Tuesday, August 30, 2011


early 1940's
COLLAGE, 1960'S 
Last week I went to the downtown branch of the L.A. Public Library as I’ve been meaning to do for ages and looked at the Hans Prinzhorn book, Artistry of the Mentally Ill (so-so), and Lena Herzog’s book Lost Souls (haunting), and some books on Joseph Cornell and his boxes.

How could I have missed JOSEPH CORNELL?

Who lived from 1903-1972 and was eccentric and reclusive and went about NYC and its suburbs collecting little bits and pieces of things and felt there were certain objects that belonged together that had been separated, possibly by decades, and made otherworldly, magical collages and boxes whereby the objects were reunited.

This idea of making connections, of reuniting things that have been lost or separated from each other is dear to my heart. In the parable of the lost sheep, Jesus says "What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, `Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost.'  [Luke 15: 4-6].

In fact, most people would be glad to let the rogue sheep go. The hell with him if he insists on wandering off. Only someone who has felt him- or herself to be lost, only someone who has suffered the exile of feeling cut off from the herd, would so yearn to find, and to bring back home, the one lost sheep.

The following excerpts are from Dime-Store Alchemy: The Art of Joseph Cornell, by the great in his own right poet and essayist Charles Simic:


Somewhere in the city of New York there are four or five still-unknown objects that belong together. Once together they’ll make a work of art. That’s Cornell’s premise, his metaphysics, and his religion, which I wish to understand.

He sets out from his home on Utopia Parkway without knowing what he is looking for or what he will find. Today it could be something as ordinary and interesting as an old thimble. Years may pass before it has company. In the meantime, Cornell walks and looks. The city has an infinite number of interesting objects in an infinite number of unlikely places.

with his record collection, "listening" to a book
photo: Hans Namuth

Joseph Cornell could not draw, paint, or sculpt and yet he was a great American artist.

He roamed the streets of New York from the late 1920s until his death in 1972, foraging in used bookstores and junk shops. “My work was a natural outcome of my love for the city,” he said. One day in 1931 he saw some compasses in one shop window and some boxes in the next, and it occurred to him to put them together.

Here are some of the things he found and placed in a box called “L’Égypte de Mlle Cléo de Mérode cours élémanetaire d’histoire naturelle,” which he constructed in 1940:

Doll’s forearm, loose red sand, wood ball, German coin, several glass and mirror fragments, 12 corkstopped bottles, cutout sphinx head, yellow filaments, 2 intertwined paper spirals, cut-out of Cléo do Mérode’s head, cutout of camels and men, loose yellow sand, 6 pearl beads, glass tube with residue of dried green liquid, crumpled tulle, rhinestones, pearl beads, sequins, metal chain, metal and glass fragments, threaded needle, red wood disc, bone and frosted glass fragments, blue celluloid, clear glass crystals, rock specimen, 7 balls, plastic rose petals, three miniature tin spoons for a doll house.

Cléo de Mérode, by the way, was a famous ballerina and feme tatale of the 1890s.


Did Cornell know what he was doing? Yes, but mostly no. Does anyone fully? He knew what he liked to see and touch. what he liked, no one was interested in. Surrealism provided him with a way of being more than just an eccentric collector of sundry oddities. The ideas of art came later, if they ever did come clearly. And how could they? His is a practice of divination. Dada and surrealism gave him a precedent and a freedom. I have in mind especially their astonishing discovery that lyric poetry can come out of chance operations. Cornell believed in the same magic and he was right! All art is a magic operation, or, if you prefer, a prayer for a new image.

“In murky corners of old cities where everything—horror, too—is magical,” Baudelaire writes. The city is a huge image machine. A slot machine for the solitaries. Coins of reverie, of poetry, secret passion, religious madness, it converts them al. A force illegible.


Perhaps the ideal way to observe the boxes it to place them on the floor and lie down beside them.

It is not surprising that child faces stare out of the boxes and that they have the dreamy look of children at play. Theirs is the happy solitude of a time without clocks when children are masters of their world. Cornell’s boxes are reliquaries of days when imagination reigned. They are inviting us, of course, to start our childhood reveries all over again.


In the smallest theater in the world the bread crumbs speak. It’s a mystery play on the subject of a lost paradise. Once there was a kitchen table on which a few crumbs were left. Through the window you could see your young mother by the fence talking to a neighbor. She was cold and kept hugging her thin dress tighter and tighter. The clouds in the sky sailed on as she threw her head back to laugh.

Where the words can't go any further—there’s the hard table. The crumbs are watching you as you in turn watch them. The unknown in you and the unknown in them attract each other. The two unknowns are like illicit lovers when they’re exceedingly and unaccountably happy.



  1. I approach the boxes of Joseph Cornell with the same giddy reverence that I approached advent calendars when I was a kid.

  2. Thanks again, Heather, for the little springboards to contemplation.

    Here are my scattered thoughts and feelings on looking at Joseph Cornell's Boxes.

    God is also an artist of little things:
    Smoldering wicks
    Bruised reeds, and so on.

    I saw hair from my proud golden retriever weaved into a humble but cheeky mockingbird's nest this spring. This was alive with meaning for me, though I can't articulate it.

    Maybe found objects that were so blithely used in their former life are given a second chance to capture attention and glorify the the artist, human and Divine.

    Another found object,

  3. With poets as different from each other as Elizabeth Bishop and Charles Simic being enthusiasts for Joseph Cornell's work, I am convinced that he is an artist to whom I should be paying attention!

    Echoing the sentiment of birdonaroof, I, too, like sparrows. There's something inspiring about them! Two of them are sold for a farthing, yet not one of them falls to the ground without God's knowledge!

  4. My own little churches:



  5. A friend just turned me on to an 84-year-old Canadian artist Catherine Hale, also a lover of sparrows, hair, bruised reeds etc.: http://beaverbrookartgallery.wordpress.com/2011/06/22/the-cabinet-of-catherine-hale/

    Another friend's mother, it turns out, makes shrines from found objects: http://www.marybillingsley.com/index.htm

    And do check out Jeff Roberts links--he has a whole blog about Joseph Cornell and is also an ACCOMPLISHED poet...I esp. loved the Oscar Levant, Jeff...


I WELCOME your comments!!!