In Joseph Cornell’s Theater of the Mind: Selected Diaries, Letters, and Files, Mary Ann Caws, a distinguished American scholar of Dada and Surrealism, successfully performs the daunting task of shaping a representative and manageable selection out of the vast store of Cornell’s papers and other materials deposited in the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art. Cornell was an energetic diarist and correspondent. Much of what this celebrated packrat accumulated, typically on visits to used bookshops such as those on Manhattan’s Fourth Avenue or the thrift shops and stalls along Canal Street, he turned into art. Many of his whimsical boxes and collages became gifts bestowed on friends and those he admired. Caws presents the fragments of Cornell’s life in a handsome illustrated volume that includes appreciations of Cornell by Robert Motherwell and John Ashbery.
Joseph Cornell was born in 1903 in Nyack, New York, to a moderately prosperous family. Yet the last years of his father’s life were marked by illness and financial ruin. Cornell was able to enter Phillips Academy in 1917, the year of his father’s death, but left school without a diploma in 1919, at about the time the Cornell family moved to Queens. During the 1920’s Cornell worked for a textile firm, and in 1925 he experienced a profound religious conversion to Christian Science. He was to remain a devoted member of this denomination until his death.
In 1929, his family moved to a white frame house in Flushing, Queens. Cornell remained here for the rest of his life, caring for his invalid brother Robert (who suffered from cerebral palsy) until the latter’s death in 1965. His mother died in 1966. Cornell left the family home regularly to venture into Manhattan, where he frequented used and rare bookshops and secondhand stores. Although he nurtured throughout his life a love for the French language (with which he had considerable facility) and modern French literature, Cornell never traveled abroad, let alone to other parts of the United States.
By the early 1930’s, Cornell had begun to create collages (he called them “montages”) in response to the photomontages of Max Ernst. He also made his first film and began to fashion the boxes that remain his artistic signature. Viewing the dreamlike arrangements of objects in Cornell’s boxes, one can easily understand how his work came to be associated with Surrealism. In 1942 Cornell met a number of Surrealist artists, many of them refugees newly arrived in the United States. He also worked briefly in a defense plant during the war.
After a sampling of undated entries, the material Caws presents begins in 1940, when Cornell was emerging into the ranks of American modernists, especially those associated with the Surrealist movement in exile. The memorable 1938 Museum of Modern Art exhibition “Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism” had included some of Cornell’s work, bringing his art to the attention of a wider public. His new admirers included émigré artists such as Marcel Duchamp and Pavel Tchelitchew, as well as the poet Marianne Moore. Letters exchanged between her and Cornell provide some of the high points of this volume’s war-era correspondence.
Cornell’s correspondents were a varied and interesting lot. Besides those of Moore, early letters reproduced here include those between Cornell and poet Mina Loy, critics Parker Tyler and Charles Henri Ford (for whose magazine, View, Cornell occasionally designed covers), and Robert Motherwell. In later years, he engaged in lively exchanges with Dore Ashton and Susan Sontag, who, like all Cornell friends, received boxes as gifts.
In his letters, the artist is sweet and charming, usually decorating the pages with bits of collage. Cornell seems to have struck others as a kind of exceptionally gifted child, and indeed he retained to the end the spontaneity and lack of pretense one associates with childhood. In Dime-Store Alchemy: The Art of Joseph Cornell (1992), Charles Simic noted the effect Cornell had on critics, “disarming” them with his originality and genius. “When it comes to Cornell,” he wrote, “there are no axes to grind.” Though he never married, Cornell enjoyed children immensely.
Whether writing a letter or a diary entry, Cornell reports on such commonplace activities as eating sweets, going for walks, and riding the subway. He describes his moods—“feeling offelicity” is a typical phrase. He recounts the late-night bouts of concentrated work that often followed periods of quiescence. He comments on his musical passions, often mentioning Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart or Claude Debussy. He collected records, along with everything else, and would describe a new purchase from the Record Hunter excitedly to his friends.
Apparently Cornell strongly tested others’ friendship through long, rambling telephone conversations. The...
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