I ventured out in the golden sunshine this afternoon to look at art, and went straight to the best show in town, Joseph Cornell: The 100th Birthday, up at Richard L. Feigen & Co. (34 E. 69th St. between Madison and Park Avenues) through Jan. 16. It consists of 20 objects by Cornell–mostly the boxes that brought him fame–from the collection of Robert Lehrman.
Rather than try to describe what a Cornell box looks like, I yield the floor to Fairfield Porter, who did the job once and for all in a 1966 review collected in Art in Its Own Terms: Selected Criticism 1935-1975. Here’s an excerpt:
The boxes are 12 by 15 inches more or less…A sheet of glass in front is held in a carefully and imperfectly made frame, whose mitered corners do not fit tightly. The finish looks worn and handled, and a foreign newspaper may be varnished over the surface. The inside is usually white, clean, cracked and peeling. The contents vary greatly. There may be a round column on one side establishing the space of the room, and a horizontal bar from which hangs a piston ring. There are actual objects like wooden parrots on a perch, coarse screening, springs, cork balls like fishing rod floats, wine glasses whole or broken, clay pipes, a bearing plate of a pocket watch, a dried starfish, bits of driftwood whose shape indicates that they were once part of something used, nails, coins; sand colored navy blue, pink, yellow, white….
A list of the contents is misleading, because it does not tell about Cornell’s sense of how little is enough, like an actor’s sense of timing or the Japanese sensitivity to the value of emptiness and the isolated object. As composer he is director and stage designer both, with the director’s feeling for the emotional value of each actor’s part, and the most efficient use of the space allotted to him.
I don’t much care for surrealism, but I’ve always loved Cornell’s little universes, at once troubled and serene, into which one peers raptly at a parallel world where nothing is as it seems. I’ve looked at a lot of Cornell boxes over the years, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many at one time, and most of these are incredibly choice examples. Go, and go again. Don’t be oppressed by the fancy address and locked door–buzz and you’ll be admitted, even without a jacket and tie–and don’t be fazed by the Monday-Friday hours on the Feigen gallery’s Web site. At least for now, the gallery is open on Saturdays, and if you bring along a couple of hundred thousand dollars you can even take a box home with you. (Which reminds me to mention that one of the most intriguing aspects of the show is the price list. Why do some Cornell boxes cost more than others? As far as I can tell, the ones with more stuff in them are the most expensive.)
“Joseph Cornell: The 100th Birthday” coincides with the publication of Joseph Cornell: Shadowplay…Eterniday, a staggeringly well-done coffee-table folio containing an all-about-Cornell DVD-ROM that’s worth the price of the book all by itself. I can’t even begin to recommend Shadowplay…Eterniday strongly enough.
I also went to a Helen Frankenthaler show, “Prints: A Survey,” up at Jim Kempner Fine Art (501 W. 23rd St. at 10th Ave.) through Nov. 29. Frankenthaler is one of the greatest printmakers of the postwar era, and several of her very best efforts are on display, including Broome Street at Night, a deceptively simple, wonderfully involving aquatint from 1987 which I’d happily hang over my fireplace if some well-to-do reader of “About Last Night” would care to buy it for me, or for OGIC. We get along quite nicely and would be glad to consider a joint-custody agreement.