Reviewers of Deborah Solomon’s authoritative work remark that Joseph Cornell ought to be a dull subject for a biography. Except for four years at a preparatory school in Massachusetts, he never traveled outside the state of New York. He was a recluse who worked in Manhattan but lived very quietly in Queens. What major artist lives in an outer borough of the city? The glamour has always been in Manhattan, and if a New York artist did live anywhere else, it should be Brooklyn. Queens is philistine and middle-class to the New York art crowd.
Worse yet, Cornell died a virgin. He had no stormy love affairs and lived most of his life with his mother and brother. He accepted dull, unambitious jobs in the textile industry. He engaged in none of the self-dramatization and invention that mark the lives of many modern artists. He had none of the flamboyance of the Surrealists (who influenced his art) or the menace that made the abstract expressionists dangerous and sexy. Cornell’s life, in short, lacked action. He did not even commit suicide. Rather, he died quietly at home.
At best, perhaps a biographical essay, a miniature of Cornell’s life akin to his small-scale boxes, would seem in order—not a four-hundred-page-plus biographical narrative. Yet Solomon has been able to fashion a fascinating, probing account that never flags as she delicately describes Cornell’s life and art. She shows how he found a way to be an artist when most people would have assumed that he had no affinity for art at all. 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. Cornell’s is, in retrospect, a triumphant life, even though he himself despaired and questioned his right to call himself an artist.
Cornell became an artist in his late twenties, having shown till then little aptitude for art or for making a success in the world. He was drawn to art by an inquisitive nature and a desire to collect and treasure objects that others might consider junk. Art became his only medium of full expression after years of self- denial and withdrawal from the world.
Cornell grew up in Nyack, New York, the oldest son of Joseph and Helen Cornell. His father, a textile salesman, seems to have had an aesthetic sense that he conveyed to his son—though the son hardly knew it, since he was dominated by his demanding mother, Helen, who was thrown into bitter confusion when her husband died young and left her to fend for herself. As the oldest boy, Joseph not only took his father’s place but became a principal caretaker of his younger brother Robert, afflicted with cerebral palsy. Helen Cornell never considered working; she lived on a small inheritance and then in part on her son Joseph’s salary.
Joseph did poorly at preparatory school, earning mostly C’s and D’s. He was not granted a diploma. Shortly after returning home, he got a job through family connections with a wool manufacturer. It was during these early years that he began to haunt the bookshops on Manhattan’s Fourth Avenue, visit galleries, and occasionally go to the theater. These were exciting forays for an otherwise shy and timid man. He never rebelled, never sought girlfriends, and never lived by himself. He felt it his duty not merely to take care of his brother but to amuse him and make sure that Robert lived as cheerfully as possible. Both of the Cornell sisters eventually moved away from home and established families of their own; they felt guilty about the fact that Joseph was left to shoulder nearly the whole burden of his mother and brother, yet they were determined to have lives of their own.
In these unpromising circumstances, Joseph Cornell turned to collage and box making. He seems to have been inspired by Max Ernst, Pablo Picasso, and Marcel Duchamp. Both Picasso and Duchamp were famous for their appropriations of other artists’ work. Picasso plagiarized openly from virtually all the great artists. Duchamp went further, producing an art not so much for the eye as for the mind, a conceptual art whose subject was art from an unconventional perspective. Thus Duchamp put a mustache on the Mona Lisa, transforming Leonardo da Vinci’s famous painting into an androgynous, modern questioning of human identity. Duchamp also excelled in producing what he called “ready mades,” or “found art,” selecting objects not thought of as art and presenting them in an artistic context. Literally anything, including a men’s urinal, could then become art in Duchamp’s view.
An avid collector of photographs, films, theater programs, and an incredible array of items from five-and-dime stores, Cornell realized that he could put together his sense of the world in the art of...
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