Dispatches from a Dematerialized World: Joseph Cornell at the Royal Academy

By Dan BarrowNovember 15, 2015

Dispatches from a Dematerialized World: Joseph Cornell at the Royal Academy

Left: Joseph Cornell, Object (Soap Bubble Set), 1940; Box construction, 46.4 x 31.4 x 9.5 cmThe Robert Lehrman Art Trust, courtesy of Aimee and Robert LehmanPhoto 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 2015Exhibition organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, London, and Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna


A PECULIAR FIGURE EMERGES in the retrospective Joseph Cornell: Wanderlust, at the Royal Academy of Arts (July 4–September 27, 2015). Alternately viewed as a wide-eyed recluse and a kind of Christian Scientist Rip Van Winkle wandering mid-century New York, here we see a more two-dimensional, complex figure, with worldly connections to the Surrealists and other New York artists — Duchamp, Mondrian, de Kooning, and Rothko, among others. With a rich exhibition catalog featuring scholarly essays by Sarah Lea and Jasper Sharp, including one of Cornell’s collage-letters to Dorothea Tanning, Wanderlust goes to great lengths to suggest that, although untrained, Cornell had a complex, organized method and set of skills that should not be forgotten. But, the exhibition reminds us at various turns, traces of the holy fool stereotype remain.

The title of the exhibition, Wanderlust, references both Cornell’s impulses as an armchair tourist — collecting foreign stamps and poring over junk-shop maps of coasts he never visited — and his apparent tendency to wander through the disciplines and struggles of 20th-century modernism, like Stendhal’s Fabrice del Dongo at Waterloo. In her essay, Sarah Lea invokes Cornell’s 1936 assemblage The Elements of Natural Philosophy shown at the notorious MoMA Surrealism show that year: “The phrase […] harks back to an era before the specialisation of modern disciplines, when no distinction was drawn between artists and scientists […] united by a yearning to understand.” His sophistication, in other words, was a kind of naïveté, and vice versa.

In a period when digital archives produce instant nostalgia, Cornell’s invocations of “the light of other days” seem both relevant and innocent. Cornell’s assemblages in boxes hint at a traditional, stable world of craft and order but suggest, like the collages that open the show, that anyone could create this type of work. Certain keywords flash past in the exhibition’s texts and the raving notices with which the British press greeted it: “imagination,” “curiosity,” “magical,” “wonder.”

There is a curious circularity here: Cornell’s techniques illustrate his “wonder” and “curiosity” just as these qualities inform his techniques. He was an autodidact: his interests ranged from astronomy to architecture, cartography, natural science, and Renaissance painting, with materials piling up in his basement studio at the family home on Utopia Parkway in the Queens suburb of Flushing. “Collecting,” Lea writes, “was the basis of imaginative transport.” The curators seem intent to assure us that we are no longer in the jargon-ridden world of art history, with its emphasis on the recalcitrant materiality of art and its economic supports, but in an everyday life gilded — like Cornell’s own — with the ether of the imagination and spirit. (Lynda Roscoe Hartigan goes so far as to drag in cognitive neuroscience and speculate about how Cornell’s brain synthesized ideas — anything, it seems, rather than talk about social reality.) The exhibition thus emphasizes a diverse set of categories — the thematic groups into which Cornell put his work: Hotels, Observatories Aviaries, Soap Bubble Sets, Medici Slot Machines — mediated by the central form of the shadow box. The result is an eerie formal calm that pervades the jumbled materials of the assemblages — what Lindsay Blair has called Cornell’s “vision of spiritual order,” or the “eterniday” (a word that recurs in his diaries).

It is hard not to feel, reading some of the material in the lavish catalog, or in Deborah Solomon’s 1997 biography Utopia Parkway, that this is in some ways a cover story for a deeply painful, impoverished life. Olivia Laing, in a Guardian piece on the exhibition, revels in the contradiction of a man isolated in the dullest of suburbs, with a deeply unappealing home life — living in close quarters with a battle-ax mother and helpless, disabled brother whom he supported by menial jobs. He made art mostly by night at the kitchen table until he converted the basement into a studio.

