What do art critics mean when they speak of an artist’s work as having an essentially “poetic” quality? The late Fairfield Porter, who was himself a minor poet as well as a first-rate painter and critic, gave us the best answer I know in something he wrote about the pictorial shadowbox constructions of the American artist Joseph Cornell (1903-72). “Cornell uses his elements as though they were words,” Porter wrote, “but what they allude to have no verbal equivalent.”
It was a poetic method derived from Surrealist collage-specifically, in Cornell’s case, from an encounter with Max Ernst’s collage album, La Femme Cent Têtes , in the early 1930’s. In Ernst’s collage aesthetic of incongruous juxtaposition, Cornell discovered his lifetime vocation. From collage, Cornell soon turned to the creation of “boxes,” for which he’s far better-known to most of today’s art public. But two-dimensional collage remained an abiding passion, and he was prolific in producing them almost to the end of his life, as we can now see in the exhibition Joseph Cornell: Collages , currently on view at C&M Arts. The show consists of 62 collages, all of them drawn from the Cornell estate and none of them publicly exhibited before now. Most of them date from the 1960’s.
The question that inevitably arises from this exhibition is: Does “late” Cornell differ in any significant degree from the Cornell collages that are already familiar to us? I think they do, in one respect: I can’t recall any earlier exhibition in which there were so many collages that focused on images of naked girls. There’s always been a current of voyeuristic reverie to be seen, or at least inferred, in Cornell’s iconography, but in the past this tended to be represented by illustrations of celebrated ballerinas of an earlier era, or by details of female figurines clipped from reproductions of Renaissance paintings. They were nothing if not discreet. It’s my impression, anyway, that the voyeuristic impulse is a little more explicit in some of the naked-girl collages in the current exhibition.
It may be that as Cornell grew older and had reason to believe that his position as a modern master was beyond doubt, he felt freer about what he permitted himself to express. Or was it only that an unfettered expression of erotic fantasy had become a more and more acceptable feature of mainstream cultural life?
About such matters, we can only speculate. For the most part, the Cornell we see in the current exhibition is the Cornell who has long been familiar to us: the Cornell who was, above all else, a visual poet whose collages and boxes evoke a dreamlike combination of the exquisite, the esoteric and the commonplace. Every one ofhiscreations, whetheratwo-dimensional(and sometimestwo-sided) collage or a three-dimensional box, is a remembrance of things past-sometimes, to be sure, an imaginary past. Images of the heavens enjoyed an aesthetic parity with Renaissance icons, but neither was more important than Cornell’s fondness for the ballet or his affectionate hommages to the playthings of his childhood.
The Surrealist movement as it emerged in Europe in the 1920’s and 30’s was a fairly radical and rackety affair that made large claims about transforming the nature of life by means of an assault on the unconscious. It aspired to provoke a political as well as a sexual revolution. The American version of Surrealism was, in every respect, a good deal tamer and less political. It gave priority to precisely the kind of aesthetic concerns that the European Surrealists loudly disavowed.
This is one of the historical contexts in which Cornell’s artistic achievement needs to be understood. But another is the fact that his career as an artist paralleled that of the Abstract Expressionist painters of the New York School, for the contrast between his apparently modest ambitions and their pursuit of the big bang gave him an unexpected advantage. It made him look like a one-man movement, which in America he then was. While the Abstract Expressionists were busy erasing representational imagery from their pictures, Cornell was quietly filling up his collages and boxes with a surfeit of compelling images and objects. The difference was noticed, and acted upon.
The fallout from this division of aesthetic labor came in the next generation, the generation of Rauschenberg and Johns and their many imitators. For where did Mr. Rauschenberg, in particular, get his idea of combining painting with objects if not from Cornell? In the early 1950’s, Cornell’s New York dealer was Charles Egan, whose gallery gave Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline their first solo exhibitions. Around the same time, Mr. Rauschenberg’s mother-in-law was buying Cornell boxes from Charles Egan. Without a doubt, Duchamp had set the stage, but it was Cornell’s example that served as the catalyst forbothMr. Rauschenberg and Mr. Johns making Cornell-typepictures with objects on an Abstract Expressionist scale. This would make Joseph Cornell one of the most influential figures in the historyof20th-century American art-a claim that Cornell himself would probably have found shocking.
Joseph Cornell: Collages remains on view at C&M Arts, 45 East 78th Street, through Sept. 13. Summer gallery hours are 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Monday to Friday.