Thinking inside the box

By GREG COOK  |  April 24, 2007

He was also a pioneer of experimental cinema, as a loop of his films demonstrates. Rose Hobart was named after the star of the 1931 B-movie East of Borneo, which he diced and collaged back together to create his own eerie film. When he screened it at Julien Levy’s gallery in 1936, Salvador Dalí knocked over the projector in an apparent fit of artistic jealousy.

TAGLIONI’S JEWEL CASKET: Cornell taps our mind’s insistence on putting two and two together to create narratives where none exist.

Cornell hits his stride in the 1940s, producing a string of hits. It probably helped that in 1942 he switched from working at his kitchen table after his mom and brother had gone to sleep to a workshop he set up in his cellar. Taglioni’s Jewel Casket (1940) is a jewelry box lined in brown velvet with a necklace slung across the top and 12 glass ice cubes nested in holes in the bottom. It refers to the legend of the great 19th-century ballerina Marie Taglioni, who during a winter tour saved her jewels from the clutches of a highwayman by dancing for him. The sculpture is charged by alchemical transformations — glass to magically forever-frozen ice to jewels.

Medici Slot-Machine: Object (1942) initiated Cornell’s series of boxes appropriating Italian Renaissance paintings of aristocratic children into designs mimicking the game machines of penny arcades. A reproduction of Sofonisba Anguissola’s portrait of a standing boy is pasted in the center. Marbles, jacks, and blocks decorated with Renaissance portraits seem to tumble down each side. A compass wheel appears in a window at the bottom flanked by loose balls, blocks, and jacks in cases decorated with maps and mirrors.

Cornell’s boxes, so particularly arranged, tap our mind’s insistence on putting two and two together to create narratives even where none exist. Some correspondences are easily deciphered, but the boxes’ power and pleasure lie in how they never fully give up their mysteries.

Inspired by seeing Lauren Bacall in the 1944 film To Have and Have Not, Cornell constructed Untitled (Penny Arcade Portrait of Lauren Bacall) (circa 1945-’46). Bacall’s smoldering portrait is recessed behind a window in the middle. Above are prints of Manhattan skyscrapers and then a row of five holes with spools at each end, suggesting a film reel. To each side are blocks decorated with the same Bacall photo and photos of her as a girl. Inside is a series of ramps that a wooden ball can plink, plink, plink down. It’s an infatuated fan’s ultimate tribute, embodying the allure of Hollywood dreams. The box’s primary tone is Cornell’s trademark ultramarine blue, a color he identified with the “night blue of early silent films.” It’s a romantic hue, filled with pent-up emotions, longing from afar, anxious anticipation, and unrequited love.

In the middle of all this lavish work, Cornell makes Untitled (Multiple Cubes) (1946-’48), a dauntingly spare box of square blocks filling the grid of dovecote roosts. It’s among his most difficult and enigmatic works; some call it a forerunner of minimalism. This box was part of long series of sparse white-on-white birdcage boxes, sometimes decorated with cutouts of parrots and cockatoos, sometimes empty.

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