We can detect the layers of Cornell’s troubled personal life in his relationship to certain forms of art. Sarah Lea, for instance, remarks that Cornell “was deeply uncomfortable with [Surrealism’s] psychosexual content.” She does not pause to ask what the nature of his discomfort is, what wounds or points of sensitivity it touched. Surrealism still depended on a modernist dialectic of surface and depth: the banal objects assembled in Magritte’s paintings or Dali’s sculptures from the 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition effectively disclosed the dirt of the unconscious that, in their usual place in the bourgeois interior, they covered over. These days such a distinction is considered by most to be old-fashioned and even vaguely shameful, akin to a belief that the Earth is flat. Cornell’s work rehearses a collapse of this binary that would reach its apotheosis in Jeff Koons’s vacuum cleaner readymades: surface and depth were now, precariously, the same thing.

Surrealism, as Walter Benjamin wrote in 1925, seeks “to blaze a way into the heart of things abolished or superseded, to decipher the contours of the banal as rebus.” The “Surrealist object,” an idea Cornell knew from Breton and Aragon, represented the royal road to society’s material unconscious, unearthed from the “hidden abode of production.” Collage wrenches the flat, disenchanted appearances of everyday life out of context and creates new ones that release the energy repressed within. It thrives on contradiction — something Cornell seemed to struggle with in his effort to create order and harmony from disparate parts. Compare the early collages that open the show with even their immediate predecessors — the works by Max Ernst that Cornell saw at the gallery of his first dealer, Julien Levy, in the early 1930s — and even the visual puns appear classically composed. A bottle in a French diagram appears to be firing a bullet. In a group of 16 small collages dedicated to Ernst, Cornell chooses items to combine from Victorian engravings that are the same color (monochrome) and have a similar weight of line. They are subtle enough to cause a moment of puzzlement as to what elements have been cut where: in one, a bird with a lightning storm at its back carries a transparent L-shaped box in its claws and seems, at first, plausible if unexplained. Surrealism’s refusal of craft, its embrace of mechanical reproduction as a means of breaking up the “naturalness” of the lifeworld of ideology, becomes a craft in itself.

There is something unnerving about the flatness of these collages: the 19th-century bourgeois interior, heavy with solemn “traces” (Benjamin’s term), is turned into a thing of visual lightness, a joke no one quite gets. By placing more of them in the early rooms, juxtaposed with some of the early miniature assemblages, the Royal Academy exhibition offers viewers a sense of what was at stake in Cornell’s transition to the box construction in his work beginning in 1936, suggesting that the heaviness of Cornell’s childhood could be given its full due without making it sacred. Within the boxes, memory appears like a sarcastic mirage, like movies in the fleapit theater.


At the Royal Academy, Cornell’s films are given limited representation. This is unsurprising. His reputation in the world of avant-garde film persisted during the years when the public at large knew little about him; and yet, there remains something faintly undecorous about his filmography in the eyes of the art world. The split nature of his filmography doesn’t help matters. His first period of filmmaking began and ended in the late 1930s, reaching both its public debut and its end with the premiere of the meticulous collage Rose Hobart at New York’s Julien Levy Gallery in 1936. Cornell was always worried about how his work would be received. He was therefore unprepared when, a short while into this oneiric edit of a 1931 jungle adventure B-film, East of Borneo, Salvador Dali upended the projector and denounced Cornell for stealing ideas from his subconscious. When Cornell tentatively began making films again in the mid-1950s, he changed techniques, commissioning other cinematographers to shoot in the New York streets, before editing the resulting footage. Curators and art historians have a tendency to hive off this messy, vulnerable history from the apparent fixity and perfection of the boxes. Two films, made nearly 20 years apart, are the only clue the curators give the crowds.

