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Joseph Cornell: how a reclusive artist spread his wings

Joseph Cornell: how a reclusive artist spread his wings

The work of this magpie artist took flight when he encountered an enchanting collage

The work of this magpie artist took flight when he encountered an enchanting collage

Dan Piepenbring | February 6th 2018

At a gallery in Manhattan in October 1953, Joseph Cornell glimpsed “The Man at the Café” (1914), a dusky collage by Juan Gris, a Spanish cubist painter. Here, in an angular welter of newsprint and wood grain, was a brooding man “covered almost completely by his reading matter”, as Cornell described the image in his diary. The way it apportioned shape and shadow enchanted him. He began an extensive file on Gris, whom he came to regard as a “warm fraternal spirit”, though he’d died a quarter-century earlier. Over the next 13 years, Cornell dedicated more than 20 works to Gris, returning to his ideas again and again. “Birds of a Feather”, an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, gathers a dozen of Cornell’s shadow-box assemblages alongside “The Man at the Café”, which presides over them, inviting viewers to find the resonances, however subtle, between the two artists.

When he began his Gris series, Cornell had been making his boxes for two decades, finding some renown among artists and gallerists. The box itself – confining but liberating – had become his organising principle, a way to bound the vagaries of his imagination. He envisioned his boxes as “poetic theatres”, where found objects interacted with each other. He was beguiled by the basic fact of juxtaposition, the magnetism he could generate between different objects.

This wasn’t mere preciousness. Painfully shy and often alone, Cornell lived with his mother in Flushing, Queens, and he seldom wandered farther than Manhattan. He worked as a wool salesman, which compounded his anxieties, requiring as it did frequent trips to the city. But these he would turn into magpie expeditions, gathering the “flotsam and jetsam,” as he called it, that he later fashioned into art. Postage stamps, newspapers, postcards, advertisements, rubber balls, stray pieces of twine – minutiae spoke to him in all its formal variety. Peripatetic of mind but never of body, he relied on his assemblages to take him where his legs would not.

The Gris boxes are linked by a repeating image: a great white-crested cockatoo. Cornell had a thing for birds. He visited pet shops just to stare at them; he installed a birdbath in his backyard; he lingered in Union Square to watch the pigeons. Like the shadows in “The Man at the Café”, birds stirred something mournful and primitive in him. As his biographer Deborah Solomon has written, “At times it seemed that the act of looking, the search for phantoms, brought Cornell whatever happiness he knew.” The ubiquitous cockatoo came from a book published in 1844 called “Parrots in Captivity”. It’s a title that encapsulates, in a way, Cornell’s mission with his Gris project: to mimic another perspective while remaining inescapably himself.

 

“The Man at the Café” by Juan Gris (1914, oil and newsprint collage on canvas)

The collage that started it all. It follows that Cornell, in his reticence, was drawn to Gris’s study in obscurity. Only under close scrutiny does it reveal its subject, and even then, the man is “covered almost completely”, as Cornell noted. The collage’s shadows and wood-grain textures are everywhere in Cornell’s boxes, and you can find derivations of that frothy, almost effervescent head of foam on the man’s beer. But despite his obsession with this piece, Cornell apparently saw no use for its more figurative elements. The guarded angle of the man’s shoulder; the nefarious tilt of his fedora; his vaguely unsettled grip on the newspaper: aspects like these are strikingly absent from Cornell’s boxes. He borrowed all of the angularity and none of the menace.  

 

“Homage to Juan Gris” by Joseph Cornell (1953–54, box construction)

Cornell lined this box with cut-and-pasted pages from a 19th-century French history book, evoking the newsprint in Gris’s collage, and added an ersatz wood-grain perch for his treasured cockatoo. But it’s easiest to trace Gris’s influence in the silhouettes – this is a shadow box in the most literal sense of the term. Using bold, fringed swaths of black, Cornell embraced cubism’s severe edges and interlocking shapes to give the cockatoo a brash, off-kilter prominence. If Gris’s “Man” seemed to be drowning in newsprint, Cornell’s bird juts forth almost defiantly, daring you to care about anything else. But the effect is the same: they seem to be hiding in plain sight. 

 

“Juan Gris Cockatoo No. 4” (c.1953-54, box construction)

There’s something fugitive about the cockatoo, something transient. As it surfaces and resurfaces in so many of Cornell’s boxes, one wonders: why this bird? Why so many of this bird? Here, the same cockatoo that looked buoyant and free in the previous box looks insouciant, even a bit miffed; the box has taken on the claustrophobia of a cage. Impaled by a golden ring, the ball of cork conjures the knob of foam from Gris’s collage – but while the newspaper Gris’s man reads is Le Matin (the morning), Cornell’s bird is set against Le Soir (the evening). This is one of several boxes in which he used the phrase; the gloaming has replaced the ease of the morning.

 

“Grand Hotel Bon Port” (late 1950s, box construction)

When a project was going well, Cornell would refer in his diary to its “unfoldment” – a word signalling his interest in dimension and dilation. In the late 1950s, he returned to his Gris series after a few years away from it, invigorated by further exposure to cubism. The “unfoldment” here came in part from Cornell’s adventures as an armchair traveller, as he called himself. He began to cull the names of Europe’s grand hotels from his Baedeker guides; though he’d never visited Europe, he was enamoured of the stately adventures promised in the hotels’ names. As if in pursuit of those adventures, the cockatoo here is turned away, vanishing into a shard of blue sky. Cornell called it his “cloud cockatoo.”

 

“Untitled (Juan Gris Series, Black Cockatoo Silhouette)” (c. 1954-65, box construction)

Cornell would often listen to opera while working on these boxes, and some of its drama seems to have seeped into the work. The cockatoo here is all but consumed by its silhouette, a red ring suspended ominously above it. The bird’s other half is a mottled, weathered piece of wood, one of Gris’s favourite materials. When I visited “Birds of a Feather,” the Met was hosting one of its “Seeing Through Drawing” events, in which partially blind visitors make sketches of the artworks as someone else describes them, down to the finest detail. “There’s a black bird,” a woman told her drawing companion, “but it’s not a blackbird. I don’t really know what it is.” Her description, and the secondary act of homage it inspired, seemed the perfect summation of the exhibition.

Birds of a Feather: Joseph Cornell’s Homage to Juan Gris The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, until April 15th