wooden box constructions creating miniature worlds known as his ‘shadow boxes’, as well as producing collages and film.

Cornell was entirely self-taught and has often been characterised as an outsider to the New York art scene. In reality, he was highly engaged with the art movements and artists of the time, exhibiting regularly alongside the Surrealists and Abstract Expressionists, whilst carefully maintaining his independence from any one group. He counted many vanguard artists among his friends including Marcel Duchamp, Robert Motherwell, and Dorothea Tanning.

The exhibition is arranged thematically in four sections that reflect the artistic processes expressed in Cornell’s diaries and notes; Play and Experiment, Collecting and Classification, Observation and Exploration and Longing and Reverie. The selection brings together key works from his major series: Museums, Aviaries, Soap Bubble Sets, Palaces, Medici Slot Machines, Hotels and Dovecotes.”

Press release from the Royal Academy of Arts website

 

“Impressions intriguingly diverse – that, in order to hold fast, one might assemble, assort, and arrange into a cabinet – the contraption kind of the amusement resorts with endless ingenuity of effect, worked by coin and plunger, or brightly coloured pin-balls – travelling inclined runways – starting in motion compartment after compartment with a symphony of mechanical magic of sight and sound borrowed from the motion picture art – into childhood – into fantasy – through the streets of New York – through tropical skies – etc. – into the receiving trays the balls come to rest releasing prizes.”

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Joseph Cornell

 

 

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02
Nov
12

Exhibition: ‘Two of a Mind’ at the Laurence Miller Gallery, New York

Exhibition dates: 12th September – 17th November, 2012

RAY K. METZKER: Pictus Interruptus
RUTH THORNE-THOMSEN: Expeditions

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I like both these bodies of work but it is the enigmatic Expeditions that leave the most lasting impression on my subconscious, out imagining the abstract distortions of Metzker in my mind’s eye. While the images of Pictus Interruptus are interesting in a textural way, the photographs of Thorne-Thomsen are truly magical – like a photographic version of Joseph Cornell’s boxes they engage you wistfully, holding you in a quiet, silent, attentive dreamspace. Some of the photographs are almost Jungian in their holistic balance. Photographs such as Levitating Man and Trio are truly memorable, and in our over saturated media environment it is wonderful to find images that make us slow down and inhale their aura. You contemplate these images: that is the word, contemplation. Enjoy.

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PS. Prima Materia, a title of one of Thorne-Thomsen’s series, “is, according to alchemists, the alleged primitive formless base of all matter, given particular manifestation through the influence of forms… The alchemical operation consists essentially in separating the prima materia, the so-called Chaos, into the active principle, the soul, and the passive principle, Mind-body dichotomy, the body. They are then reunited in personified form in the coniunctio, the ritual combination of sol and Luna, which yields the magical child – filius philosophorum – the reborn self, known as the ultima materia.” (Wikipedia)

Jung undertook an analysis of the ritual and processes of alchemy and found that while the alchemists were trying to turn lead into gold by melting the lead down and reforming it as gold, what they were actually doing was letting go of their old identity and reforming it anew. This could be seen as an early form of psychoanalysis that encouraged the process of what Jung calls individuation, the emergence of a new identity as the ego dissolves into the Self. “The symbols of the individuation process…mark its stages like milestones’, prominent among them for Jungians being ‘”the shadow, the Wise Old Man…and lastly the anima (female) in man and the animus (male) in woman”‘. Thus ‘there is often a movement from dealing with the persona at the start…to the ego at the second stage, to the shadow as the third stage, to the anima or animus, to the self as the final stage. Some would interpose the Wise Old Man and the Wise Old Woman as spiritual archetypes coming before the final step of the Self’.” (Wikipedia)

I see elements of this inner work in the art of Ruth Thorne-Thomsen.

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Many thankx to the Laurence Miller Gallery for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

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Ray K. Metzker
Pictus Interruptus (77FK42)
1977

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Ray K. Metzker
Pictus Interruptus (77EY24)
1977

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Ray K. Metzker
Pictus Interruptus (78AD23)
1978

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Ray K. Metzker
Pictus Interruptus (78BW19)
1978

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Ray K. Metzker
Pictus Interruptus (80FP9a)
1980

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Ray K. Metzker
Pictus Interruptus (77FK28)
1977

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Ray K. Metzker
Pictus Interruptus (77FW60)
1977

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Ray K. Metzker
Pictus Interruptus (76EO4)
1976

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“Laurence Miller Gallery is pleased to present Two of a Mind, photographs by Ray K. Metzker and Ruth Thorne-Thomsen, made between 1976 and 1991. Presently husband and wife, these two influential photographers independently created innovative and highly personal work that challenge our willingness to believe and stimulate our need to imagine.

