Joseph Cornell/Marcel Duchamp…In Resonance. Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2008.
I’m in the middle of a full scale art library binge.
This is a wonderful, beautiful book, full of surprises. I am endlessly fascinated to discover things about the lives of artists that I like - all the detail of their daily existence, their upbringing, what they themselves admired - which is why I’m always keen to read diaries and autobiographies. Often I am as interested in what someone had for breakfast, trivialities of that scale, as I am anything else about them. I was reading Susan Sontag’s early diaries yesterday (more on that later) and loved all the bits where she listed food or simply words - all the bits that present her as just normal, human.
Joseph Cornell is an interesting character, and one of the writers of this book, Walter Hopps, is full of anecdotes. Curiously, just as I’m thinking about Sontag this crops up:
At one point, he asked me if I knew Susan Sontag. He had acquired a copy of Sontag’s first novel, Benefactor, and the book had disturbed him, but he loved the picture of her on the dust jacket. I said, ‘By all means, I know her’ - I had met her when we were both in high school in L.A. He was practically swooning. He had to leave the room. This often happened. He got very emotional and said he needed to go upstairs and lie down. He asked me to arrange a meeting with Sontag, which I did. Later, he gave me a collage that he regarded as an imaginary portrait of her as a young girl.
I find this more curious, more insightful in relation to the nature of Cornell’s output than what I imagine an art historian on a guided tour would tell me about its ‘importance’. There’s more, much more:
He loved beautiful women, ballet dancers especially…possessed of a different temperament, he might have staged ballets, and I think his boxes are in some ways a sublimation of this impulse - a simulacrum of theatrical production.
He spent a great deal of time in the New York Public Library, and the book as object became very important to him - the book literally became an armature for the art in some of his works.
That says a lot really. Cornell and Duchamp were unlike their contemporaries in their involvement with employing or assembling everyday objects for the purposes of art; for appreciating practical objects as things in themselves, as the objects they are, for seeing them as forms with the potential for transformation. They were, however, almost diametrically opposed in terms of sensibility and, for this reason, make an interesting pairing.
Duchamp was an excellent draftsman, says Hopps, whereas Cornell ‘is perhaps the most important twentieth-century artist who did not, in any conventional sense, draw.’ I’ve always wondered about this - the importance of drawing (‘conventional’ drawing as Hopps calls it). It teaches you to look, to really look at things. But is it a necessary skill? And what, then, is ‘unconventional’, or ‘non-conventional’ drawing? Cornell relied upon ready-made objects. To many people with narrow opinions on the value judgement of ‘skill’ (a dangerous word), this would rule him out of any real consideration as a true artist (what does that mean anyway). And yet I’ve commonly found that all sorts of people really love Cornell. Hopps equates his appeal to a kind of ‘unselfconscious alchemy’ that was all his own - his ability to transform recognisable everyday objects into poetry.
There is something wonderfully, genuinely naive and unselfconscious about Cornell (which is why I’m drawn to him over Duchamp though I like both). His works, says Hopps ‘were not conceptual machines; they were small, imaginary theatres.’ Duchamp on the other hand had a very different way of seeing things, putting art ‘into the service of the mind.’
This book is just so brilliant I could type out the whole thing (Hunter S. Thompson did this with The Great Gatsby in order to know what it would feel like to write a great novel. It’s a shame there’s no way I could ever paint a Picasso. I could, however, turn a urinal upside down. But wasn’t that the point?).
I’ll end on this (I will just have to buy this book):
Cornell…found some Surrealism frightening. About Max Ernst, he said, ‘Oh he is often very disturbing to me.’ I said, ‘Why is that?’ ‘Well it seems to involve a kind of black magic. And I’m interested in white magic.’