The Lightfoot Boxer
When e. e. cummings was asked to admire that marvel of modern engineering, the 80,000-ton superliner Normandie, he remarked offhandedly that there was nothing unusual about it, his great-aunt Effie could have done just as well with a couple of bent hairpins and a thimble. He spoke with a traditional American voice, that of the crafty know-it-all Yankee eccentric, the crusty self-taught loner whittling away at a better mousetrap out by Walden Pond, working out the laws of the universe for himself and giving not a hang for what conventional drummer his conventional neighbors chose to shuffle along to. There used to be characters like this scattered over small-town America, and most of them were merely oddballs, to be laughed at or scorned, or disregarded. But every so often one of them turned out to be a genuine genius, offering startling new insights into the world the rest of us take for granted. Emily Dickinson belonged to this breed, hiding all her life behind her hedge in Amherst and twisting the English language to turn out verses to express uniquely delicate, unexpected perceptions.
Joseph Cornell was another. He spent most of his life in a single house, this one in Flushing, at the outer edges of New York City turning out an immense collection of intensely private works, which have now earned an honored place in the virtual museum of American art.
Cornells niche in that museum is as private and unexpected as his house in Flushing. He remains unclassifiable, he belonged to no school, he followed no model or theory, he imitated no one and no one has imitated him.
It is almost impossible not to like Cornells work, though people generally find it hard to say why. He dealt in unidentifiables, and in the long run there is not more to say about him than that he had a unique gift for placing small objects in small boxes in a way that can delight, mystify, enthrall anyone who took the trouble to look at them.
He sometimes worked in traditional form, he made collages, he made movies, and these have received their share of admiration, but his principal work consists of boxes. Hand-made boxes filled with an extraordinary miscellany of objects capable of setting up infinite reverberations in the mind of the viewer. Hexagons of wood and glass, wrote the Mexican poet Octavio Paz of these boxes, scarcely bigger than a shoebox/ with room in them for night and all its lights.
The man himself was stooped, sad-faced, birdlike, insignificant-looking. One of his dealers remembers him slinking to the opening of one of his shows, in a raincoat, without charisma or a necktie. He did not talk much, and his talk was apt to be punctuated by long silences. He was born in Nyack, New York, in 1903, the sixth and last of a line of Joseph Cornells going back to Dutch Colonial days. He went to school at Andover, where he ran on the track team and was not remarked about for anything. Between 1921 and 1931 he worked for a wholesale woolen company in Manhattan, but he preferred to spend most of his time prowling and browsing through the second-hand bookstores on Fourth Avenue, where he began assembling the colossal collection of prints and illustrations snipped from old books that would later fill a major part of his house.
That modest white frame house, where he lived for 43 years, on a street named Utopia Parkway, he shared with his mother and his invalid brother Robert. Robert was partly paralyzed, and Joseph claimed that it was he who furnished him with ideas; his work can be considered as a luminous toy to light up the sad life of his brother.
After his school days, he seldom made any journey further than the subway ride from Flushing to Times Square. But what need had he to travel when ideas could explode like Novae in his head, when his imagination could carry him at unpredictable intervals to Italian opera houses of the early 19th century, to discreetly cozy French hotels, to the Milky Way? He never married, but he was surely happier than if he had, for where in Flushing could he have found anything like his long passionate and all-consuming if necessarily unrequited love affair with Fanny Cerrito, a Neapolitan ballerina who had danced in the Pas de Quatre for Queen Victoria in 1845, almost 60 years before he was born?
Though no one shared his privacy, he was by no means a recluse. He had a constantly growing circle of admirers, and he might occasionally summon one of these to his house to see some of his work or simply to share a chocolate roll or a mocha cake for he had a remarkably sweet tooth. And there were enthusiastic young people proud to be able to help him build his boxes in his basement and keep his voluminous correspondence in some kind of order. But he was not made for close personal relationships outside his immediate family. He got on with people only when they were on his private wavelength, and when they were not he might drop them abruptly. One side of him preferred, like the 19th-century Romantic poets whom he greatly admired, to reserve his deepest emotions for distant, unattainable figures, dream figures, all the more attractive if they were connected with the stage.
