Joseph Cornell at SFMOMA

I had invited my son to join me on my journey to San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art, but he turned me down. That actually ended up to be a good thing because if he had come along, he either would have a) gotten mad at me because I was taking too long, or b) caused me, out of guilt, to rush. As it turned out, I was able to spend almost three and a half hours working my way through the Joseph Cornell exhibit Naviagating the Imagination while lingering over every amazing box, collage, commentary, note, and scrap of paper. It runs until January 6, 2008, and I highly recommend hawking a piece of jewerly if necessary and taking the A-train to see it.

As I wandered through the exhibit, I wrote down notes (in pencil – no pens allowed in the museum) about what I saw into my notebook. What follows are those musings.

I started by watching a short film by Larry Jordan who lived and worked with Cornell for a while in his house in Flushing, New York.

Cornell’s House in Queens

The film, entitled Cornell 1965 contains the only film footage of Cornell, and if you blink, you’d miss it. It’s not that Cornell was reclusive, as is sometimes implied, but that he wanted his work, not himself, to be recorded. Jordan was in the attic filming Cornell’s art work, when his camera happened to look out the window to find Cornell in his backyard, rummaging through boxes and trying to piece parts together, presumably for another one of his “object boxes” as he liked to call them. Towards the end of the film, there’s another glimpse of Cornell, standing inside his garage, hands on his hips, looking towards his yard. The camera lingers there, watching him lovingly, and you get this sense of a fleeting stolen moment, which was obviously very precious to the filmmaker.

Jordan narrates the film and gives us some insights into Cornell: Proust was his favorite writer. Debussey was his favorite composer. Lorca, a favorite poet.

Jordan said that Cornell “. . . believed that there were moments crystallized in feelings from the past . . .” He said that Cornell used the term “epiphanies” more than once to describe what he was striving for in his art and that “. . . his working concern was only to bring certain threads of reminiscence together.” Jordan also said that Cornell “preferred working with humble materials,” and that his simple little nine minute film was a sort of homage to that vision.

One of my favorite things from the exhibit was a huge blown-up photograph of one of the set of shelves from Cornell’s basement where he stored all his stuff and made his art. Rows and rows of boxes are stacked precariously on top of each other. The boxes are all different sizes and shapes and have handwritten labels on the front with descriptions such as “cornials,” “plastic shells,” “tinfoil,” and “tinted cordial glasses.” Apparently, Cornell liked to collect ephemera as a way to relax and break the tedium of his job as a textile salesman. It wasn’t until 1931 that he shifted from the hobby of collecting to making art from his collections.
He started in 1929 with collage and later moved on to boxes, which he called “poetic theaters.” And in 1953, he returned to making collages again.

Untitled (Tamara Toumanova) c. 1940
from Friday Prize

But it’s Cornell’s “cabinets of curiosity” for which he best know. The exhibit commentary says, “Cornell also absorbed his family’s Victorian sensibility of gathering and recycling things as talismans of ‘what else were scattered and lost.’ ”

Untitled (Paul and Virginia) c. 1946 – 48
from the WebMuseum

Paul and Virginia is one of my favorite boxes. Although I had seen Cornell’s work before, I had never seen this piece. I love the light blue color throughout and the way every little edge of the box is covered with text or illustration from old books and magazines. It reminds me of the piece I did for my mom The Gift. Apparently, Cornell did not feel any compunction against using original source material in his work.

As I was standing in front of this piece, and man and his daughter stood next to me. The girl was about ten years old. She said something like, “Why did he use those bird’s eggs?”

The dad replied, “You need to think about what they represent.”

The girl wondered, “The beginning of life?”

Even at her young age, she got it.

Penny Arcade Portrait of Lauren Bacall c. 1945

Apparently, Cornell loved to create works that would incorporate and pay tribute to the artistic gifts of people he admired, as he did with the piece for Tamara Toumanova, and in the one above for Lauren Bacall. He was inspred by her movie To Have and Have Not and the song she sings in the movie “How Little We Know.” In his notes for this “dream machine” he writes about wanting to create “. . . a machine that can capture over and over what one rememers from the film, more of the romantic ‘afterglow’ than literal scenes such as a musical composition which evokes and prolongs the pleasure and mood of an experience without being merely descriptive.” from Revised Notes on April 1945. You can definitely get a sense of the nostalgia that pervades Cornell’s work. There’s an interesting article at the Tate Research Center that talks about how Cornell’s passions for entertainers — ballerinas, opera stars, and actresses, to name a few — influenced his work.