Thimble Theatre (1938, completed 1968) was one of a number of films Cornell began in the 1930s, produced from copies of film prints he collected. He had abandoned the project and then, just before his death, left it to the filmmaker Lawrence Jordan to finish. The opening sequence cuts from close-ups of dandelion heads to performing animals — lions leaping through flaming hoops, a pelican preparing to fly — to a staged scene in which children drop flowers against a black background of a star cloud that converts into an overhead shot of flowers. Sequences of trick photography from a vaudeville film act as an allegory of the effect: Cornell is mining the powers of early cinema, from the period when film’s techniques revealed a nature transformed by technology — what Benjamin called the “second nature” of dead labor turned into commodities.

The second film included was made during Cornell’s second period of filmmaking. In 1955 he commissioned Stan Brakhage, who had only just moved to New York and made a handful of shorts, to act as cameraman on a film about the Third Avenue El, the antiquated rail route from Lower Manhattan to the Bronx. The film, Gnir Rednow (1957), included nothing that Brakhage had put in his own version, The Wonder Ring — a revelation for the way it combines a loose, rhythmic camerawork that responds to the structure and movement of the train, lingering on platform-side adverts, abstract squares, and patches of light falling through windows. (The version in this exhibition is run upside-down and back-to-front, adding to the disorientating effect.)

P. Adams Sitney described the body of films left after Cornell’s death as “the central enigma of his work.” The films are not only the most underexamined, puzzling, and private aspect of a very private career, but also seem at times to be the feature that might allow us to ask useful questions of the rest of his image-world. Annette Michelson writes, in a pioneering article about Cornell’s films, that “[f]ilm had begun with that primary retrieval, through temporality, of the deep recessive space of painting called into question by painting since Impressionism. The Surrealist animus against Cubism […] had been an outcry of loss, of deprivation.”


The power of Cornell’s greatest work lies in how closely it tarries with this fate, while turning the materials of the commodity-world to its own account; the box-form allowed him to combine looseness and formal rigor, to contain Bataille’s sense of the informe within form. Two boxes included in the exhibition — Untitled (White Cubes) (1946–’48), and Untitled (‘Dovecote’ American Gothic) (1954–’56) — display this plainly. Both combine whitewashed wooden grids with little wooden objects in their niches. The grain of the wood, the minor variations of the sizes and positions of the cubes — bordering on the clumsiness of handicraft, the ways in which the structures, by reflecting light or casting shadow, create space — become the whole substance of the work. Two more from the 1940s show the effects Cornell could achieve in the form, from the playful to the painful. Habitat Group for a Shooting Gallery (1943) arranges lithographs of four birds inside a plain white box blasted with paint splatters and scraps of French newspaper; the glass is broken at the center as if by a gunshot. But there is still something faintly derisive about the solemnity it seems to conjure up about violence, in the combination of fake birds that seem to smile with real wooden perches and in the energy with which Cornell vandalizes his own linear space with shapeless color. By comparison, Untitled (Aviary with Cockatoo and Corks) (1948), from the series that evolved out of the Habitats, seems at first cheery and serene. In the upper section the lithographed bird rests on a real branch. Small corks seem ready to roll about at its feet, and in the right-hand compartment of the lower division, a clockwork mechanism seems ready to start, as if the box were an automaton at rest. But the nature and purpose of its movement are as mysterious and unforthcoming as Duchamp’s coffee grinders. A pink string tethers the cockatoo to a box containing yet more corks and its branch. The moment at which time and purpose will reenter this world will never arrive. The slight fading of the frontal wood frame traps it like the jaws of a vice.

key 8 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 
Exhibition organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, London,
and Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

