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Cornell could take you into the universe in the space of a thimble.
Robert Lehrman, Cornell collector

An extensive Joseph Cornell retrospective is currently on view at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem Massachusetts. Seeing the range, depth and subtlety of his work left me speechless. I spent hours in the show but will have to go back again. There’s just too much to comprehend in one visit.

Cornell is one of those artists that other artists revere. How can you not? His work is quirky, one-of-kind, deeply memorable. He creates visual and visceral tensions–between the sensual and the restrained, the obvious and the subliminal, the logical and the irrational. Not only does he tap into our visual receptivity, but his work also seems wired directly into the word-based arts as well. The artist that I would consider closest to his sensibilities is Emily Dickinson. It seems so right that he was moved by her work and did a number of pieces in response to her poetry.

The flip side of that Cornell verbal/visual relationship is the number of writers who have been inspired by his work. The Cornell writer connection includes an entire volume of poetry by Charles Simic (a personal favorite of mine) and A Convergence of Birds: Original Fiction and Poetry Inspired by Joseph Cornell , an anthology assembled by Jonathan Safer Foer while he was still a student at Princeton. Foer solicited work from writers in response to Cornell’s bird boxes and was able to entice the likes of Diane Ackerman, Rick Moody, Joyce Carol Oates and Robert Pinsky to participate.

Because of a strong cultural proclivity to “explain” artistic output through careful examination and analysis of the personal life of a maker (Cornell’s preferred term,) his was an oddball life that makes for easy pickings. (“how often have/the/doting/fingers of/prurient philosophers pinched/and/poked/thee.”) And there may be some value in holding his biography in close proximity to the work he produced, since both are far from mainstream. There are Dickinsonian similarities in the cloistered life he lived out on Utopia Parkway with his mother and disabled brother. The loneliness and yearning that sits like a layer of dust on Dickinson’s poetry is tangible in Cornell’s work as well.

Biographical material aside, the magic happens for me when I allow these pieces to speak on their own terms. Cornell was a man with a passionate interest in so many areas of study–astronomy, maps, physics, art history, mechanics, nostalgia, mysticism, movie stars (he moves high brow to low brow without losing a beat,) among others. He brings an eclecticism to his assemblages that is intelligent, provocative and intentional. Surrealistic art can at times feel forced and catch-as-catch-can, but there is nothing random about Joseph Cornell’s work.

The show in Salem runs through August 19th. Then good news for my friends in the Bay Area–the show is coming to San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art in October.

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