Andromeda Hotel: The Art of Joseph Cornell

by Therese Lichtenstein



Cornell gathers the found objects and artifacts of a particular time and place and arranges them in unexpected combinations to extend their meanings and create new ones. They suggest the expressive gesture of the objet trouvé, the Surrealist celebration of the twilight beauty of an object as it wanes, like an image at the periphery of vision. Although he was neither the first or the last artist to make use of the found object, Cornell's boxes and collages have a unique yet familiar, personal, and vulnerable quality to them, just as one's subjective memories of places and people embody a mixture of emotions. His strong connection to the objects and images in his boxes and collages often substituted for close relationships with people in the "real" world.

Cornell was a mortician magician, embalming found objects from high and popular culture, yet transforming them at the same time. His enchanting and marvelous boxes and collages reveal that the pleasure of desire is to be found in the tension between longing and fulfillment. Some pieces are playful and intimate, recapturing the wonder and joy of childhood, while others, like the minimal Dovecote boxes, which he began constructing in l950, appear more somber and contemplative.

In Untitled (Dovecote) (pl. 00), a few small painted white wooden balls (surrogates for doves) are placed in round individual compartments and at the bottom of the blue glass-covered box. The "doves" (spiritual messengers) appear both sheltered and imprisoned, perhaps poised for their potential release or forever contained in their miniscule chambers. In some of Cornell's other Dovecote boxes, the compartments are topped by small, often broken arches that suggest a miniature cathedral. Collector Robert Lehrman comments on the first Cornell box he purchased, Untitled ("Dovecote" American Gothic), "Living with it over time, I learned that Cornell's best works reveal themselves gradually, whispering their secrets in a soft but ultimately powerful voice. And, like good friends, they get better with age.... Each little compartment is actually a room offering a place to pause on our journey.... [The] box becomes a metaphor for travel and the comfort of lodgings, for individual experience and also for shared places and spaces."[21] The Dovecote boxes also make reference to traditional dovecotes, which provided shelter for pigeons and doves from Roman times through the medieval period, when dovecotes served as sanctuaries in churches. Hartigan claims, "During medieval times, dovecotes or colombiers were developed as compartmentalized, often raised houses or boxes for the domestic pigeons kept by knights as a sign of prestige. The Latin term for dovecote -- columbarium -- refers as well to a structure of vaults lined with recesses for funerary urns."[22]

A breathtaking loneliness permeates the ghostlike and elegiac Dovecote boxes. Like the still anticipation of an Atget photograph, these boxes, simultaneously claustrophobic and liberating, are little memento mori, philosophical meditations on death and the passing of time. For Cornell, the process of making art is a form of salvation and liberation. And it appears as if Cornell was seeking spiritual transcendence in these works.

The most powerful emotions in Cornell's art are longing and nostalgia. For him, the wish to return to a specific time and place involves the desire both to restore feelings of comfort and security and to stop time and its advancement towards death. But in this evocation of nostalgia, there is the simultaneous urge to return to the past and the recognition that it is impossible to do so. These contradictory tendencies create the temporary illusion of suspended time -- a pause, a rewinding of a memory. The knowledge that a retrieval of the past is impossible gives rise to a sense of yearning and loss, turning nostalgia into an act of bittersweet mourning. In nostalgia, the past offers a refuge of temporary security, blocking out the uncertainty of the present and the future; it is a kind of edited replay as wish fulfillment. The fantasies are constructed precisely to suit one's needs. Nostalgia may produce a recollection of the past as it once actually existed, or it may alter the actual feelings associated with that recollection. This selective memory simultaneously conserves and destroys the past.

How does a memory of the past alter one's understanding of both the past and the present? How does one differentiate between an actual experience and a dream? Why do certain memories recur, take priority over other memories? When does a "new" memory enter into the realm of the repeatable? Reminiscences have the effect of perpetuating desire and longing. One cannot sustain the permanence of a pleasure experienced in the actual world, but one can savor the pleasure of a moment, in part, by recollecting it. Cornell recombines familiar fragments from his archives to create a new object that looks like a memory trace, that captures poetically the almost untranslatable experience of a feeling, a moment, and a mood -- what Cornell refers to as "'ineffable joy,'...a phrase [he] used when he felt that an experience or insight could not be expressed in a word." [23]


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