Stranger Than Dreams

The American artist Joseph Cornell (1903-1972) created one of the 20th century’s strangest and most quixotic bodies of work. Through the tender arrangement of dolls, balls and assorted Victorian ephemera inside weathered wooden boxes, Cornell distilled memory from loss. No other Modernist invested the bastard medium of assemblage with such aesthetic coherence—not its inventor Kurt Schwitters, not his disciple Robert Rauschenberg and certainly not the huckster Damien Hirst.

Assemblage looks like art, but repels engagement. We don’t lose ourselves in it the way we do in a good book—it’s too literal, too blunt in its material certainty. It’s fitting, then, that it was Cornell, a dreamy loner from Queens with no formal training in art, who realized and encapsulated the medium’s potential.

But don’t peg him as an outsider—he was a sophisticated habitué of the Manhattan gallery scene, counting among his acquaintances and admirers the Dadaist kingpin Marcel Duchamp. In his art, Cornell shared with the Surrealists a reliance on the unconscious, however weird or distasteful its vagaries. A tone of wistful obsession centers his fragile and often hallucinatory visions. Drawn to children, actresses and dancers, he was known to have stalked the ballerina Allegra Kent—Cornell was, in the most gentle of ways, an unseemly character.


IN JOSEPH CORNELL'S DREAMS, RECENTLY ISSUED by independent publisher Exact Change, artist and editor Catherine Corman proposes to draw Cornell’s life and art into a single strand. Most of Dreams is just that—fragmented dream recollections drawn from Cornell’s journals, presented in chronological order from 1944 to 1972. Each entry is given a full page; much of the book is clean white space.

An introduction and three “appendices”—short interpretive essays that attempt to give context and coherence to Cornell’s jottings—account for nearly a quarter of the volume. In the first appendix, “Themes to the Dreams; Themes Within the Dreams,” Ms. Corman offers an alphabetically arranged glossary of Cornell’s dream motifs, running from “Animals” to “Water,” intended to shed light on his psyche and, by implication, his art. She does so with a simplicity that is at times gratifying, yet at other times verges on naïveté—as when she asserts that Cornell’s brother Robert, who suffered from cerebral palsy, figured in some of the “most important dreams of [Cornell’s] life.” Ms. Corman doesn’t explain how she knows this.

The list of themes invokes Freud, as is appropriate given Cornell’s interest in psychoanalysis—but Ms. Corman overreaches when interpreting symbols. “Dreams of animals invoke tenderness,” we are told. “Fire is related to fragile people” and the “lawn is … linked with death.” To paraphrase the good doctor, sometimes a lawn is just a lawn. Still, Ms. Corman should be commended for slogging through Cornell’s 30,000 journal pages, 500 of which were expressly dedicated to dreams.

Most of Cornell’s dream recollections are a line or two, punctuated, if at all, with ellipses and dashes. It’s become a cliché to invoke poetry when writing about Cornell’s art, and it would be foolish to read Cornell’s obscurantist jottings as poems. “Suzy B. treading glowing cinder in dream,” goes one; “dream white cockatoo on deep blue” says another. You begin to wonder whether the staggered sentences are indicative of how they originally appeared in the journals, or if Ms. Corman has taken the liberty of arranging them that way. Nowhere in the book is the organization of the journals’ manuscript version discussed. Why not?

The only inscription that comes close to poetry is dated March 3, 1944: “Dream of going back to Nyack/ seeing school as the palace I made of mirrors it was like/ the Plaza only seen as a front facade/ resplendent in the sunlight.” Here the elusive magic we associate with Cornell’s art is given literary body. Otherwise, arbitrariness dominates. If Cornell is responsible for arranging the entry from June 1960—“dream/ inspired/ by Bay of/ Naples/ gouache/ color”—we should be grateful that he relegated his pretensions to the page, and didn’t put them in a box.

Nevertheless, those with the patience to do so will divine the telling turn of phrase. When Cornell mentions how the “irrational” sometimes “obtrudes,” or how moths sympathize with him as he stands in the rain, you think: Now we’re getting close to “the verbal equivalent of Cornell[’s] boxes” promised by the book’s publicity. But those moments are rare and hardly worth digging out. Joseph Cornell’s Dreams reminds us that keeping a journal is a private endeavor, and that dreams are interesting primarily to the dreamer. They give us some entry into the artist’s head, but do nothing to illuminate his art—which is, come to think of it, exactly how it should be.

Stranger Than Dreams