Both achieved this by inserting images and objects into the view of the camera, turning reality on its head. Ray Metzker’s Pictus Interruptus series, made between 1976 and 1981, offers us inexplicable images – landscapes and cityscapes disrupted by abstract forms that combine, complement, and contrast with recognizable elements of the city or the land. Coat hangers, magazine images, folded paper and board were some of the items placed before the camera lens. Ruth Thorne-Thomsen’s Expeditions and Door series, as well as Prima Materia and Songs of the Sea, made between 1976 and 1991, also utilized the insertion of objects in front of her pin-hole camera, things like plastic and metal toys, children’s charms, ornaments and trinkets. The resulting images feel like poems come to life – credible enough to seem real, yet imaginary enough to seem like dreams.

Ray (born 1931) and Ruth (born 1943) met in Chicago in 1980, and immediately felt a kinship of spirit and mind. Each had been pursuing a personal photographic vision which took reality as a starting point and then explored the world of the imagination to challenge the general belief that what a photograph presents is truth. Metzker was more intrigued by the possibilities of form and space, while Thorne-Thomsen pursued the possibilities of mythology and dreams. For each artist, reality and artifice became intertwined and inseparable. This is the first exhibition in which their photographs are presented together. This showing of Metzker’s images also coincides with a major retrospective of his work at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, opening September 25th and continuing through February 24, 2013.”

Text from the Laurence Miller Gallery website

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Ruth Thorne-Thomsen
Echo Wisconsin
1991
from the series Songs of the Sea

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Ruth Thorne-Thomsen
Icarus Figure Wisconsin
1993
from the series Songs of the Sea

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Ruth Thorne-Thomsen
Paper Palms California
1981
from the Expeditions Series

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Ruth Thorne-Thomsen
Trio Wisconsin
1991
from the series Songs of the Sea

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Ruth Thorne-Thomsen
Levitating Man Wisconsin
1983
from the Door Series

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Ruth Thorne-Thomsen
Chair Over Point Wisconsin
1983
from the Door Series

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Laurence Miller Gallery
20 West 57th Street
New York, NY 10019
Tel: 212.397.3930
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12
Dec
08

Review: ‘The Art of Existence’ exhibition by Les Kossatz at Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne

Heide Museum of Modern Art has brought together nearly 100 pieces of work by the Australian artist Les Kossatz in an eclectic survey show, appropriately titled ‘The Art of Existence’. Featuring sculpture, painting and mixed media from the 1960s to the present the exhibition is appropriately titled because Kossatz’s work addresses certain archetypal themes that affect human existence: “His life-long fascination with the natural world and desire to understand both its human and animal inhabitants; exploration of the systems of knowledge and codes of behavior that structure individual and communal life; and his critical and playful reflections on contemporary behaviour and the mysteries of existence.”1

 

Les Kossatz. "Digger's glory box" 1965

 

Les Kossatz.
‘Digger’s glory box’
1965
silk, felt, canvas, cardboard, wood, brass, ink, fibre-tipped pen and synthetic polymer paint 
106.0 x 76.0 x 7.0 cm 

 

Strong symbolic paintings are the focus of the work in the 1960s, paintings that address the shocking brutality of war and its aftermath, when soldiers return home. To the observation that these are of the ‘pop-style’ school of painting suggested by the Heide website I feel these works are also influenced by the collage of Cubism, the boxes of Joseph Cornell and the dismembered bodies of Francis Bacon. They engage with the symbolism of war and remembrance: memory, myth, and the banality of heroism and sacrifice.

The key work in this series is the painting ‘Diggers throne’ (1966). This is a powerful disturbing image, effervescent and unnerving at the same time. It features a disembodied arm on the hand of a throne, surrounded by a wonderful kaleidoscopic assemblage of pictorial planes, artefacts and memories – an English flag, the flag of St George, a crown, medals and the words RSL. The arm reminds me of the Francis Bacon painting ‘Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X (1953)’ as it rests, roughly drawn in pencil on the arm of the throne, drawing the eye back up into nothingness.

 

Francis Bacon. "Study after Velázquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X (1953)"

 

Francis Bacon.
‘Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X (1953)’

 

The ‘Diggers throne’ painting also features these prophetic words:

“throne slow to rot
and twisted the memory
becomes sacred.
Bloody was the truth
And this a chair.”

 

All other work in this period seems to flow through this painting – the other large paintings, the small canvases featuring individual medals and the less successful hanging banners. But it is to this work we return again and again as a viewer, trying to decipher and reconcile our inner conflicts about the painting.

