Joseph Cornell

New book and DVD explore the work of Joseph Cornell

Cornell's influence is traced to a breadth of modern art and poetry

One wonders what Joseph Cornell (1903-72) would have thought of a DVD devoted to his life and work. Cornell, who would have been 100 on Christmas Eve last year, was a private man with little patience for machines. His boxes and collages—in these “shadow box” enterprises, his boxed assemblages, he was encouraged by the surrealist Max Ernst—were filled with photographs, but he never learned to operate a camera, and avoided being photographed.

Cornell also loved films and built little shrines, that he called “dossiers”, to movie stars like Greta Garbo and Lauren Bacall and to Old Master Madonnas. He never learned how to run a movie camera, but his collage films, still an important influence on today’s filmmakers, were reels of existing movie frames that he spliced together, and set to music.

He made his boxes by hand, in the modest house on Utopia Parkway in Queens where he spent almost all his life with his mother and his disabled brother. The only machine used to create the boxes was a mechanical saw.

An ambitious new DVD that accompanies the book, Shadowplay/eterniday, enters the microcosms that Cornell created. A magnifying function provides a close-up scrutiny of the boxes, some of which can also be taken apart, virtually. Documentation on the DVD, designed by Cognitive Applications of the UK, follows a collage model. Diaries, journals, and all of Cornell’s films (miniaturised) can be viewed, which is reason enough to get the disk. His surrealist antecedents are considered; art historians and artists also discuss Cornell and his work, tracing Cornell’s influence to Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol, Ray Johnson, and Robert Rauschenberg, and to poets such as John Ashbery. Yet the one thing that this encyclopaedic archive lacks is the sound of Cornell’s own voice. There is no known recording of Cornell speaking.

This book/DVD edition was funded by Robert Lehrman, a Cornell collector and chairman of the board of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, DC.

Mr Lehrman loaned some 20 boxes to the recent Cornell centennial exhibition at Richard L. Feigen Gallery in New York.

One Cornell box that the DVD cannot penetrate (even virtually) was the largest and arguably most important box that Cornell created, the cluttered basement on Utopia Parkway that he called his laboratory, and where he stockpiled the vast range of fragments that he amassed on trips to Manhattan junkshops.

Cornell considered the idea of preserving that house as a museum, but dropped the plan as too costly. The current owner has renovated the structure and sheet-rocked the basement walls, effacing any sign of the artist.

For now, the DVD will have to suffice, although the Cornell catalogue raisonné is due to be published in 2006.

o Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, Richard Vine, Robert Lehrman, and Walter Hopps, Joseph Cornell: shadowplay/eterniday (Thames & Hudson, London, 2003), 272 pp, 26 b/w ills, 205 col. ills, 1 DVD-Rom, £40, $60 (hb) ISBN 0500976287

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 145 March 2004