Once, it is said, the police became interested in the way he was circling and fluttering around the ticket booth of a theater near Times Square. The cashier inside was blonde and gorgeous, and there was the added attraction that she spent all her working day in an Art Dcco box. But it is unlikely that Cornell would ever have dreamed of laying a finger on her, any more that he did on the dozen or so Hollywood stars with whom he carried on one-way epistolary romances. He was more than half in love with Hedy Lamarr, in whom he found a gracious humility and spirituality, with Marilyn Monroe, with many others. He kept complete dossiers on them and wrote them wistful letters , sometimes with cut-out decorations pasted on them. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of the life history of these stars, and a chance association might set off a flood of memories. Once he was asked by an interviewer this was the kind of question that he loved if he liked cherry soda. His reply was, in a very mystical way. They have them in the underground in those big conveying machines it brings back memories ...cherry and lime also remind me of Sheree North, a starlet they were going to build up to Marilyn Monroe roles, but it didnt happen. I sent her a small box once, but never heard from her.
Once a dealer called him up to say that Tony Curtis, an admirer and collector, wanted to visit him with his wife. I have a dossier on Tony Curtis, said Cornell delightedly, and an even bigger one on Janet Leigh. The dealer was a little embarrassed, with Curtis at his side, to explain that Mrs. Curtis was no longer Janet Leigh but Christine Kaufmann. He need not have worried; it turned out that Cornell had a Christine Kaufmann dossier as well.
He was delighted by all kinds of strange chances and coincidences, as when he learned from an article in Mademoiselle that Jean-Paul Belmondo, one of his favorite actors, was a collateral descendant of Fanny Cerrito (Miss Cherrytoes, as he liked to call her), his great hopeless love.
This kind of unexpected coincidence, full of deep but undefined significance, was at the heart of what Cornell was looking for all his life and in all his art. He believed with his Romantic forebears, like the French poet Gérard de Nerval (who, too, was consumed with a hopeless love for an actress), that the proper domain of art was an overflowing of dreams into waking life.
For Cornell, as for Nerval, the aim of the artist was consciously to find this same mixture of strangeness and inevitability. They did not so much want to imitate or to re-create dreams as to connect with them.
Easier said than done. Generations of poets and painters and composers have tried to communicate the feel, the atmosphere of dreams, but the result has generally been obscurity or incoherence or dullness, or all three. Cornells immediate predecessors were the surrealists; it was surrealist artists like Max Ernst who helped inspire him to assemble disparate fragments of images in the high-toned parlor game they called collage.
This was not his true way, however, and he soon outgrew it. He shared the surrealists fascination with the dreamworld that opens up every time we go to sleep, but he understood it better and more humanely than they did. Most dreams, fortunately for us, are not nightmares, and the word dreamlike does not ordinarily connote hostility and terror; it evokes a certain gentleness, a certain sense of wonder. This was the world Cornell spent his life exploring.
A Cornell box is never big; the largest recorded dimensions are about 24 inches by 18 by 6. He worked very carefully on their construction, carpentering them with precision, covering them with several coats of stains or paints, then sometimes baking them in ovens and otherwise conditioning them to give a weathered look of indeterminate age. And he packed them with nostalgia, with items out of a past he had made his own, with bird feathers and stuffed birds, astronomical charts, reproductions of Renaissance portraits of melancholy boys, clay pipes that recalled his Dutch ancestry, mirrors, glass vials, clock springs, bits of cloth, grains of sand, shells.
As in all dreams, the raw material came out of his daily life, which was quite unlike most of ours. It was spent in deliberately collecting impressions out of books, pictures, chance meetings, chance sights, bits and pieces of reality that he would later reassemble in his constructions, He saved everything he laid his hands on, and he kept it in a great jumble of a filing system that overflowed his house. A photograph of a corner of his workshop shows shelves piled helter-skelter with shoe boxes labeled Plastic Shells, Sea Shells, Springs, Watch Parts, Rings, Glasses, Dürer, Tinfoil, Tinted cordial glasses, Nostalgia of the Sea, Love Jennifer Jones, Owls, Medici Slot Machine mat, Strings and Flotsam.
