A Cornell box is like a seashell you hold to your eye

There can be no doubt that Joseph Cornell was a magician. His small box constructions containing seashells, butterflies, marbles, postage stamps, photographs, maps, twigs, starfish -- in fact almost everything under the sun -- are actually tiny universes into which we peer with wonder and delight.

He was also a visual poet whose surprising and often startling juxtapositions of unrelated objects trigger equally startling insights in us.

He was also a man of intense curiosity who was continually searching for symbolic evidence of human foibles or human greatness -- or merely for small things on the floor, on the street, or in the woods, things he then collected in boxes and on shelves until they were needed for his constructions or collages.

Roughly 275 of these creations are on view at the Museum of Modern Art here in a beguiling, if a bit overextended, retrospective of Cornell's art.

I would have preferred fewer pieces --125 or so would have been about right. Cornell's subtle and often complex ideas require considerable concentration, and I, unfortunately, became numbed and a little bored long before I approached the last piece in the show.

Cornell had the extraordinary knack of putting disparate elements together in ways that made their newfound relationship seem perfect and inevitable. That came partly from his study of the Surrealists, but mostly from his ability to see thematic connections among objects where others could see none and from his remarkable sensibility, which caused him to perceive formal relationships where others saw only a jumble of unconnected odds and ends.

He could, in other words, come upon an egg, three marbles, a feather, a stuffed parrot, and some wre, and see a work of art where the rest of us would have seen nothing but a number of objects.

Cornell lived the life of a recluse -- in the physical if not in the intellectual sense. He was largely self-taught, never traveled --Long Island to Manhattan -- and, in general, lived an uneventful outer life.

His inner life, however, was rich and varied. He read widely, compiled extensive "dossiers" on many people and topics, and carried on a far-ranging correspondence (both real and imaginary) with artists in New York and abroad. And, of course, he had his art, which occupied him almost his entire life.

He was fascinated by the movies and by movie stars, and was a filmmaker himself. Although critically ignored, Cornell's films have attracted considerable attention from film buffs for their high originality.

But it was Manhattan that stimulated him and gave him many of the things artists of an earlier age received only from the Grand Tour of Europe. New York's 42nd Street area, in particualr, drew him away from home with its depositories of souvenirs, back-number newspapers and magazines, old advertising cards, movie magazines, and the hundreds of other items he needed to fashion his constructions and collages.

Cornell's boxes have to be seen to be believed. Even the best photographs fail to capture the mysterious and lovely effects created by his clever manipulation of actual depth, and illusion of it, and obviously flat surfaces. Birds that appear to be stuffed and three-dimensional turn out to be paper cutouts -- bu placed upon actual twigs and within actual latticework. Photographs become solid, and objects become flat. Montage effects are intercut by actual clutter. And maps and designs for buildings coexist with Victorian photographs or illustrations and reproductions of Renaissance works of art.

Above all, Cornell's boxes must be viewed from close up. We must attend to them carefully, probe for each one's special reason for being, or they remain aloof and hermetic. Even so, they can never be fully "understood," because they were intended to exist, at least to a degree, as enigma.

In some ways, a Cornell box is like a visual seashell, only rather than placing it against our ears, we place it before our eyes and our poetic sensibilities.

It is highly rewarding mentally to move the objects in his boxes and to imagine substitutions for them. It's a good way to discover how beautifully and sensitively these works were conceived and executed.

A small cube replaced by a small ball and painted a slightly different color considerably alters the nature of a work, even though these objects might seem insignificant within the overall composition.

He had a knack for taking advantage of accidental effects and for inventing devices that make little logical sense -- but which nevertheless work beautifully as art. In "Grand Hotel Semiramis," for instance, the running paint below the printed title is perfectly appropriate -- but why? And what does the line that swoops into the pictorial space, and which parallels the form of the parrot's head at one point signify? And yet it's a lovely effect. Without it the work would be quite different.

Some of the constructions, on the other hand, are quite simple and straightward. "Untitled (Owl Box)" is one of these. Even here, however, we are confronted by paradox in the juxtaposition of the real and the mechanically reproduced.

I'ts a lovely and rewarding show, although to see it properly requires severl visits.

A film program is also being presented by the museum. This consists of "collage" films that Cornell made from other films, those he conceived and directed, and a short film about Cornell by Larry Jordan.

After its closing on Jan. 20, a modified version of this exhibition will travel to Whitechapel Gallery in London (March 2-April 12); Kunsthalle, Dusseldorf (May 4-June 14); Palazzo Pitti, Florence (July 6-Sept. 13); Musee d'Art Moderne de la Ville, Paris (Oct, 12-Dec. 6); and the Art Institute of Chicago (Jan. 23-March 21, 1982).

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