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The Found Art of Joseph Cornell


Another artist who thought outside the box was Joseph Cornell, who turned the simple box into both his frame and his canvas, encasing found objects behind glass.

Ms. LYNDA ROSCOE HARTIGAN (Curator): Cornell brought home an incredible amount of stuff, what he actually called the flotsam and jetsam of the streets of New York.

LYDEN: A master of the found object, Joseph Cornell is being given his first major retrospective in 25 years at the Smithsonian in Washington. Guest curator Lynda Roscoe Hartigan leads us through the work. She begins with a large photograph of a dapper looking man at work in his studio in the basement of his mother's tiny house in Queens.

Ms. HARTIGAN: I love this photograph because he's bending over in his suit and his glasses, mixing dyes. You can tell that this is a very crowded space in the photograph.

LYDEN: Very crowded.

Ms. HARTIGAN: He, you know, he worked in a small, domestic space during a period in which American art was very much about expansiveness, the big, you know, you think about all those photographs of Jackson Pollock, for example, strewing the paint, you know, the massive gesture. And Cornell here is bent over and he's dabbing. It's a very intimate kind of approach to making art.

LYDEN: So what we're looking at here, Lynda, are things from his studio, a collection of cardboard boxes; there's a Tropicana orange juice box, there's a little white box that says tinted cordial glasses, another that says plastic shelves, a box that he's marked springs.

Ms. HARTIGAN: We're looking at an artist's classification system. We're also looking at his spare parts department. You know, the notion was that he could go into these boxes and find what he needed of the moment. He picked and chose, you know, he was a hunter/gatherer. You know, he learned and imagined by virtue of handling a lot of these materials.

LYDEN: For a man who spent much of his life looking into the gutters, he also, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, was looking at the stars. Cornell was born in 1903. His life coincided with the evolution of film, and he was fascinated with the new film stars. He was also beguiled by another popular entertainment, the penny arcade. In a work based on the 1944 film "To Have and Have Not," he draws upon both. Lauren Bacall's image gazes out from a pinball game of sorts, complete with a red ball in the trap door.

Ms. HARTIGAN: With the penny arcade portrait of Lauren Bacall, we've got a box that actually looks a little bit like a contraption. Across the top there are some circles that almost look like peep holes and then some wires that are wound around spools. And this gives you the sense that you might be looking at an early moving picture machine that were often featured in the penny arcades on Coney Island that he went to as a child.

LYDEN: And this is a very tall box; this one is, what, a good 20 inches high?

Ms. HARTIGAN: Yeah. It's one of his largest boxes.

LYDEN: And 20 inches wide. And Bacall is, of course, at the center of it. Innocence and femininity lured Cornell. On the one hand, here was a man who spent his life in a tiny house with his mother and disabled brother, yet he was not a recluse. He developed a relationship with an exotic woman, Russian ballerina Tamara Toumanova. She had striking dark looks and she's at the center of several Cornell works, including a scrapbook he presented to her.

Ms. HARTIGAN: Over the years of their friendship, she would often let him watch her from the wings and there are all sorts of wonderful stories that she's told about how as she would run by for her costume changes, he would be there with the scissors to kind of snip off pieces of her costume or visit her in her backstage room and she'd give him parts of the costume. So it's an indication, of course, of how strongly he operated as a fan, if you will, in the world and it's also that very Victorian mentality of the scrapbook as a way of saving memories and commemorating and honoring people.

LYDEN: With ephemera like maps and wrappers and an array of objects, cocktail glasses, sprockets and rocks, Cornell encapsulated the past in a way that provides enduring mystery. And that's his gift to us. The show is called "Joseph Cornell: Navigating the Imagination." It runs through February 19th at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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