To begin to understand the power of things, you have to accept that they have lives of their own. I was lucky enough to have a mother who took me to lots of antique fairs and flea markets when I was a kid. She didn't tell me anything about fancy china or glassware or silver. Instead, unwittingly, she taught me a kind of history spelled out in everyday things -- a sort of anthropology of hopes and dreams. She pointed out dolls and toy animals that were similar to ones she'd loved in the '20s, and showed me the handbags and compacts that proper ladies used to carry. I learned that one of the most popular souvenirs of the 1939 World's Fair was a tiny pin in the shape of a Heinz pickle (she'd had one herself). I learned that during the Depression, men used to spend long hours making chains out of cellophane strips because they had nothing else to do. By looking at the objects people had left behind, I knew the kinds of things they did when they wanted to look good, express love, have fun or at least convince themselves they weren't miserable.
But these weren't any great insights on my part: These people's fantastic secrets were right there in front of me, in a jumble of mismatched buttons in an old candy tin or in the Palmer-method handwriting on the back of a Kewpie postcard. Their stories were locked forever in their things, but, of course, you couldn't really free them -- you could only imagine them, sketch them out in your mind.
Joseph Cornell, the subject of an extraordinary new biography by Wall Street Journal art critic Deborah Solomon, had no such limitations: He freed the stories in things as if he were some kind of magician, making them as clear to us -- and yet as infinitely mysterious -- as the sound of the ocean in a seashell. In his collages, in his experimental films and especially in his "boxes" -- glass-fronted shadowboxes encompassing miniature landscapes made up of old maps and prints, of marbles and brass rings, of ballerinas, birds and tangled branches -- he bridged the Swiss-cheese holes between surrealism, abstract expressionism and pop art. And yet his contribution is much more significant, and also much more intimate, than that. His works, relying almost completely on strange and powerful juxtapositions of everyday objects or elements, are small in scale (most of the boxes measure less than two feet), but they speak to us in the rich vocabulary of human desire. They whisper about idealized memories of childhood bliss, about smoldering romantic hopes, about dreams that hang by only a slender thread. For such "small" works, Cornell's collages and boxes are surprisingly bold, albeit in an intuitive, delicate way. They make us face up to the power of things (of toys, of seashells, of paper cutouts) by acknowledging freely that "things" are not always just things; they can also represent the parts of ourselves we want most to secret away from the world. The treasures we hide in messy boxes under our beds are simply stand-ins for those we hide in the corners of our hearts.
"Utopia Parkway: The Life and Work of Joseph Cornell" is magnificent and tender, toward both Cornell's work and the fragile man himself. Cornell was born in 1903 to a well-bred, domineering mother and a father who was a textile salesman and designer. Shy Joseph was the eldest of four children. The youngest, Robert, was born with cerebral palsy. For most of his life, until his death in 1972, Joseph Cornell lived in a modest house in Flushing, N.Y., with his mother and Robert. (His father died in 1917, and his sisters married and built lives of their own.) He cared for Robert all his life (the younger brother died in 1965), and shared an uneasy but stiflingly close relationship with his mother until her death in 1966. Under his mother's thumb, Joseph (who was, incidentally, a lifelong Christian Scientist) grew even more reclusive and reticent as he aged. He loved to spend his days wandering around Manhattan, searching for books, prints and geegaws, but doing even that seemed to press his limits in terms of worldly adventures. By the time Cornell reached his 60s, he'd barely ever asked a woman on a date. He preferred to worship women from afar, building stunning, elaborate boxes in tribute to ballet dancers or movie stars like Lauren Bacall, too stymied to embark on any sort of real relationship. "He was more affectionate toward objects than people," Solomon writes, "preferred little girls and actresses to available women, suffered from migraines, and talked to pigeons."
Cornell had his share of famous friends. He associated with Marcel Duchamp in surrealism's heyday (a few of Cornell's earliest collages were part of the first exhibit of surrealist art in the United States, presented by the Julien Levy Gallery in 1932) and later had cordial relationships with Willem DeKooning and Andy Warhol, as well as Tony Curtis, Susan Sontag and ballerina Allegra Kent. He kept his reserve with most adults, and although he craved success and attention in his own way, he seemed out of place in the glamorous art world.
Especially in his later years, Cornell preferred to associate with students (particularly pretty young women) and children, often giving them boxes -- worth perhaps thousands of dollars -- as gifts. Solomon tells how a friend of Cornell's recalls visiting the artist at his home and watching in disbelief as a little girl came trotting across his lawn with a box. "I'm tired of this one. Can I have another?" she asked, and Cornell obliged. Ultimately, his trust was betrayed by a young woman named Joyce Hunter, with whom he'd been infatuated and had an affair of sorts in 1964. Hunter, after breaking off the relationship, stole a number of boxes from Cornell's garage storage area. After her arrest for the theft, Cornell himself bailed her out. Not long after, she was found murdered in her apartment, and Cornell was devastated by her death.
Instead of treating Cornell's sometimes creepy obsessiveness as an unpleasantness to be dealt with and whisked away, Solomon addresses it fearlessly -- and it's the only approach that makes sense, given how that obsessiveness not only ties into his work but, oddly enough, breathes life into it. For his first movie, the groundbreaking experimental work "Rose Hobart," Cornell spliced together found film footage into a moody love letter to the beautiful actress. (When Cornell first showed the movie publicly, Salvador Dali was in the audience, and midway through overturned the projector in a jealous rage -- apparently, Cornell had made the movie he'd always wanted to make.) Solomon doesn't flinch from drawing connections between the "childlike innocence" of Cornell's work and its sometimes menacing sexual overtones. About one of his most unsettling works, "Bibi Marie," a box containing a beautiful porcelain doll peering out from behind a tangle of silvery twigs, Solomon writes, "It would be wrong to view the box as asexual or to see its creator as a man who had no adult urges. Like so much of Cornell's work, 'Bibi Marie' is all about sex, even though nothing about it is specifically sexual."
Yet it would also be wrong to write about Cornell's work solely in terms of the artist's murky, submerged sexual desires, and Solomon knows when to step away from Cornell's kinkiness. Writing about his first box, 1936's "Soap Bubble Set" -- a construction that includes a map of the moon, a clay pipe and a doll's head, with no soap bubbles in sight -- she says of the nonexistent bubbles, "However delicately evoked, they remind us of the healing power of daydreams -- and art itself -- in the face of death."
That's an acknowledgment that even Cornell's most "innocent" work has its own gravity, that the objects in his boxes are less toys than tokens. They're like the everyday items ancient Egyptians buried with their dead to make them feel at home in the afterlife: toilet items, tools, little amusements. Cornell's work underscored the significance of things in and of themselves, but it also clued us in to their weight and meaning in the context of one another -- and then in the context of our dreams as well. It wasn't so much that Cornell made everyday objects speak to us. It was that he urged them to speak to each other, to spill their secrets. We're invited to listen in on that whispered symphony. The catch is, we can hear it only in our sleep.