Literature in the Art of Joseph Cornell (and Vice Versa)

John Ashbery opens his 1967 review of Joseph Cornell’s Guggenheim exhibition with two epigraphs. The first, from Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell, is uncannily and self-evidently appropriate:

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.

Ashbery seems to intend the second epigraph, from a de Chirico fragment, “The Engineer’s Son,” as a response to Cornell’s critics:

. . . 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.

Cornell’s reputation is not at stake. His art’s merits, writes Ashbery, “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.” Rather, it’s his relevance to contemporary art which is at issue here. To make the connection between Cornell and the contemporary art-world—this being the heyday of Minimalism—to do so convincingly, beyond any facile formal resemblance between Cornell’s boxes and, say, Judd’s constructions or Lewitt’s cubes, Ashbery must address the belief that the former are too literary, that there is some “anecdotal residue”:

[…] even when it seems frivolous on the surface […] Cornell’s work exists beyond questions of “literature” and “art” in a crystal world of its own making: archetypal and inexorable. Like de 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 embellishment: 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.

There are, then, stories that go into Cornell’s work—but they’ve sublimated. They are wholly integral, Ashbery argues: inseparable from the works’ form.

Ashbery finally goes on to draw the reasonably straight line from Cornell’s boxes to Rauschenberg’s “grubby urban palimpsests” and, through him, to the “radical simplicity” of Minimalism. “Cornell’s art,” Ashbery writes, “assumes a romantic universe in which inexplicable events can and must occur.” “Minimal art,” he continues, “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.”

Forgive, please, the long wind-up. I actually don’t plan to tackle the question of ” ‘literature’ and ‘art’ ” in Cornell’s work myself, not exactly. However, my interest in Cornell recently revived, I have thought of his art in the same terms. But whereas Ashbery feels obliged to explain and redeem the literary aspect of Cornell’s work, I would like to consider the opposite (but clearly related) phenomenon: the appearance of Cornell’s art in literature.

* * * *

In high school, I went on a William Gibson kick, reading a few of his novels in quick succession. I had since forgotten the distinctions of character, setting, and plot, the details of which had, in my memory, since become unmoored: floating, commingled, in one vague and scattered story.

I did, however, remember that Gibson wrote about some ersatz Joseph Cornell boxes. Looking for those boxes, I re-read the entirety of Neuromancer, which is where I was pretty sure I’d encounter them, as well as the first few dozen pages of Idoru, my next thought, coming up, in the end, with nothing. I consulted Wikipedia. It turns out these boxes are from Count Zero, a novel I could not recall reading.

So I re-read this novel I’d mostly forgotten. One of its three plot lines follows Marly, a disgraced art dealer. Josef Virek, a collector and the Croesus of this near-future world, appears to Marly via a “sensory link”: his ailing body resides in a vat in “some hideous industrial suburb of Stockholm.” Upon hiring her to find the source of the Cornell fakes, Virek produces one: “Box of plain wood, glass-fronted. Objects . . .[.]” It contains:

The slender fluted bone, surely formed for flight, surely from the wing of some large bird. Three archaic circuit boards, faced with mazes of gold. A smooth white sphere of baked clay. An age-blackened fragment of lace. A finger-length segment of what she assumed was bone from a human wrist, grayish white, inset smoothly with the silicon shaft of a small instrument that must once have ridden flush with surface of the skin.

This inlaid instrument, a “Braun biometer,” of course, is the giveaway. Still, as with a genuine Cornell, Marly “was lost in the box, in its evocation of impossible distances, of loss and yearning. It was somber, gentle, and somehow childlike.”

Emotional tinges, affective jolts, and humanist musings accompany the descriptions of the boxes: “The box was a universe, poem, frozen on the boundaries of human experience.” Later, Marly asks herself, “How could anyone have arranged these bits, this garbage, in such a way that it caught at the heart, snagged in the soul like a fishhook? But then she nodded. It could be done, she knew; it had been done many years ago by a man named Cornell, who’d also made boxes.” Like the shopwindows she sees full of “books and furs and italian cottons,” the boxes are, for Marly, “geometries of nameless longing.”

