Joseph Cornell & Marcel Duchamp at The Philadelphia Museum of Art

©The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York; used with permission

Joseph Cornell, Duchamp (ca. 1942-1953), paperboard box with notes and correspondence, magazine and newspaper clippings, drawings, objects and exhibition announcements, 3-3/8″ x 14-1/2″ x 12-5/8″; courtesy The Philadelphia Museum of Art

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The most striking thing about the exhibition Joseph Cornell/Marcel Duchamp … in resonance is its catalogue.  Expertly designed and lavishly illustrated, it contains photographic reproductions that are almost as good as being there. The book’s eye-catching layout is matched by the meticulousness of its essays, artists’ chronologies, and inventory of work. What makes the catalogue truly noticeable, however, is its heft. While 344 pages may not earn it phone book status, the catalogue is nevertheless a major tome, one whose size is in contrast to the exhibition it elucidates. For in resonance is an intimate show, occupying a single gallery at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It delineates the correspondence, both personal and artistic, between these two singular artists, who also happened to be friends, and, by comparing and contrasting works by both men, the show strikes some telling parallels. In resonance is, in short, a specialist’s show given a major treatment.

The centerpiece—indeed, the raison d’être —of in resonance is a collection of Duchamp-related ephemera, the so-called Duchamp Dossier, gathered by Joseph Cornell (1903–1972) and discovered in his home after his death. The Dossier is being exhibited here for the first time, having been given to the museum by the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation in 1990. It contains the odds-and-ends of a friendship: crumpled dry cleaning bills, a coaster for Trommer’s malt beer (“Taste … and compare!”), receipts from Bloomingdale’s, invitations from the Julian Levy Gallery, thank-you notes from Duchamp’s girlfriend Mary Reynolds, and over a hundred other items Cornell tucked away in his studio. Whether Duchamp was aware of this endeavor is unknown, as is whether Cornell intended it to be a work of art. There is reason to believe that the latter might be the case, because the dossier— literally, a file of documents—was a format Cornell pursued and exhibited during his lifetime. Still, there is something unseemly about poring over the contents of the Duchamp Dossier. It’s as if one were surreptitiously rifling through the drawer of an acquaintance’s desk.

Then again, unseemliness has always been a characteristic of Cornell’s art. His best known works, small-scale dioramas referred to as “boxes,” encapsulate private fantasies whose intensity verges on the unhealthy. The evocative power of the boxes owes much to Cornell’s preternatural gift for transforming the mundane and, in fact, the fetishistic into scenarios of uncanny grace. These compendiums of junk-shop curios, sci-fi gizmos, and countless other knickknacks are mystical and laconic. Yet as private as Cornell’s boxes are, they aren’t hermetic. We are entranced by this world of reliquaries, their dead-end lyricism having been made compellingly concrete. Cornell buttressed a fey brand of romanticism by fixing its components in contained spaces; his “boxing” of objects harnessed their associative capacity. Cornell’s art, clinical and cryptic, is the most poignant manifestation of the Surrealist impulse in twentieth-century art.

The question in resonance begs is how representative is the Duchamp Dossier of Cornell’s art. In the catalogue, Ecke Bonk posits the Dossier as “a re/minder of our quintessential amnesia: the unforeseeable turbulences of the centripetal and centrifugal dynamics of cultural oblivion … as the vortexes of deletion and frequent chance-operations control the re/dis/coursing.” To rework the old joke, inside every convoluted sentence is a concise one waiting to get out. Still, there is something to Bonk’s “dynamics of cultural oblivion,” particularly as it applies to the deadpan nostalgia of Cornell’s boxes. In regard to the Duchamp Dossier, however, such portentous jargon serves as camouflage for what is, in the end, an artistic non-event. That Cornell was capable of endowing junk with magic is true enough. The refuse he salvaged from Duchamp’s trashbin, however, remains just that. There is a difference between odds-and-ends that have been shaped to conform to an artistic vision and those scattered in a dead artist’s studio.

Truth be told, the dossier format was, in artistic terms, an incidental part of Cornell’s oeuvre. The dossier had its genesis in Cornell’s files of assemblage material—his so-called “spare parts department.” This format obviously had great import for Cornell and, so he thought, for others as well: his intention of making editions of dossiers available for sale at Woolworth’s is touchingly naïve. Yet even when he was able to bring dossier projects to fruition, like the one dedicated to the actress Lauren Bacall, there clings to it a sweaty-palmed fervor that is unsavory. Penny Arcade Portrait of Lauren Bacall (Working Model Based Upon “To Have and Have Not”) c. 1945–70, with its movie magazine cut-outs and personal notes, confirms an obsession rather than transforms it. Of course, obsession goes some way in explaining the conviction of Cornell’s vision; with the dossiers, however, it results in artifacts that are cloistered and a bit scary. (In the catalogue, Cornell’s fixations earn him a comparison with a stalker.) Cornell’s dossiers are the documents of an inscrutable personality. They never thrive as art.

