Shadow-boxing with Joseph Cornell: the Surrealist's works in the Menil Collection go on display

Celebrating the collection's 10 year anniversary


The delicate constructions of America’s quiet Surrealist, Joseph Cornell, form an exhibition to mark the first decade of the Menil Collection. Although Cornell never travelled to Europe, indeed rarely left New York, he was immersed in Surrealism from 1931, in the early days of his association with Julien Levy, the New York art dealer instrumental in introducing the movement to American audiences.

Seventy-five of Cornell’s works have been selected by curator Walter Hopps for an exhibition which spans the artist’s career and includes Cornell’s lesser-known collages and film, as well as his famous shadowboxes. Described by Mr Hopps as “little wonders of static theatre”, Cornell’s glass-fronted boxes contain fragments of writing, natural and found objects, lovingly assembled and recalling distant times and places with disturbing force.

These serious works were conceived by the artist as “pictorial poems” in the spirit of Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot and Emily Dickenson. While occasionally inspired by or offered to children, Cornell’s boxes were never the childish toys that some people took them to be. To the artist they were his “temoignages”, witnesses to a sudden state of grace.

Curators have previously suffused Cornell’s boxes with nocturnal light, to invoke a Surrealist dreamworld. Mr Hopps however, has opted for a “subdued, interior, ‘everyday’ kind of light,” the kind of light which Cornell lived in and shared with his work and visitors at his home in Utopia Parkway, Queens, New York. Wall texts have been kept to a minimum, in keeping with the artist’s deep belief in intuitive responses.

Highlights of the exhibition include the “Medici Slot Machine” of 1942 and the “Soap Bubble Set (Système de Descartes)” from 1954-56 (shown here), where a row of wine glasses holding small objects sets in play a system of rings.

The work pays tribute to Descartes’ plan of a rational universe, while ironically suggesting a cheap fairground game.

Also on view are Cornell’s idiosyncratic films known as “Goofy Newsreels”, which he made by recycling footage from Hollywood movies. Among them is “Rose Hobart” of 1937, whose first screening coincided with a Surrealist show at MoMA and was attended by Salvador Dalí. The self-obsessed Surrealist flew into a jealous rage, upturning the projector and slapping Cornell for supposedly “stealing Dalí’s ideas”. Cornell later took a work by Dalí which he owned and buried it in an unknown location in Flushing, Queens, where it still lies.

The Menil Collection, renowned for its Surrealist works, was formed by John and Domenique de Menil, who have been acquiring works by Cornell since the early 1950s. The Collection’s birthday celebrations included a Mark Rothko exhibition earlier this year.

Rothko, incidentally, was a particular favourite of Joseph Cornell. An example that Mr Hopps gives of Cornell’s acute responsiveness is the fact that he “managed to combine some of Rothko’s formal aspects in his work”. The current exhibition contains twenty pieces from the Menil’s personal collection, and is the largest survey of the artist to be seen in Houston since 1977, when the Rice Museum presented a Cornell show in collaboration with Dominique de Menil. Joseph Cornell at the Menil Collection runs until 4 January, 1998.