Untitled (Soap Bubble Set) 1946
from WebMuseum

Cornell like to use antique star maps in his work. He was an avid stargazer, and as the museum commentary notes “. . . celestial navigation became his primary metaphor for extended travel across time and space and between the natural and spiritual world.” He used Dutch clay pipes used for blowing bubbles in his work as possible reference to “pipe dreams” He wrote in his notes regarding a collection of images around the theme of air travel that “. . . the beautiful fantasy involved the early ideas of conquering the air, and some of the more fantastic continuations of such dreams.”

One interesting thing that I learned about Cornell’s work, is that he would create portfolios of magazine and news clippings, postcards, advertisements, and other printed material that he could find all relating to a particular person or theme that he was interested in. He was inspired to create a case of papers and ephemera referred to as GC 44 after working at the Garden Center Nursery in Bayside, New York in 1944. In his notes he wrote about the collection “. . . all this manner of thing are gathered to convey this fleeting glory the sunlight filling the kitchen to recreate the House on the Hill . . . the calm enjoyment vs. the former feverish wanderlust to be away forgetting the besetting reaction of physical and mental fatigue (which resulted, however, in endless experiences of unexpected beauty, precious moments of the commonplace transformed by a kind of magic producing the deepest and warmest kind of love for each humblest aspect of landscape and person encountered — in this territory where one felt so much a stranger and but a ‘few blocks from home.’ ”

Crystal Cage: Portrait of Berenice ca. 1934 – 67
from The Warhol

Between 1934 and 1967, Cornell collected all sorts of material for a photomontage publication about a little girl named Berenice who would do experiments in a tower, or Crystal Cage. He eventually published this series in View magazine which you can see online at Bibliopolis. In his notes for this piece, dated November 14, 1942 and labeled “Appearance of Berenice” Cornell wrote about the sudden inspiration he had after seeing, through an elevated train window, a brief glimpse of three girls as they rode by. “. . . that little arm held a key that was now unlocking dreams. For in another flash and with overwhelming emotion came the realization that Berenice had been encountered, leaving a scattering of star-dust in her train.”

Some other random observations about Cornell:

  • He was a science major in college.
  • He became a Christian Scientist in 1925.
  • He liked the artists DeChirico and Max Ernst.
  • He created the first avant-garde “collage films” by spicing together film footage that he collected.
  • I liked his use of glass compasses and the Dutch pipes.
  • I recognized some of the marbled papers he used in his work. They are in the end papers of some of my old books.
  • I like the way he cut out an image and placed it opposite its own dark silhouette.
  • I recognized two collage images that he used as being from a little French language book that I own.
  • He was influenced by Juan Gris.
  • He was inspired by Rebecca Patterson’s 1951 biography The Riddle of Emily Dickinson.
  • The French word for “dovecotes” is colombier which is derived from the Latin word columbarium which denotes a niche for burial urns.

  • To see more of the contents of Cornell’s collections visit the Smithsonian Archives of American Art.
  • To see an interactive web site for the SFMOMA exhibition, which was originally created by the Peabody Essex Museum, visit Joseph Cornell: Naviagating the Imagination.
  • If you can’t get to San Francisco, you might enjoy the beautiful book which catalogs the exhibition — Joseph Cornell: Navigating the Imagination, which can be purchased at Amazon.

  • No Altered Books — No Art at All


    How does one continue to create art when a big part of your life is unraveling? I know some people find that art helps them work through their grief, but I can’t seem to make it work that way for me.

    As many of you who read my blog know, my mother has Alzheimer’s. Two weeks ago, she took a dramatic turn for the worse, refusing to eat or drink for four days, until my father was finally forced to admit her into the hospital. I spent five days in the hospital with her, holding her hand, talking to her, talking to doctors, nurses, dieticians, physical therapists, coaxing her to eat and drink. It was exhausting. In the middle of three art projects, I have been unable to pick up where I left off since I returned home. My mind constantly goes back to her, weak and wasting away with no desire to eat or drink. Sleeping most of the day. Falling asleep as I try to get her to eat another bite of vanilla pudding. Everytime she reluctantly takes a bite, she makes a terrible face, as though I had just fed her the most horrible tasting medicine in the world. And then she closes her mouth and shakes her head no; I try again later and the process repeats.

