FIVE } Joseph Cornell: Things
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} 115 In April 1943, Joseph Cornell began an eight-­ month stint work‑ ing at Allied Control Company in Long Island City, Queens, testing radios for fifty-­five cents an hour. Just four months earlier, his artwork had been displayed in a three-­person show at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century gallery, along with works by Marcel Duchamp and Laurence Vail, Guggenheim’s ­ ex‑husband. The new works Cornell chose to exhibit—Medici Slot Machine, Setting for a Fairy Tale, and Untitled (Pharmacy)—are now considered outstanding examples of his assemblage art, but contemporary critics were mixed in their reviews. One called the entire show “surrealist, pretentious and silly in the extreme,” but Clement Greenberg singled out Cornell as “greatly gifted.”1 As Cornell reluctantly turned to the world of daily employment, his artwork turned toward another form. Continuing to construct and fill his signature shadow boxes, he also began to shape ensembles of notes, clippings, photo‑ graphs, and prose narratives he called “dossiers.” Two such dossiers, “gc 44” and The Crystal Cage (Portrait of Berenice), together with his boxed doll, Untitled (Bébé Marie), all completed or begun in the early and mid-­ 1940s, make up the central evidence for this chapter’s claim: that Cornell’s work, while indebted to several traditions in modern Euro-­ American art, also belongs to the tradition of transcendentalism and its particular version of secularity. Other critics have noticed Cornell’s affinities with transcendentalism. Dawn Ades writes that Cor‑ nell “was attracted to visual Surrealism, yet he was probably closer in sensibility to the American Transcendentalist tradition.”2 Carter Ratcliff explores parallels among Cornell, Henry Thoreau, and Emily Dickinson, seeing in all their work an interest in fragments that are shadows of “an unattainable wholeness.”3 Lindsay Blair makes the connection explicit: “Traces of the American Transcendentalist tradition can be discerned in Cornell’s own trains of thought, and his dossiers certainly indicate, if not adherence to, at least a familiarity with Transcendental‑ ist ideas. . . . He borrowed from the Transcendentalists a belief in a subjectivism in which the individual loses his sense of self to become, in effect, a transparent eyeball: this is a most unusual kind of subjectivism, one in which the individual personality and consciousness of the artist is subjugated to a spiritual force that flows through him.”4 None of these critics develops this insight, nor does any see secularity as a powerful common element in Cornell and the nineteenth-­century American movement. Five } Joseph Cornell: Things 116 { Chapter Five Aligning Cornell with the transcendentalists depends less on unpacking di‑ rect references or influences, as we can with the careers of Charles Ives, Truman Nelson, and Annie Dillard, but rather on identifying parallel emotional and aes‑ thetic moves, discerning the similar ways they engage and interpret the world around them. There is, to be sure, a link between Cornell’s embrace of Christian Science and Bronson Alcott’s initial enthusiasm for the young movement in 1876. But Cornell’s fascination with the material world never meshed well with Mary Baker Eddy’s argument that the material was a malign illusion, but matched much better the view held by many transcendentalists of a “twofold creation,” as Alcott put it. Like the transcendentalists’, Cornell’s “secularity” involved a thor‑ oughly human-­based worldliness, a deep immersion in the material and natural world, and a corresponding sense that the material world participates in a larger world of meaning which is forever just out of reach. Like the transcendentalists, Cornell cultivated moments of insight where the disparate pieces of experience cohere and, again like the American transcendentalists and their English and European romantic counterparts, he linked those moments of sudden inspira‑ tion and coherence with the condition of childhood. Although American tran‑ scendentalists were not acknowledged in Cornell’s dossiers or letters (indeed, few American writers are, except Emily Dickinson), he nonetheless engaged and extended their tradition both as fellow practitioners of an aesthetics of inspi‑ ration and as scavengers of world cultures, and in their mutual quest for new moments of enchantment and new forms of expression. Finally, while Cornell was much less interested in the social dimensions of “human flourishing” that marked the work of many nineteenth-­ century transcendentalists, he was very much a twentieth-­century version of the “fluid transcendentalism” that emerged in Thoreau’s last writings. In the first decades of the twentieth century, Cornell’s birthplace of Nyack, New York, had declined from the peak of its prosperity...


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