Inside the box

Joseph Cornell's Surrealist tricks and tendencies are on display in "Untitled (Le Soir)," part of the exhibit "Birds of a Feather: Joseph Cornell’s Homage to Juan Gris," at The Met Fifth Avenue through April 15. Photo: Adel Gorgy
Joseph Cornell’s assemblages at The Met

On October 21, 1953, New York artist Joseph Cornell was out visiting galleries. He stopped into the Sidney Janis Gallery on West 57th Street and encountered Cubist painter Juan Gris’s 1914 collage “The Man at the Café.”

It was a painting that he would never forget and one that would deeply affect his own work. Over the course of 13 years, Cornell created a series that expressed the echoes pinging his artistic consciousness from that first encounter. Both the Gris painting and several of Cornell’s responses are joined together in The Met Fifth Avenue’s thoughtful exhibition, “Birds of a Feather: Joseph Cornell’s Homage to Juan Gris” on view through April 15.

Gris’s painting is a symphony of space — positive and negative, crammed and empty. It’s populated by the shadow of a figure who never appears. Painted in brown, blue and gray, incorporating newspapers and paintings of newspapers, fractured forms and repeated motifs, it’s a portrait of a mystery, a Cubist conundrum.

An absent man is hidden behind a newspaper. The shadow of his hat is seen from multiple perspectives. His knuckles grip the edges of a page from Le Matin containing an article titled “The Bertillon Method / One will no longer be able to make fake works of art.” Bertillon was a forensic expert and proponent of fingerprinting. The whole painting reads like a delightful art pun as seen through a detective film noir.

That same kind of mystery suffuses Cornell’s work. His Surrealist shadow boxes, filled with found objects, carefully collected and curated, laid the foundations for generations of assemblage and installation artists. Cornell’s complex miniature dream-like tableaux fit inside roughly cigar-box sized cases. Full of birds and maps, they present both constraints and freedom at once, as was fitting for the artist. Cornell, a recluse who lived in Queens in a small house with his mother and his disabled brother, possessed expansive knowledge joined with insatiable curiosity and an exquisite artistic sensibility.

So admired was Cornell’s vision that, though he never left New York, the art world came to him. He was friends with Duchamp, Motherwell, Rothko, de Kooning and Warhol. He had a chaste but long-term love affair with Japanese avant-garde artist, Yayoi Kusama, whose dots and infinities mirrored Cornell’s obsessive nature. Eventually, though, she withdrew from his intensity. Ultimately, Cornell lived in his imagination and his work. Within his diminutive cases, constellations and stars, classical literature, magazines, movie stars, works of art, random or studied things that appealed to the artist’s imagination were captured and then frozen behind glass in time and space.

The boxes he based on Gris’s work, presented in the exhibition, feature a great white-crested cockatoo from an image he found in a 19th century print. He photocopied it, cut and pasted it or its shadow onto wooden forms or directly to the boxes and then filled them with other objects. In works like “Untitled (Le Soir)” from 1953–54, Cornell plays with reality and illusion, a favorite Surrealist trick. Rather than introducing pictorial elements like lines, circles or spheres, he inserts a birdcage bar, a ring and a ball, blurring the divide between art and life. The work also includes mirrors, a twist that brings the outside in and allows snippets of the viewer to become part of the scene.

Curated by Mary Clare McKinley, “Birds of a Feather” inaugurates the museum’s planned series of exhibitions delving into Cubism. It’s designed to welcome and engage audiences with the extraordinary Leonard A. Lauder Cubist Collection, from which Gris’s exquisite painting is a promised gift. The exhibition offers a rare in-depth glimpse into the mind of a quiet New York artist who never achieved global fame but profoundly influenced the course of art. Self-taught, compulsive, an outsider who ran with the in-crowd, Joseph Cornell produced boxes filled with mystery and magic. They draw you close, entice you to enter, captivate with their secrets, and maybe, if you look carefully, allow you to enter their artist-made worlds.