The many masks of modern art

Hidden under the floorboards of old attics, embedded high within the trunks of tall pine trees, and buried deep under bushes and boulders in various corners of northern Canada and southeastern Minnesota are little bundles of childhood objects: toys, school records, comic books, letters, Indian head pennies, photographs, even a few foreign stamps.

They are all mementos of my days as a very young boy, things I had collected and then ritually buried at appropriate times. As far as I know all but one of these hidden treasures are still intact; that one, a small packet containing, among other things, a peacock feather, an Indian arrowhead, a rattle from a rattlesnake, a toy mouse, and a short, handwritten history of an underground kingdom, was recently sent to me by the people who now live in the house my family occupied many years ago. They had done some renovating in the attic and had found my youthful treasure-trove.

I was reminded of all that the other day while viewing a large exhibition of Joseph cornell's wonderfully enigmatic and mysterious boxes. They also are personal and private treasure-troves, tiny universes of memorabilia, records of ideas, impulses, and carefully worked-out fantasies. But they also represent the musings of an extraordinary creative sensibility. The big difference between his boxes and my bundles is that, while mine resulted from haphazard childhood impulses, his came into being as the carefully planned and constructed works of art of a highly sophisticated and intelligent adult.

I should, as a matter of fact, have put the word "original" before "sophisticated and intelligent," for originality was probably cornell's most outstanding characteristic -- that and his talent for artistic magic. He had the uncommon knack of transforming the commonplace and jumbled into the significant and orderly, not dramatically or spectacularly but quietly and gently and with a sense of inner integrity that puts his "magic" closer to the kind that slowly transforms an acorn into an oak tree than to the kind that theatrically turns a prince into a frog.

As an artist, Cornell went "with the grain" of his creative intuition, not against it. He never violated the rhythms or the rules of life or of art, but, rather, sought them out. And because he did, because he always searched for the essential and the universal within even the most exotic combinations of forms and subjects, his art draws us to it, causes us to take the time and trouble to "enter" his private little universes. And we do so with the same delight and curiosity with which Alice followed the White Rabbit down the rabbit hole.

But to do this Cornell needed to create what amounted to a new art form: the small, totally self-contained box within which anything and everything belonged wholeheartedly and inevitably -- once it had entered.

In the process of creating it, he transformed the acts of accumulating and collecting, poking around in secondhand shops and back-issue magazine stores, studying old movie magazines, clipping photographs of birds, portions of old master paintings, items from catalogs, etc., into as much of an artistic technique as traditional painting on canvas of carving in stone. And he so perfected the art of visual seduction that it is difficult, if not impossible, for us to come upon one of his boxes without peering in to see what is going on inside.

What ism going on inside these small stage set or diorama-like boxes is always interesting and usually downright fascinating. For Cornell manages to engage us on any number of levels: from the purely imaginative in subject and theme to the subtly exquisite in design and color, the delicate and sturdy in craftsmanship, and the vibrantly open in spirit and implication.

Specifically, his boxes contain seashells, butterflies, marbles, postage stamps, photographs, maps, twigs, starfish, soap bubble sets, eggs, paper cutouts, vials, reproductions of famous paintings, chicken wire, cork, and much else. These sit on ledges in front of, or are glued to, every sort of background -- from ordinary wood and paper to fancy atmospheric textures, maps, charts, simulated bushes. In short, anything and everything is included -- as long as it adds a proper nuance or contributes an interesting shape, line, texture, or color.

There are, however, quite a few boxes that contain only one central object, often behind a window-like construction and with a small number of other objects located around the edge. "Untitled (Medici boy)" is one of the simplest of these and is also one of his best known. It is masterfully illusionistic, for what appears at first glance to be a figure of a boy in Renaissance costume turns out to be merely a carefully cropped portion of a painting. Its art lies in its ambiguity, the remarkable way its reality and illusion are kept in poetic tension and in the overall elegance of its construction. although only 18 inches high and 5 inches deep, this work is both mysterious and lovely, and totally enigmatic.

More than most, the art of Joseph Cornell is an art of direction, of innuendo , of witty, whimsical, even outrageously startling, juxtapositions in which the point lies not so much in what the objects in the box are or represent as in what they and their relationships to one another suggest or imply.

All this, of course, brings him close to the Surrealists, although he was never one in the strict sense of the word. While he was certainly intrigued and stimulated by the aethetics or surrealism -- its incongruities and inconsistencies, its exotic and startling juxtapositions, its irreverences, even , to an extent, its wicked humor -- Cornell was too much of a philosophical classicist to join them in aiming for a disruptive rather than a healing and unifying artistic effect.

The original Surrealists were deadly serious revolutionaries out to jolt European cultural and social tradition out of its historic complacency. Their primary goals were disorientation and disaffection, and their art was their crucial weapon in bringing about these objectives. Art, to them, was an aggressive social and political act.

Cornell saw art more as a beautiful and enigmatic balloon sent up for all to enjoy and ponder. His objectives were artistic and poetic, and found their ultimate expression in the quiet contemplation of enigma, paradox, and symbols: what they are and how they came to be.

One word should stand out in any discussion of Cornell's art, and yet I've never seen it used. That word is love. Love for art, for his subjects, his objects, his craft, his tools, his materials, and, most of all, love for the mysteries, ideas, and ideals he espoused in his work. Love permeates his creations, and is, I'm personally convinced, what his art is all about.

What I find most extraordinary about Joseph Cornell is that he managed to create such a totally original and living art on such a vulnerable scale during the period of our century's maddest excesses. As a result, his work has served as a gently alternative voice to the more flamboyantly aggressive art of the past four or five decades. In a large sense, his art ism a precious treasure- trove, a kind of spiritual time capsule created and kept safe for future generations. The next article in this series appears on March 3.

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