Written by Sean Reichard, 1st year
Earlier this month I started reading Deborah Solomon’s “Utopia Parkway”, an illuminating biography about the artist Joseph Cornell. The title refers to the street in Queens where Cornell lived most of his life, but it also, in Solomon’s telling, refers to the path Cornell followed in his artistic wanderings.
As an artist, Cornell was a man of association, fashioning shadow boxes and collages from materials gleaned from the array of used bookstores and antique shops that constitute, for people like Cornell, a sort of floating world. He also made experimental films—taking existing film and cutting it up before pasting it back together, decontextualizing the frames into a series of new, strange aperçus.
He was controversial in this last regard. The screening of Cornell’s first film, “Rose Hobart” (a “cut-up” of a forgotten 1931 silent film starring the eponymous Hobart), in New York in 1936, for instance, caused a major stir in the surrealist art scene. Among the audience of that first screening was Salvador Dalí who, in a rage, knocked over the projector halfway through the movie, shrieking “Salaud!” at an aghast Cornell. Purportedly, Dalí later accused him of oneiric larceny: “Joseph Cornell, you are a plagiarist of my unconscious mind!” The film wasn’t shown again until the 1960s, presumably when Dalí was out of the country.
Ostensibly an American Surrealist, Cornell defied categorization. He didn’t even think of himself as much of an artist. He didn’t paint, for instance. He didn’t have a glamorous life globetrotting and hobnobbing like other famous artists of the time, although he did cultivate friendships with the likes of Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol, among others. He didn’t have passionate liaisons or go on benders. He was a Christian Scientist. He lived with his mother and his brother Robert, who suffered from cerebral palsy; Cornell spent a good deal of time taking care of the latter and butting heads with the former.
Cornell never left the United States. He hardly left New York. His art, however, traveled far beyond the States—and far beyond real life, in the realm of dreams and the crosscurrents of “high” and “low” cultures.
His art has found a home on the web, for instance, catalogued through the online portals of major and minor museums and fan sites. And, likely to his own shock, if he had lived to see it, Cornell the man has found a home too.
His personal papers, held by the Archives of American Art, were digitized in 2005 and 2009. It was a momentous undertaking: the collection measures 24.8 linear feet and all of it has been scanned, amounting to 38,463 images. The finding aid is dizzying. You would almost prefer understanding it via shadow box than pdf or printout!
The breadth of materials alone is remarkable—correspondence, books, personal diaries, source materials, photographs, ephemera—and includes the papers of Cornell’s sister Betty Benton. Further, the image that introduces you to the Cornell papers is apt: an envelope from the New York Public Library Circulation Department, alongside an array of leaves and feather Cornell collected in 1949. Perhaps in homage to the artist, the objects seem arranged for more than documentation purposes.
I say Cornell has found a home online not so much because he’s an undervalued artist, but because his art is so well suited to the medium. It’s also well suited to the archive. In a culture where we readily recontextualize content for our own purposes (I’m thinking here of memes, but there are other examples), and a profession like archiving where the strictures have started to bend from mounting, multifarious pressures—in a profession that has always felt multifarious pressures—Cornell’s art shines as an analog example artful recontextualization and, in some ways, as an of repurposing.
Would it be cheap to call archiving a form of repurposing? Maybe, especially if we consider materials to have only one use. But they don’t. The archive exists because items have a life beyond their use, beyond their original context, however much the institution is based on preserving that original order.
Cornell’s subjects had lives before they reached his boxes, before they felt the brush of his collating glue; the same way the items that arrive for appraisal had lives. An archivist does not so radically alter objects the way Cornell did, but like the artist, an archivist makes sense out of someone’s something else. It’s a lesson well worth heeding and a marvelous example to ruminate on.
P.S. If you ever have the time, the Chazen Museum of Art has a few of Cornell’s works on display. They’re on the third floor next to the Max Ernst and René Magrittes.
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