So how come Cornell’s boxes do? How do they transcend mere object status? His boxes are, after all, assemblages of unapologetic stuff. They can’t be considered painting and are only sculptural in the sense that they (barely) occupy three dimensions. Cornell’s boxes reside in their own distinctive niche in the not altogether happy history of assemblage. For what assemblage has done, ultimately, is to negate illusion, plugging the metaphoric conduit through which we experience art. Constructions made of actual objects have not brought us an art closer to—as the current parlance has it—the real world. Quite the opposite: it has left a legacy of mute and blunt things. Consider the trajectory of assemblage or, if you will, “art as object”—from Duchamp’s readymades to Rauschenberg’s combines, from Keinholz’s sleazy tableaux to the latest permutation of installation art—and you have an artform whose physicality is as unyielding as its impact is fleeting. Cornell’s art is a part of this story. Yet we don’t experience the dull thud of novelty with his boxes the way we do with other art that has been appropriated from second-hand sources. How, then, did Cornell get away with it?

The initial response is that he didn’t get away with anything at all. Such a conceit is more applicable to the cynical calculations of a jaded avant-garde than to the fragile logic of Cornell’s art. A friend suggested to me that what makes the boxes special—why they succeed as art—is their sincerity. Now, one is tempted to reply that if sincerity were the paramount criterion of art then the world would be blessed with a deluge of masterpieces. Yet sincerity is a vital factor in Cornell’s art. Were he not absolutely convinced by the wonder of his own bizarre universe, would we consider the boxes seriously at all? Such fervid conviction is usually the domain of the folk artist and there is something of the outsider to Cornell’s conglomerations of oddments, as well as in his relationship with the world at large. Still, not many oddballs who give body to their own peculiar reality achieve the kind of lyricism that Cornell did.

Although Cornell never strayed far from Flushing, he was no backwoods—or, should one say, outer borough—rube: Cornell’s gift and unique brand of worldliness did, after all, propel him into the New York avant-garde. I suspect that what most helped his art achieve its transformative potential is the chosen format, the box. Each box creates a time and space that obliquely resembles our own. Their intimate scale invites us to focus on the minutiae, both physical and metaphorical, of their making. It is a kind of poetic pinball: images reverberate and escalate, albeit gently, within the rigid constraints of their own cosmos. With a glass panel serving as a divider between Cornell’s universe and our own, the objects in his boxes never—how does one put it?—violate our space; they remain firmly ensconced inside their own otherworldly dominion. We are invited to look in at Cornell’s world. His space is not unlike that of the display cases found in the Museum of Natural History: simulated environments that give us access to a world that we may not otherwise experience. Condensing history, science, memory, and childhood into a 15-1/2 x 11¼ x 4 inch container, Cornell’s genius was in giving otherwise dumb objects life as art.

The life of art is an ideal that stands in contradistinction to the work of Cornell’s confrere Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968). It’s not hard to see why these two men were attracted to each other. Duchamp must have appreciated Cornell’s eccentricity and Cornell Duchamp’s world-weary urbanity; both shared a love of objects. With this show we learn that Duchamp hired Cornell to assist in the construction of his Boîtes-en-valise, the “portable museums” that served as overviews of his oeuvre and included miniature reproductions of Duchamp’s art. Cornell must have been honored to assist the Dadaist master, and enamored of the notion of summing up a life of art inside a suitcase.

Still, if it seems that I have given short shrift to Duchamp, it is because in resonance displays all too clearly his shortcomings as an artist. This isn’t, in all probability, what the organizers of the exhibition had in mind—certainly not at a host institution that holds the most important Duchamp collection in the world. But there is more intrigue, awe, and soul—in short, art—to Cornell’sPalace (c. 1943), a ghostly evocation of architecture and place, than there is to any one of Duchamp’s nihilistic “masterpieces” found just a short jaunt up the stairs in the Philadelphia Museum. If Cornell gave life to “the dynamics of cultural oblivion,” then Duchamp left us with a culture of oblivion. In resonance traces the strange camaraderie that existed between Cornell and Duchamp. Biographers of both artists will love it. The rest of us, however, will leave the show wondering how this loner from Queens did what he did and hope that a retrospective is in the works.

© 1999 Mario Naves

Originally published in the January 1999 issue of The New Criterion.

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