In his shrewd essay on Joseph Cornell, Fairfield Porter noted that Cornell's first exhibit in the early 30s at the Julian Levy gallery in New York was entitled 'Toys for Adults'. Porter wrote that 'the title suggests that Julian Levy... was not certain that the boxes could be included within the category of art, or were to be taken seriously as Surrealism, or had the literary quality that Surrealism has restored to visual arts'. He correctly discerned the objects' lively doubtfulness, but the title also suggests that these were toys for adults in the way that there are adult books and certain movies for adults only.
Through the manner in which it is displayed, Cornell's work is frequently reduced to something that is only precious, dreamy and fey: galleries become boutiques, reconstructed and designed to mimic Cornell's assemblages - midnight blue walls, mood lighting, poetic touches, as if those in charge, for all their devotion to Cornell's work, were still nervous about what it is and what is going on in it. Drawing upon childlike visions and memories of quickly fading innocence, Cornell's boxes and collages have been themselves boxed-in to protect them from the implications of what they really are but few allow them to be. This critical and curatorial nervousness is connected to, and reflected in, the panicked, disingenuous manner in which America deals with the different sexualities both of children and the perennially uncoupled. The ever-surprising strength and tender severity of Cornell's art will not be diminished by any suggestion of the illicit, the erotic, or the eroticism of the illicit. In fact, it is only made more complex and vital by the conversation between Cornell's work and that of artists (Andy Warhol, Jack Pierson) influenced by, but seemingly distanced from it.
The Whitney exhibition's weakness has little to do with curatorial conceptualisation - Cornell's use of cosmology and astronomy - or the works chosen. Just because Cornell was inspired by the nocturnal (literally and metaphorically) does not mean his works should be kept in the dark, so dimly lit they can barely be seen. While one of the essays accompanying the show stresses his planetary systems' evocation of a 'favourite childhood pastime... a universe built of soap bubbles', they just as easily connote soporifics and the pretty, candy-like aspects of drugs. The presence of liqueur glasses and pipes in many of these boxes conjures up the solace of the cocktail hour. The emptiness of his 'hotels' is similar in many ways to the long-past-chic residences of characters in novels by Jean Rhys, providing once-glamorous denizens of fame and beauty with a private place to rest. Cornell's haunted genius for radical juxtaposition is never one-sided: for all the cosmic magic of his project, it is every bit as closely aligned to the sublimely adult activities of dissolution, boredom, drink and smoking - the plain pleasures of solitude. As well as of the body and nightmares.
Object (1940), one of the first pieces on display at C&M Arts, is a small French volume from the series, Bibliothéque du Médecin-Practicien ou Résumé Général (1850). Carved into all of the pages explicating maladies respiratoirs et ciculatoirs, visible only when the book was opened, was a small blue rotative, a homage to those of Marcel Duchamp's drag apparition, Rrose Sélavy. In the stunningly austere presentation at
C&M - sure lighting, simple display - Cornell's curiosities were allowed to resonate with their strange, queer clarity. By keeping it completely at bay, Cornell's works buzz with the cerebral perfume of the pornographic - its cleanliness and make-do precision, its insouciance, ubiquity and repetitions. Notice the pale lipstick pink of the crumbling paint and seductive line beginning at the cleavage of Parmigianino's Bel Antea and becoming a fissure in the wood panelling in Untitled (1950); the chill eroticism (Arctic terrain and frisky snow bunnies) of the gorgeous collage, Wind Deflection in the Northern Hemisphere (c. 1968); the hypnotically repeating Caravaggio boys. A richly obtuse absence often summons the unspecifiable sexuality inherent in the thingness of all things. In Circe and Her Lovers (The Science of Numbers and Space) (c.1964), a copy of a Renaissance portrait of the nude enchantress surrounded by her lovers, who have metamorphosed into animals, is paired by blank white space with spare, elegant, geometric pencil notations. As John Ashbery, who along with Porter and Wayne Koestenbaum is one of Cornell's most astute observers, confirmed: '...we are allowed to keep all the stories that art seems to want to cut us off from, without giving up the inspiring asceticism of abstraction'.
The violence of nightmares becomes apparent when it is remembered how similar some of Cornell's grid-markings are to gun sights and his paint splatterings to the blood traces which remain once a body in a mystery (the first of many) has been removed. The eerie collage, Untitled (c. 1968), is broken into three panels: the outer two, dark as space, show astronomic diagrams of the sun and moon's light spectra, along with, in the left panel, a Chinese woman traversing a buttercup-yellow grid to follow a butterfly caught on a Chinese postage stamp. In the centre, floating above the earth, atop a floating capsule of a NASA lunar probe, is a forlorn doll's head severed from its body.
It is time to consider Joseph Cornell in a more encompassing manner. The winsome miracles of his art must not be sanitised (or infantilised). His peculiarly brave idiosyncrasies proliferate with things some would call beauty's opposite but swiftly move beyond such dichotomies.