Retrospective

The Cube Root of Dreams: John Ashbery on Joseph Cornell, in 1967

Joseph Cornell, Palace, 1943, box construction. HICKEY ROBERTSON/COURTESY THE MENIL COLLECTION, HOUSTON/©THE JOSEPH AND ROBERT CORNELL MEMORIAL FOUNDATION/VAGA, NY/DACS, LONDON 2015

Joseph Cornell, Palace, 1943, box construction.

HICKEY-ROBERTSON/©2015 THE JOSEPH AND ROBERT CORNELL MEMORIAL FOUNDATION/VAGA, NEW YORK, NY/DACS, LONDON/COURTESY THE MENIL COLLECTION, HOUSTON/

In honor of the Royal Academy of Arts’s Joseph Cornell survey, “Wanderlust,” which finishes its run this weekend, we turn back to the Summer 1967 issue of ARTnews, in which John Ashbery reviewed a major Cornell retrospective at the Guggenheim. (“Wanderlust” will travel from London to Vienna, where it will be on view at the Kunsthistoriches Museum beginning on October 20.) The Guggenheim show, then the largest Cornell show ever staged, focused on the American Surrealist’s collages. Ashbery noted similarities between Cornell’s dreamy assemblages and the work of Robert Rauschenberg, writing that, “A glance at the work of Cornell’s imitators, and there are quite a few, is enough to confirm that this higher order of his art is no mere figure of speech. This becomes even more evident when we look at artists who have been able to profit from his art, including some who may be unfamiliar with it but whose work would not exist in its present form without Cornell’s example.” Ashbery’s review follows in full below. —Alex Greenberger

“Cornell: The Cube Root of Dreams”
By John Ashbery

The true importance of this solitary master emerges at last in the largest show of his boxes and collages ever held; at the Guggenheim this spring.

I loved stupid paintings, decorated transoms, stage sets, carnival booths, signs, popular engravings; old-fashioned literature, church Latin, erotic books with nonexistent spelling, the novels of our grandmothers, fairy tales, children’s books, old operas, silly refrains, naive rhythms. —Rimbaud, A Season in Hell

. . . The painter lodged near the station in a modest apartment on the sixth floor; he lived there in two rooms which he had papered from floor to ceiling with very bizarre and disconcerting drawings which made certain highly esteemed critics repeat for the thousandth time the celebrated refrain: It’s literature. At the end of a discussion whose subject was a recent vernissage, these same critics had in fact laid down the law that painting must be painting and not literature, but he seemed to attach very little importance to all that, either because he understood nothing of it, or because he understood it all too well and therefore pretended not to understand.—Chirico, The Engineer’s Son

The Guggenheim Museum’s large show of 89 constructions and collages by Joseph Cornell will be remembered as an historic event: the first satisfying measure of work by an artist who has become legendary in his lifetime. There have been Cornell exhibitions since 1932 when he first appeared in a group show at the Julien Levy Gallery; three especially copious and memorable ones were held at the Egan Gallery in 1949, 1950 and 1953. But the galleries which showed him had a disconcerting way of closing or moving elsewhere, so one could never be sure when there would be another Cornell show. Cornell’s extremely retiring nature, his exemplary reluctance to give out biographical data or make statements about his work, compounded the aura of uncertainty that seemed to hang over that work like an electrically-charged cloud. Not uncertainty as to its merits, for these, though seldom understood, have been almost universally recognized by artists and critics of every persuasion—a unique event amid the turmoil and squabbles of the New York art world. The uncertainty was rather an obscure wondering whether one could go on having this work, whether the artist would not suddenly cause it all to disappear as mysteriously as he gave it life. For Cornell’s boxes embody the substance of dreams so powerfully that it seems that these eminently palpable bits of wood, cloth, glass and metal must vanish the next moment, as when the atmosphere of a dream becomes so intensely realistic that you know you are about to wake up. For the moment, however, the dream is on [to June 25] in the vast white hutch of a museum whose softly falling white light and spiraling lines have taken on strong Cornellian overtones; afterwards the pieces will return to their niches in public and private collections and to Cornell’s famous garage, on a street called Utopia Parkway in suburban Long Island.

Joseph Cornell, Habitat Group for a Shooting Gallery, 1943, mixed media. ©THE JOSEPH AND ROBERT CORNELL MEMORIAL FOUNDATION/VAGA, NY/DACS, LONDON 2015/COLLECTION OF THE DES MOINES ART CENTER. PURCHASED WITH FUNDS FROM THE COFFIN FINE ARTS TRUST; NATHAN EMORY COFFIN COLLECTION OF THE DES MOINES ART CENTER 1975.27

Joseph Cornell, Habitat Group for a Shooting Gallery, 1943, mixed media.