Marly is stunned, then, when, at the novel’s end, she finds the boxes’ maker: a Shiva-armed robot in a run-down, near-deserted space station. Welded to the station’s wall, in the center a swirl of objects floating in reduced gravity, the robot intermittently hums into motion, its arms, tipped with an assortment of tools, grabbing objects, altering them, and incorporating them into a new work.

The boxmaker is a robot.  This is not say, however, that the boxes are the results either of chance or of programming: this robot is (artificially) intelligent. It seems to speak to Marly; it expresses a self-awareness and a sentimental attachment: “I sing with these things that float around me, fragments of the family that funded my birth;” it expresses an aesthetic preference: “They [other AIs] send me new things, but I prefer the old things.” It explicates its work, affirming its process over its products while discounting the sadness that Marly can’t help but read in the boxes: “My songs are of time and distance. The sadness is in you. Watch my arms. There is only the dance. These things you treasure are shells.”

This revelation would seem to raise big questions about, you know, the nature of art and humanity. The world in Count Zero is, after all, approaching the post-human: bodies are wired with ports for uploading software; artificial intelligences proliferate. Marly, however, is able to answer these questions summarily: addressing the boxmaker in her thoughts, “You are someone else’s collage,” she concludes, apparently satisfied, “Your maker is the true artist.” (Weirdly, although the robot is, in this statement, not the “true artist,” it is, just a few lines later, affirmed as a poet: “[Someone] spilled, somehow, all the worn sad evidence of a family’s humanity, and left it all to be stirred, to be sorted by a poet.” Is the distinction here really, “an artist makes; a poet sorts?”)

In her questing loneliness, Marly struck me, at times, as something of an Oedipa Maas-type character. (Although it’s the biotech firm central to Count Zero‘s plot that’s named “Maas.”) I can only wish she were as compelling and that Gibson had taken more time to explore the complex problems he has posed.

* * * *


Charles Simic sets out his methods and intentions clearly enough in the preface to his Dime-Store Alchemy: The Art of Joseph Cornell :

In writing the pieces for this book, I hoped to emulate his way of working and come to understand him that way. It is worth pointing out that Cornell worked in the absence of any aesthetic theory and previous notion of beauty. He shuffled a few inconsequential found objects inside his boxes until together they composed an image that pleased him with no clue as to what that image will turn out to be in the end. I had hoped to do the same.

Simic’s poems, like the objects in Cornell’s boxes, are discrete, relying on juxtaposition and suggested relationships, rather than strict continuity; his tone is understated: learned, sure—but also curious and modest. Eight color images of Cornell’s boxes are included, and a ninth is on the book’s cover. Simic writes on each in turn, and each seems to prompt a new direction, a new theme. He invokes dreams; Poe, Melville, Whitman, Dickinson; divination and fortune-telling; games; fetishes; hotels; theaters; and, of course, poetry. He highlights Cornell’s debt to Surrealism and Dada, as well as his affection for particular nineteenth-century ballerinas. Utopia Parkway, the name of the street in Queens on which Cornell lived from 1929 until his death in 1972, appears several times. Simic intersperses material from Cornell’s own diaries and notes. From a scrap of paper: “Vaguest recall of an elegant cockatoo at dusk 14th St.”


The final poem, “Deserted Perch, 1949,” relating to the eponymous Cornell work is, I think, the only poem referring specifically to a work that is not included in reproduction. It begins ekphrastically: “The bird has flown. There’s only the perch left, a dropped / feather, a watch spring, and a crack, ‘the very tiny crack in which another world begins and ends,’ as Slavko Mi- / halíc says.” Simic concludes with a paragraph of Cornell’s diary, in which the artist, middle-aged here, taking a break from “working all morning,” experiences a sudden, “overwhelming sense of harmony and complete happiness.” These feelings “seemed like a healing dispensing with specific work for the time being in this blissful state.” I linger over one phrase in particular: “specific work.” I wonder what sort of “working” Cornell was resting from? What is “specific work?” Does it include art-making? Does the formulation imply that this harmony, this blissful state nevertheless entails “general” work? What would that be?

* * * *

I could possibly go on. I recently read a Guy Davenport essay, “Pergolesi’s Dog,” in which Cornell figured. But that, I suppose, is something else.


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