On 5th September 2015, Richard Guest and I visited the Joseph Cornell exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. We continued to talk about the show via email for a number of weeks. This is the second part of that electronic conversation – you can read part one here.
Richard: Except in a broad sense, I don’t see autobiography in Cornell’s work. He did not travel much outside Flushing, New York – he was a carer for his brother and mother, and a lot of biogs refer to his reclusiveness. So, I think a lot of the boxes are products of isolation – they spring from a yearning to escape the day-to-day routine. Although some titles refer to specific events or people, I don’t think Cornell had any connection with many of them beyond fantasy. For example, I Googled Tilly Losch – she was also known as Ottilie Ethel Leopoldine Herbert, Countess of Carnarvon (she was a dancer, choreographer, actress and painter).
In Untitled (Tilly Losch), I wonder whether he is projecting his idea of what Tilly’s life could feel like. There is a lightness, a buoyancy to the image – the (puppet theatre) figure (who bears no resemblance to Tilly Losch) is held aloft by the strings of an unseen hot air balloon, floating above a barren mountain landscape, and seemingly anchored to her spatial coordinates by a small, compositionally perfect, red bead. Could it be Cornell’s equivalent of Heat magazine? There, I’ve done it – gone and ruined a work…
David: Not ruined… but it does rather make Cornell’s work (and a lot of other art) a sort of fascinating by-product of unhealthy emotional conditions, like a geological specimen or mutant plant that occurred only because of a freak circumstance. It is not degenerate art, neither does being emotionally unbalanced make you creative. Sometimes though, a combination of a creative person and severe emotional repression results in the creation of works that can contain and embody that displaced love and energy. This does make the work quite escapist: inside the box you are in a wondrous place. If you don’t completely escape with Cornell into the box though, you are left outside it dissecting a bunch of obscure images and objects that may have no connection other than the aesthetic.
Although some of the works did draw me in, some of them left me out in the cold and I wonder whether that might have been to do with the way that they were displayed. The very clinical mounting of the boxes inside display cases made them feel very dead and the hard top lighting was also unsympathetic, with the top of the box frame often casting a very hard shadow over the contents and detracting from the composition. Do you think they might have benefitted from different staging? The show could have boldly remade the gallery as an archaic apartment or some other non-artworld place rather than the standard paint it white and put it all in order approach, which was what we got here.
Richard: Yes, interesting idea. I’m not sure the white cube was the standard exhibition design when Cornell was making the bulk of these works, so I wonder what he would make of such stark, harshly lit surroundings. A hard shadow changes the reading of delicate compositions like these quite significantly. And there’s a distinct lack of playfulness in the RA display. The work suggests Cornell liked to play: both visually and with ideas – I wonder where he thought the boxes would eventually reside? I’m guessing the private home as a Surreal surprise amongst the ornaments (and where the lighting would be softer and more conducive to dreaming). The actor Tony Curtis was a big collector of Cornell’s work; I wonder how he displayed the work…
There are works that don’t work at all for me either – and I’m not sure if it’s just the lighting. Could the images and materials Cornell used be too far removed in time and cultural association to chime with us in the twenty-first century?
David: I’m not sure they are too far removed in time, but it may be sometimes that the objects are a bit too curious in themselves. It could be that those things like clay pipes, jars of gold pigment and butterfly wings etc may have been more commonplace back in the middle of the last century but I doubt it. These objects were not part of the common vernacular like a Brillo box or can of soup. They belong to a world that is a deliberate illusion, looking back at those theatrical magicians of the past – the alchemists whose biggest secret was that they had no secret. The objects seem very deliberately chosen to evoke this world. Pharmacy(1943) seems clearly to reference this tradition. The danger is that these objects are very loaded and can overpower a lot of the more subtle formal elements in the work. This is not a problem unique to Cornell, and he does seem to have been aware of it and often eschews the more outlandish curios in favour of a more restrained palette of objects.
In Toward the Blue Peninsula: for Emily Dickinson, c. 1953. Cornell manages to evoke a very intense emotional space with just a few relatively abstract forms. I think the more image based objects are a bit of a smokescreen and for a long time put me off his work to tell you the truth, but he clearly is superior to those artists who are just making endless montages of found objects.