 

Les Kossatz. "Ram in sling" 1973

 

Les Kossatz.
‘Ram in sling’
1973
cast and fabricated stainless steel and sheepskin
29.3 x 126.5 x 66.0 cm  

 

As we move into the 1970s the work changes focus and direction. There emerges a concern with the desecration of the Australian landscape investigated in a series of large paintings and sculptures. In ‘Packaged landscape 1’ (1976) a steel suitcase with leather straps, slightly ajar, fulminates with artificial gum leaves trying to escape the strictures of the trap. In ‘Caged landscape’ (1972) nature is again trapped behind steel wire, weighed in the balance on a set of miniature scales. The paintings feature trees that are surrounded by concrete and the rabbit becomes a powerful symbol for Kossatz – a suffering beast, strung up on fences, a plague in a pitted landscape of chopped down trees, erosion and empty holes.

Into this vernacular emerges the key symbol of the artist’s oeuvre – the sheep. In 1972 Kossatz began a series of sculptures of sheep, “initially inspired by the experience of nursing an injured ram.” For Kossatz “the sheep represent the hardship of pioneer existence, the grazing industries prosperity, environmental concerns and the sheep act as narrative devices, potent metaphors for human behaviour.”2

The first sheep presented ‘in show’ is ‘Ram in Sling’ (1973). In this sculpture a metal bar is suspended in mid-air and from this bar heavy wire mesh drops to support the fleecy stomach and neck of the ram almost seeming to strangle it in the process, it’s metal feet just touching the ground. Again the scales of justice seem to weigh nature in the balance.

The themes life and death, order and chaos are further developed in the work ‘Hard slide’ (1980) where a sheep emerges mid-air from a trapdoor, two more tumble down a wooden slide end over end and another disappears into the ground through a wooden trapdoor opening. Sacrifice seems to be a consistent theme with both the earlier paintings and the metallised sheep:

 

“The completed life cycle, down the trapdoor, down the chute, after sacrifice by shearing.”

Daniel Thomas 1994

 

Les Kossatz. "Hard slide" 1980

 

Les Kossatz 
‘Hard slide’
1980
sheepskins, aluminium, Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga sp.), leather, steel
372.0 x 100.0 x 304.0 cm (installation)

 

Further sculptures of sheep, both small maquettes and large sculptures follow in the next room of the exhibition. This is the artist is full flow, featuring the inventive taking of 2D things into the round, investigating the key themes of his work: the contrast between nature and artifice, or humanity.

The small maquettes of sheep feature races, gantries, sluices, pens, trapdoors and paddocks. Sheep tumble in a cataclysmic maelstrom, falling with flailing legs into the darkness of the holding pen below. These are my favourite works – small, intimate, detailed, dark bronzes of serious intensity – the sheep becoming a theatre of the absurd, suspended, weighed and balancing in the performance of ritualised acts, a cacophony of flesh at once both intricate and unsettling. Their skins lay flayed and lifeless disappearing into the ‘unearth’ of the slated wooden floor of the shearing shed. The sheep “can be viewed metaphorically as a commentary of the existential situation of the individual and collective behaviour.”3 As Kossatz himself has noted, “It is hard to bring a piece of landscape inside and give it a living animated form. The sheep somehow gives me this quality of landscape.”

But we must also remember that this strictly a white man’s view of the Australian landscape. Nowhere does this work comment on the disenfranchisement of the native people’s of this land – the destruction of native habitats that the sheep brought about, the starvation that they caused to Aboriginal people just as they bought riches to the pastoralists and the country that mined the land with this amorphous mass of flesh.

 

Les Kossatz. "Guggenheim spiral" 1983

 

Les Kossatz.
‘Guggenheim spiral’
1983

 

Recent work in the exhibition returns to the earlier social themes of memory, war, remembrance, religion, shrines, atomic clouds and temples but it is the work of the late 1970s – 1980s that is the most cogent. As Kossatz ponders the nature of existence on this planet he does not see a definitive answer but emphasizes the journey we take, not the arrival. Here is something that we should all ponder, giving time to the nature of our personal journey in this life, on this earth.

Here also is an exhibition worthy our time and attention as part of that journey. Go visit!

 

 

 

Exhibition dates: 22nd November – 8th March 2009

Heide Museum of Modern Art
7 Templestowe Road
Bulleen Victoria 3105 Australia
T +61 3 9850 1500
F +61 3 9852 0154
info@heide.com.au

Website:  www.heide.com.au

 

1.  From the Heide website at www.heide.com.au
 2. From wall notes to the exhbition
3. From wall notes to the exhbition 




Marcus Bunyan black and white archive: ‘England’ 1993

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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes the Art Blart blog which reviews exhibitions in Melbourne, Australia and posts exhibitions from around the world. He has a Dr of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne and is currently studying a Master of Art Curatorship at The University of Melbourne.

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