The box-form has an affinity with the miniature proscenium stage of a children’s cardboard theater. Cornell makes this literal in Palace (1943), a box containing an enlarged reproduction of the elevation drawing of a neoclassical building mounted on card. The window spaces are mirrored, and twigs, sprayed silver, loom up behind it like the forest around Sleeping Beauty’s castle. But the box, with its single aperture bordered on four sides, forces a stronger sort of focalization. It asserts an interior space into which the spectator peers, set against, but also literally reflecting, the world outside. This space is also an image of consciousness, to which the viewer is positioned as an Other: the dead nature that lurks inside the boxes is gifted a species of interiority. The lovingly arranged spaces of the boxes are divided by multiple panes of glass, filled with little objects in alcoves and bisected by painted lines that reassert a Renaissance perspective that’s as much of an object of nostalgia as Cornell’s Medici princess — asserting that there isn’t much difference between the atmosphere of these empty cubes, created by explicit techniques, and the appraising mind that looks at them. The boxes are less a theater tableau than a close-up — the mesh of lighting, smoke, cinematographic variables, star presence — permanently held, with an implicit reaction shot.

key 40

Joseph Cornell, Palace, 1943
Box construction, 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
Exhibition organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, London,
and Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

“Cinema,” writes Michelson, “could begin to satisfy Cornell’s desire for movement in his work […] it could imprison the past, evoke absence, and it could satisfy the basic, primary impulse to see through and into a deep recessive space as into that past.” The first shadow box, Soap Bubble Set (1936), was finished the same year as Rose Hobart and three years after Cornell’s first film scenario, Monsieur Phot. In the boxes, time could be trapped or inscribed, but allowed an ongoing life: the ghastly liveliness of the commodity-form. The greatest of Cornell’s boxes, Penny Arcade Portrait of Lauren Bacall (1946), is absent in this exhibition — it disappeared into a private collection last year for a record price — but combines the poise of an icon painting with a seductive vibrancy. At the center, a reproduction of Bacall’s close-up in her film debut, To Have and Have Not (1944), is surrounded by smaller pictures of herself, those beneath her coated with the deep blue filter glass that signified night in the silent era; above her, miniatures of New York skyscrapers glisten. It doesn’t seem a coincidence that it stands chronologically equidistant between the two halves of Cornell’s filmmaking career. The listing gestures of Rose Hobart, halfway to the stasis of Garbo’s famous close-ups, combine with the urban reverie of his later films’ editing.

In his notes for the box, Cornell wrote that he wanted to excavate the “Botticellian slenderness” of Bacall from within the fog of “Hollywood booze, cigarette smoke and slow-motion mugging.” As Jodi Hauptman notes in her patient and careful study Stargazing in the Cinema (1999), there’s an extraordinary tension, and delusion, in this wish. Bacall, as Warner Brothers’s publicity emphasized, was one of the last great products of the studio system, an image molded by Hawks himself. The wish for purity at its core is disrupted by its sensational details, which recall the amusement arcades of Cornell’s youth, where the first Edison kinetoscopes and later the first nickelodeons were installed.

Literally behind the image of Bacall — hidden inside the body of the box — a mechanism recreates arcade games: a ball placed in a hole at the top right corner rolls down a series of ramps, coming to rest in the blue-glassed space at the bottom. It signals, Hauptman writes, “the eruption of the carnal into those obstinately unbodily boundaries and frames.” But it also recalls to the viewer that she is looking into a constellation of technology, that the cosmology in which Bacall assumes her form is that of a media universe. Cornell could only maintain the fantasy that he was looking into his own enchanted past, could only sustain the modernist dialectic that still flickers in the films and in the Bacall box by the very formal integrity of the illusion, the self-closure that threatens to lapse into the mythic fixity of the commodity. The box is a medium that abandons medium-specificity. It becomes a site through which interchangeable content flows. Warhol’s screen prints — neither painting nor decoration, but a scrim over which images spill from a dematerialized world — and Rauschenberg’s Monogram, which turns the picture plane horizontal, as a platform for heterogeneous junk, are only a breath away.


Dan Barrow is a poet and critic. He has written for The Wire, Sight and Sound, The Quietus, and other publications. He is a PhD student at Birkbeck, University of London, and lives in Birmingham.

LARB Contributor

Dan Barrow is a poet and critic. He has written for The Wire, Sight and Sound, The Quietus, and other publications. He is a PhD student at Birkbeck, University of London, and lives in Birmingham.


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