When Diane Waldman selected the pieces for the 1967 exhibition of Joseph Cornell’s work at the Guggenheim Museum five years before his death, and wrote for the catalog what was one of the first extensive critical articles on the artist, he was practically unknown. Even the far more wide-ranging retrospective exhibition at MOMA in 1980 and the fine essays and more than three hundred illustrations in the catalog did not make his name much more familiar to the wider public. There was a reason for that. Avant-garde movements, one supposedly more radical than the other, came and went in the years in question, trumpeting other names and competing for attention. If the works themselves and the aesthetic claims made for them were often laughable, it did not seem to matter since they sold for astonishing sums of money.
Then all that gradually changed in the 1990s. Everything that made Cornell a marginal figure—his distance from current fashions and the oddness of his art, with its small-size box constructions in which a variety of inconsequential found objects are assembled—began to attract interest. During the last decade we have had a biography of Cornell, a book of selected diaries, letters, and files, a study of his interest in cinema, a volume on his vision of spiritual order, and several other equally interesting monographs, catalog texts, and isolated essays. Cornell brings out the best in critics and literary historians. He charms them by the way he combines in himself complete ordinariness with high sophistication. They know that even after every aspect of his career and art has been carefully documented, he will remain an enigma. That’s why books about him keep being written. When even the most persuasive speculations fail to fully account for the originality of the work, one has no choice but to look again and again.
Long before the Cubists tore up newspaper headlines to make collages and Marcel Duchamp displayed a store-bought snow shovel as a work of art, there was Walt Whitman’s poetry with its frequent catalogs of seemingly random images. A “kaleidoscope divine,” a “bequeather of poems” is what he called the city of New York and its motley crowds. Street life in all its bustle and variety is one of the great discoveries of modern art and literature. Whitman and Baudelaire were intense original observers of the city around them and so was Cornell in his own special way. I don’t believe that he would have become an artist had he spent his life cooped up in some small town in Maine or Kansas. He couldn’t draw, paint, or sculpt, so what would he have done with himself there? In New York, he did what the city already does anyway: make impromptu assemblages out of many different kinds of realities. An image hunter is how he described himself. He had no clear idea what he was looking for or what he would find. For years, before he made any …
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