by Kathy Zimmerer
(Manny Silverman Gallery, West Hollywood) A rich survey of thirty-five boxes and collages by the master poet of the ordinary object, Joseph Cornell, is a great treat. This elusive artist, whose work is rarely seen in-depth on the West Coast, adroitly combined a surrealist aesthetic with a Re- naissance philosophy to create a compelling body of work that has sustained its capacity to astound and delight.
While Cornell lived most of his life with his mother and invalid brother in a modest frame house (with a basement studio) on Utopia Parkway in Flushing, Long Island, he still managed to actively participate in the New York cultural world. Through the pioneering Julian Levy Gallery, Cornell quietly cultivated many friendships with notables ranging from Marcel Duchamp to the poet, Charles Henri Ford, and the critic Parker Tyler. A devotee of ballet, literature, film, music, art history and the natural sciences, Cornell's wide ranging intel-lect embraced all the intriguing aspects of culture and nature. He was an inveterate collector who amassed a marvelous assemblage of objects and printed material that stretched from limited editions to old postcards--which he seamlessly incorporated into his boxes and collages.
As the major American precursor of contemporary collage and assemblage, Cornell's works offer a welter of fragile, jewel-like images connected by dreams and poetic association. His refined touch grew out of a passion for ordinary objects' inherent beauty and history.
Ghirlandaio. An Old Man and His Grandson pinpoints Cornell's interest in astronomical systems and Renaissance painting. Both elements are juxtaposed against a dramatic American landscape. His acute sense of design is apparent in Penny Arcade (re-autumnal). This marvelous amalgamation of pennies, a diagram of the constellations, a putto, and stamps are wedded together with delicately drawn circles. A life-long fascination with birds surfaces in Untitled (Owl for Sale). In it an owl peers out from a tree with a "For Sale" sign that reads like the rambling verse of a surrealist poet, ". . .birds-eye view of old chateau inhabited by stork. . .natural mineral specimens. . .easy walking distance to enchanted lake. . ." Another lyrical collage, Untitled (Homage to Hans Memling) includes the Christ Child and an angel flying across the deep blue sky of a jet plane magically transforming into a paper airplane. The gentle wit of Cornell gives his imagery an ironic aspect.
Often working early in the morning and late at night when he was free from family demands, Cornell created a finely tuned inner world in his boxes. Even the simplest works, such as Untitled (Dovecote), has a superb refinement of form. Composed of a white grid of circles touched by deep blue, the whole is balanced by two balls lying at the bottom of the box. Cornell uses pure geometry and color to cohesively unite these elements.
Also pared down and elegant is Untitled (Hotel). Two rings, a glass, a yellow cork ball, and a brass relief of the sun all coexist in an eerie white space divided by the rod that holds the rings. A sign reading "Hotel" in block letters only adds to the sense of isolation and loneliness.
Cornell was a genius in his ability to condense an series of tiny, unrelated objects into a magical intercon-nectedness. In an Untitled work of 1940, a box of shot glasses nestled in their velvet backing act as receptacles for his treasures, a glowing crimson ball, a delicate lemon yellow cork, a midnight blue rock and other oddments.
Ancient myth and modernity merge in Hotel Andromeda. Andromeda, the mythic daughter of an Ethiopian king, is chained either to a rock or to modern life in the form of a fragmentary hotel sign. In Hotel de Ste. Lunaire, a Renaissance portrait of a young boy looks directly out at the viewer, with only enigmatic newspaper clippings as clues to his story.
Cornell's fragmentary dream world is beautifully explored in an exceptional show that convincingly argues that his contribution to the art of assemblage and collage was enormous. These works evoke a lost world of grace and culture now eternally frozen in time.