Thinking inside the box

By GREG COOK  |  April 24, 2007

“Toward the Blue Peninsula”: for Emily Dickenson (circa 1953) is a simple box with a wire cage cut open to give access to a little window showing blue sky. The bird seems to have flown the coop. And you realize that despite all Cornell’s flights of fancy, the undertone of his boxes is confinement.

In 1955, he returned to collage, now in color, less antique and including some naked-lady pictures, but the compositions don’t burn into your memory the way the boxes do. He continued to rejigger old boxes, but he produced fewer and fewer new ones. Perhaps it was the fatigue of age; perhaps he was stymied after badly cutting his thumb while sawing wood for a box in 1962. His mom and his brother died in the mid ’60s, leaving him lonely and depressed. He died alone in his humble home on the appropriately named Utopia Parkway, where he’d dreamed so many fairy tale dreams.

Joseph Cornell: Navigating the Imagination | Peabody Essex Museum, East India Square, Salem | April 28 through August 31

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