The Little Prince Of Queens

Joseph Cornell’s shadow boxes are poetic windows on the mind of a man with a restricted life

Art North America
Oddities as art: "Palace”, 1943, by Joseph Cornell (credit: The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation/VAGA, NY/DACS, London 2015)

Joseph Cornell (1903-1972) was a very strange artist and a very strange man. He was an innocent who was also possessed of something of the creepiness of Frederick Clegg, John Fowles’s The Collector; he was a self-taught latecomer who was lauded by the likes of Duchamp, De Kooning and Warhol; a world traveller who never left New York State; and a pioneer in the genres of assemblage and installation that are so prevalent today. He is a revered figure in the history of 20th-century art but nonetheless remains outside the mainstream, never quite fitting one movement or another — a late Symbolist or a bit of a Surrealist perhaps, a folk artist or a proto Pop Artist maybe.

Cornell didn’t paint or draw but made collages and, above all, glass-fronted boxes — “shadow boxes” — filled with found objects and images cut from magazines. The subjects contained in these little bric-a-brac mises-en-scènes range from the stars and the Italian Renaissance to birds and ballet dancers. Initially dismissed (not least by some of his crushes — the ballerinas and Hollywood leading ladies such as Lauren Bacall he sent them to as gifts of adoration) they can also be seen as shrines and reliquaries that are containers of memory and dream, fantasy and poetry.

Eighty of his works — boxes and collages (both paper versions and the films he spliced together from random commercial footage) — are on display in Wanderlust at the Royal Academy (July 4 to September 27), the first retrospective of his work here since the Whitechapel show of 1981. Cornell was said to have spent every single night of his adult life under his own roof; so the title refers to the imaginary travelling to different continents, solar systems and centuries that he sublimated in his boxes. It refers too to his expeditions around New York, scouring junk shops and second-hand bookshops for ephemera to add to his collection.

He would store these oddities in stacks of boxes in the basement of the house on the inaptly-named Utopia Parkway in Flushing, Queens, that he shared with his long-widowed mother and a brother with cerebral palsy. He was a carer before he was an artist and would work on his boxes after the household had gone to bed, with Satie and Debussy playing on the gramophone, arranging his compositions of mundane objects, from metal springs to clay pipes and coins, and turning them into the “what might have beens” of his own restricted life. It is a poetic sign of his arrested development (Cornell had to support his family from the age of 14 when his father died) that among his collection were some of the original drawings for Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince.

Initially, inspired by having seen some of Max Ernst’s collages in a gallery, Cornell worked entirely for his own satisfaction but he was then picked up as an American Surrealist (a claim he rejected) and from the mid-1930s exhibited in his own right. He tended to make his boxes in series — the Museum series, the Soap Bubble sets, the Observatory series and the Aviary boxes full of brightly coloured cut-out birds against a white background.

Cornell, deprived of an idyllic childhood, explained his boxes as “poetic theatre or settings wherein are metamorphosed the elements of a childhood pastime” but they are too, surely, signs of a curatorial urge. Rather, as a lepidopterist arranges his specimens by family, genus and species, Cornell was an entomologist of the mind who classified his internal life. Because of this, the act of looking into the boxes is not just voyeuristic but sometimes has an almost medical aspect — the boxes are compartments of his brain — and it is this that makes them both so fascinating and so unnerving.

Media-savvy and brash, photogenic and public, the creator of garish riffs on consumer culture, Jeff Koons is an American artist who stands as Cornell’s opposite. Koons’s mission has been to free the viewer — and himself — from the “shame of bad taste”, to turn low art into high. To do this he has cast inflatable toys in stainless steel, pre-dated Damien Hirst by suspending objects in vitrines (basketballs in this instance), had Michael Jackson and his chimp modelled life-size in porcelain, sculpted himself having sex with La Cicciolina, a porn star who later became his wife, and taken corny tourist knick-knacks and blown them up to epic proportions.

The Guggenheim in Bilbao is the last stop of a major retrospective (until September 27) of his 40-year showman career. Frank Gehry’s building is so extraordinary that only work that is either very large or very loud — as Koons’s is — can survived being swamped. And indeed this survey, what Koons calls his “Dionysian festival”, is great fun. It is comedic, visually arresting, technically fascinating and also, despite his claims to the contrary, empty.

Koons, who famously doesn’t make his sculptures or paintings himself but employs an army of assistants and technicians, produces pieces that require so much money to make (how else do you turn a toy dog made by a children’s balloon twister into a perfectly polished steel version the size of a horse?) that there is a three-year gap between conception and completion. That is a long time to play out one visual gag but plenty of time to come up with ex post facto rationalisations as to what the pieces might mean. Koons talks in terms of transcendence, metaphysics, self affirmation and viewer immersion; the immersed viewer, however, might see them as overblown diversions resulting from unlimited time and money and equally vast self-indulgence.

And why not? No one outside the world of curators, gallerists and perhaps his assistants is forced to take Koons seriously and he adds greatly to the gaiety of the nation. If his metal casts of blow-up children’s toys exist in a state of permanent inflation, why not Jeff Koons too?