Howard Hussey, one of his assistants, jotted down one day the labels on a series of folders piled on book-cases: Landscapes, Cloudscapes, Faces of the Young, Debutants, Bird Portraits, City exteriors, Jeanne Eagles, Malibran, Debussy.
Hussey was riding with him on the bus one day on the way to deposit some checks in the bank when he noticed that Cornell was not paying any attention to what he was saying. Cornell was transfixed by a sudden wonder, put on presumably for his sole benefit: a lustrously pink cloud alone in the sky, fading imperceptibly into the blue intensity over LaGuardia airport. Such moments were to find their way through crooked channels into his boxes.
What they meant precisely when they got there was something on which Cornell would, and probably could, shed no light.
The boxes may be mysterious, but they are not necessarily obscure. Sometimes it is easy to trace their connection with Cornells obsessive interests. Thus, he was fascinated with the career of the early 19th-century opera singer Maria Malibran, and several of his collages and boxes are in his unique way a kind of memorial to her.
Or the box may be a memorial to a whole age, as the hinged wooden one with a velvet-colored lid bearing a photograph of the legendary ballerina Taglioni and an inscription that reads: On a moonlight night in the winter of 1885 the carriage of Taglioni was halted by a Russian highwayman, and that entrancing creature commanded to dance for this audience of one upon a panthers skin spread over the snow beneath the stars. From this actuality rose the legend that to keep alive the memory of this adventure, so precious to her, Taglioni formed the habit of placing a piece of artificial ice in her jewel casket or dressing table where, melting among the sparkling stones, there was evoked a hint of the atmosphere of the starlit heavens over the ice-covered landscape.
The layered chest is sealed with glass, lined with velvet, and contains two necklaces, glass tubes and bits of tulle. In little more than a nutshell you have all the passion and pathos, the cockeyed gallantry and the glorious absurdity of the 19th century Romantics, those moths desiring a star.
A Cornell box can be quite light-hearted. Witness A Poetry Ballet (for Jacques Offenbach) in which the composer of the cancan melodies of Orpheus in the Underworld is celebrated by a lobster quadrille inspired by Alice in Wonderland: plastic lobsters with bead necklaces and tulle skirts hanging from strings beneath a miscellany of spoons and forks.
More often it is distant, muted, melancholy. The Renaissance boys, the glass tubes, the charts of the stars, all hint at something distant and a little sad. Like any dreamer, Cornell could shift his moods unpredictably. He was not bound by any canons of good taste. Admirers who thought that the engravings he cut out of Victorian books were delightful may have thought otherwise when he cut pictures of nudes from photography magazines as well. Highbrow visitors to Utopia were displeased to see a garish tablecloth showing a calypso dance and bearing the greeting: Welcome to Jamaica.
In some respects Cornell was well read, he was a very learned man, but he was not an intellectual. He loved dancing at the fringes of the New York art world. He was an artists artist, a figure to be watched and puzzled over, but he seldom called himself an artist. On voter registration, he once said, I call myself a designer. In answer to a biographical query, he summed up his education as follows:
Went to Andover
No art instruction
He had no false modesty about the talent, however. He knew how good he was, and he appreciated recognition if it came in on the proper wavelengths. He had a shrewd sense of the commercial value of his work he saw the value of his boxes go up from $15 to $10,000 in his lifetime but he preferred to give them away to someone who had struck the right chord of recognition.
He once described his work as a serious plaisanterie, a serious joke. It has been the subject of some very heavy philosophical commentary, and Cornell boxes are prominently displayed these days in the halls of museums. But as most of his collectors have found, they belong rather in a lived-in living-room, placed more or less haphazardly on table or shelf, not to be stared at under a magnifying glass, but to be glanced at sideways at unscheduled moments, to spread a little of the light of other days on the bleak present, to remind us another quote from cummings that there is another world next door that is a lot more pleasant than this one.
©Robert Wernick 1980
Smithsonian Magazine March 1981