©2015 THE JOSEPH AND ROBERT CORNELL MEMORIAL FOUNDATION/VAGA, NEW YORK, NY/DACS, LONDON/COLLECTION OF THE DES MOINES ART CENTER, PURCHASED WITH FUNDS FROM THE COFFIN FINE ARTS TRUST; NATHAN EMORY COFFIN COLLECTION OF THE DES MOINES ART CENTER

Our knowledge of Cornell’s life is as sketchy as our knowledge of Carpaccio’s or Vermeeer’s. He was born in 1903, lived as a child in Nyack, N.Y., and moved in the late 1920s to the house in Flushing, L.I. where he still lives. As a young man he attended Phillips Academy at Andover, Mass. and worked for a while in the family textile business. One imagines that his day-to-day exercise in Queens must be as outwardly routine and as inwardly fabulous as Kant’s in Koenigsburg. The latter once astounded an English visitor with a graphic description of St. Paul’s in Rome; the visitor could not believe that Kant had never traveled beyond the borders of East Prussia. It is likewise hard to believe the Cornell has never been in France, so forcefully does his use of clippings from old French books and magazines recreate the atmosphere of that country. Looking at one of his “hotel” boxes one can almost feel the chilly breeze off the Channel at Dieppe or some other outmoded, out-of-season French resort. But this is the secret of his eloquence: he does not recreate the country itself but the impression we have of it before going there, gleaned from Perrault’s fairy tales or old copies of L’Illustration, or whatever people have told us about it. In fact the genius of Cornell is that he sees, and enables us to see, with the eyes of childhood, before our vision got clouded by experience, when objects like a rubber ball or a pocket mirror seemed charged with meaning, and a marble rolling across a wooden floor could be as portentous as a passing comet.

Cornell has said that his first revelation of modern art came at the memorial show of paintings from the John Quinn collection, which was held at the Art Centre in New York in 1926 and included works of Picasso, Matisse, Braque and Brancusi, as well as Rousseau’s Sleeping Gypsy and Seurat’s The Circus. His second revelation was the first New York exhibition of Surrealist art, at the Julien Levy Gallery in 1931, where he saw work by Ernst, Dali, Tchelitchew and Cartier-Bresson among others. Cornell was especially impressed by Max Ernst’s collages of 19th-century engraved illustrations: a 1932 Cornell collage in a similar spirit is reproduced in Levy’s Surrealism, while a 1942 number of View devoted to Max Ernst reproduces a series of 16 marvelously delicate and witty Cornell collages called Story without a Name: for Max Ernst.

The earliest of the works shown at the Guggenheim is an untitled collage of 1931, an engraving of a clipper ship with a giant cabbage rose nested in one of its sails: inside the rose is a spiderweb and at the center of the web lurks a spider. One might at first be tempted to dismiss this work as an over-zealous homage to Ernst, but further inspection reveals fundamental dissimilarities which place it in quite another and in my opinion superior category to the collages in Une Semaine de Bonté or La Femme 100 Têtes. For Cornell’s collage, Surreal as it is, also has extraordinary plastic qualities which compete for our attention with its “poetic” meaning. He wishes to present an enigma and at the same time is fascinated by the relationship between the parallel seams in the ship’s sails and the threads of the web, between the smoky-textured rose and the smudged look of the steel-engraved ocean. He establishes a delicately adjusted dialogue between the narrative and the visual qualities of the work in which neither is allowed to dominate. The result is a completely new kind of realism. This, I suspect, is why Cornell’s work means so much to so many different kinds of artists, including some far removed from Surrealism. Each of his works is an autonomous visual experience, with its own natural laws and its climate: the thing in its thingness; revealed, not commented on; and with its ambiance intact.

Joseph Cornell, Pharmacy, 1943, box construction. DOMINIQUE ULDRY/COLLECTION OF PAUL SCHARER

Joseph Cornell, Pharmacy, 1943, box construction.

DOMINIQUE ULDRY/©2015 THE JOSEPH AND ROBERT CORNELL MEMORIAL FOUNDATION/VAGA, NEW YORK, NY/DACS, LONDON/COLLECTION OF PAUL SCHARER

I don’t wish to belabor Max Ernst’s collages but since they apparently started Cornell on the road to discovering his own art, it seems fair to examine further the differences between them and Cornell’s own collages. In Story without a Name: for Max Ernst, he appropriated, for the purposes of an homage, Ernst’s collage-novel form; but in so doing he made it his own (a phenomenon not unknown in the history of art—few would argue that the authorship of Romeo and Juliet is Arthur Brooke’s because he wrote a poem called Romeus and Juliet which Shakespeare copied). Ernst’s collage novels, clever and startling as they are, pall very quickly—after the first 20 or so pages one finds oneself skipping ahead. This may be because he tries to intervene too summarily in the spectator’s attention, to capture him without a struggle. Surprises and shocks descend in an avalanche as in the tragedies of Thomas Kyd, so that one is very quickly immunized to this barrage of the erotic and the bizarre. The reader reacts to an obvious desire to engage him as instinctively as a wheedled child.

