Joseph Cornell ought to be a dull subject for a biography. A recluse, he never traveled, and he lived with his mother and brother in Queens, New York, for most of his life. Worse yet, Cornell died a virgin. He had none of the flamboyance of the surrealists (who influenced his art) or of the menace that made the abstract expressionists dangerous and sexy. Cornell’s life, in short, lacks action. He does not even commit suicide. Rather, he dies quietly at home.
Yet Deborah Solomon conveys a fascinating, probing account that never flags as she delicately describes Cornell’s life and art in UTOPIA PARKWAY: THE LIFE AND WORK OF JOSEPH CORNELL. He developed a vision and a craft that his fellow artists, and later the public, found enchanting, and he created a career for himself without compromising any of his principles. It is, in retrospect, a triumphant life, even though Cornell himself despaired and questioned his right to call himself an artist.
Cornell is best known for his boxes. His Lauren Bacall box, for example, is modeled after the penny arcade games he loved as a child. A wooden ball careens through the box, passing the Manhattan skyline and flicking past Bacall’s face with a momentum that is reminiscent of the fleeting images of film. The box is at once a tribute to Bacall and a comment on how film captures our childlike imagination.
For Cornell there need be no conflict between entertainment and art, between enjoying film stills and portraiture. He is the precursor of pop art, of Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol. As much as any artist, he reveals a unifying sensibility in which potentially the whole world can be contained in the box of his art.
Sources for Further Study
Art News. May, 1997, p. 109.
Booklist. XCIII, February 15, 1997, p. 991.
Boston Globe. March 26, 1997, p. D4.
Chicago Tribune. March 23, 1997, XIV, p. 1.
Elle. XII, March, 1997, p. 150.
The New Republic. CCXVI, June 30, 1997, p. 38.
The New York Review of Books. XLIV, August 14, 1997, p. 28.
The New York Times Book Review. CCII, March 23, 1997, p. 11.
Publishers Weekly. CCXLIV, January 13, 1997, p. 60.
The Wall Street Journal. March 19, 1997, p. A16.
The Washington Post Book World. XXVII, May 4, 1997, p. 9.