    The doctor says that this is a normal progression of her disease. Her brain apparently is not receiving hunger signals from her body and her tastebuds no longer recognize even the foods she once loved. I sit next to her while she’s sleeping, holding her fragile hand. She wakes up and looks at me; I wonder whom she sees. She smiles and says hello and tells me that she loves me. When the nurses come in to take her blood pressure, she accepts their good-natured prodding, then looks at me and winks. She’s humoring them, afterall. That spark of life and wit — I cling to it until it disappears.

    Then they discharge her, saying there is nothing more they can do for her in the hospital. As they remove the IV and the foley bag, I feel like I am watching them remove her life blood, and I suddenly long for the soothing beeping and light from the LCD screen.

    At home, she spends most of her time sitting in her lounge chair by the window, sleeping, while we flutter around her trying to do useful things. I stay at my father’s house for as long as I can, but soon I have to return to my job and my family and my life at home. I kiss her on the forehead and tell her I love her and wonder if I will see her again. I’m glad to be leaving, thinking it will bring some relief from the sadness, and then immediately regret the feeling. When I’m away, I feel as though I’m abandoning her; when I’m there, I feel helpless.

    It’s hard to get into a routine at home. My brain is fragmented. I have to be “on” in front of 145 seventh graders each day. I have to grade essays. I have to plant bulbs. I have to wash dishes and pay bills and make sure my son does his homework. There is no time and no inclination to pick up a paintbrush or open a book. Those projects have to wait.

    An Altered Book :: The Gift

    From my notebook. June 13, 2005

    It’s mother’s day. We’re sittng on the porch outside my parents’ home. There’s six of us, sitting, talking– my mom and dad, by sister and her husband, and my husband.

    A house sparrow has made a nest in the painted metal sailboats that hang on the wall. She’s tucked it beneath one of the brightly painted sails. There’s a little rust here and there where the paint has worn away. I can’t see the eggs, but I know they’re in there. Small, pale blue, lightly speckled.

    We’ve scared the mother off, and she sits anxiously in a nearby shrub, waiting for an opportunity to return to her nest. Sometimes she tries to make it– bravely swooping in, but then quickly darting away when someone moves an arm or speaks too loudly.

    I feel sorry for this bird for her and her anxiousness. I almost want to move everyone inside so she can get back to her nest.

    She tries to approach again, resting on the top of the metal mast, watching warily, but then my dad waves his arm for emphasis and she flies off again. I’m agitated, like her. I can’t follow the conversaton. I watch her watch us, waiting.

    She swoops again. This time she lingers on the edge of the boat and stays, gaining confidence. She slowly works her way behind that sail and settles down into the nest. She feels safe, hidden, protected. I see her small brown eye looking towards me. But I feel better now, knowing she’s back in her nest.

    Two weeks later I’m back to help take care of Mom and to look after Dad. I walk onto the porch again to check on the birds. But when I look behind the boat for the nest, I find that it’s gone.

    Inside the boats are seven delicate eggs. Remnants of the nest are strewn about here and there. I wonder if an animal got to it. But then, the eggs would probably be gone.

    I ask my dad if he knows what happened to the nest.

    “No. I didn’t even realize it was gone. Sandie,” he says to my mom, “do you know what happend to the nest that was in among the boats?”

    “Oh those messy birds! I just can’t stand it. I had to clean up that mess.”

    “But honey, that was a bird’s nest,” my father says gently.

    “I just don’t care. They just can’t come around and leave a mess like that!”

    “Okay, mom,” I say. “It’s okay.”

    This is my new mom talking– the one who’s on the edge of being a stranger to me, and I to her. She’s the one I’m trying to get to know. Old mom cherished birds. Old mom took care of three or four bird feeders hanging full of seed near every window where she could watch them. Old mom could name every bird she saw. Old mom filled hummingbird feeders with sugar water, and called her daughters over every time a hummer came near.

    My old mom was heartbroken by every bird who lost its life against an unseen window. She had bird guides and binoculars always at the ready. When two house sparrows built their house foolishily and precarioulsy in the narrow porch rafters two summers ago, she didn’t even want us going outside so as not to disturb them.

    This new mother is a stranger to me. I want my old mother back, the one who would have done just about anything to protect the bird’s nest in the boat.

    It’s five months since that I wrote that entry. I have created an altered book and written a poem about that moment. You can find it on my web site at Found Object Assemblages :: The Gift.