But the child—and ourselves—immediately becomes curious when the wheedling stops, or when an artist turns away from us into his own visions. Such is the case with Story without a Name: one keeps returning to it to verify certain details, but remains tantalized: the spirit of the work flickers everywhere but stays as elusive as mercury. There is no attempt to shock the viewer (this is an idea that has probably never occurred to Cornell); on the contrary these fabulous landscapes somehow look natural, integrated, adjusted. Even at their most violent or fantastic they have, unlike Ernst’s, a romantic tenderness which is all the more moving for its context: firemen are spraying a burning building out of which erupts a giant flower; the apparition of a little girl appears against a spectacular shipwreck. Violence is rare in Cornell’s work (another example would be the 1956 Sand Fountain—a jagged goblet holding black sand, like a smashed hourglass). When it occurs it is like the violence of Mozart whom Cornell resembles in so many ways—where a sudden shift into a minor key is as devastating as an entire Wagnerian battalion.

Much has been made of Cornell’s transition from early, so-called picturesque works like the Medici Slot Machine to the bare, quasi-constructivist “hotels” and “dovecotes” of the 1950s. In fact, Cornell seems to have continued to use “picturesque” materials throughout his period of presumed austerity: Sun Box (1956) and Suite de la Longitude (1957) are two examples. But it is important to note that the more complex works are far from picturesque, if by picturesqueness one means an anecdotal residue in a work of art. On the contrary, even when it seems frivolous on the surface, as in Lobster Ballet which is dedicated to Offenbach or in A Swan Lake for Toumara Toumanova, Cornell’s work exists beyond questions of “literature” and “art” in a crystal world of its own making: archetypal and inexorable. Like Chirico or the French poet and novelist Raymond Roussel, with whom he has much in common, Cornell has discovered how to neutralize romanesque content in such a way that it becomes the substance of his art rather than its establishment: matter and manner fuse to form a new element. Thus we are allowed to keep all the stories that art seems to want to cut us off from, without giving up the inspiring asceticism of abstraction.

Joseph Cornell, Object (Soap Bubble Set), 1940, box construction. THE ROBERT LEHRMAN ART TRUST/COURTESY AIMEE AND ROBERT LEHRMAN/QUICKSILVER PHOTOGRAPHERS, LLC/

Joseph Cornell, Object (Soap Bubble Set), 1940, box construction.

PHOTO: QUICKSILVER PHOTOGRAPHERS, LLC/COURTESY THE ROBERT LEHRMAN ART TRUST; ART: ©2015 THE JOSEPH AND ROBERT CORNELL MEMORIAL FOUNDATION/VAGA, NEW YORK, NY/DACS, LONDON/COURTESY AIMEE AND ROBERT LEHRMAN

A glance at the work of Cornell’s imitators, and there are quite a few, is enough to confirm that this higher order of his art is no mere figure of speech. This becomes even more evident when we look at artists who have been able to profit from his art, including some who may be unfamiliar with it but whose work would not exist in its present form without Cornell’s example. Certainly Rauschenberg, one of the most significant influences on today’s generation, looked long and deeply at Cornell’s work before his show (also at the Egan Gallery) in 1954. It may seem a long way from the prim, whitewashed emptiness of Cornell’s hotels to Rauschenberg’s grubby urban palimpsests, but the lesson is the same in each case: the object and its nimbus of sensations, wrapped in one package, thrust at the viewer, here, now, unescapable. Largely through the medium of Rauschenberg’s influence, one suspects, Cornell’s work is having further repercussions today, not only on the whole schools of assemblagists, but more recently in the radical simplicity of artists like Robert Morris, Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt or Ronald Bladen.

It would be idle to insist too much on the resemblance, say, between one of LeWitt’s constructions and Cornell’s Multiple Cubes of 1946-48 or his Crystal Palace of 1949—there is physical resemblance, certainly, but it could easily be coincidental. What is not coincidental is the metaphysical similarity linking Cornell with these younger men (the same holds true for the Abstract-Expressionists: the night sky outside Cornell’s hotel windows is sometimes spattered with white paint to indicate stars, but the key to the kinship between Cornell and an artist like Pollock lies elsewhere—in the understanding of a work of art as a phenomenon, a presence, of whatever sort). Cornell’s art assumes a romantic universe in which inexplicable events can and must occur. Minimal art, notwithstanding the cartesian disclaimers of some of the artists, draws its being from this charged, romantic atmosphere, which permits an anonymous slab or cube to force us to believe in it as something inevitable. That this climate—marvelous or terrible, depending on how you react to the idea that anything can happen—can exist is largely due to Cornell. We all live in his enchanted forest.

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