Fitting in: Cornell's boxes invite interaction

Here’s a word of misadvice for the young artist: Actually try to create a body of work that– without show or bluster– quietly runs counter to the prevailing school. 
But be aware that while this may sound like a romantic thing to do while you’re doing it, there is no surer way for a notable artist to get lost in history. That’s what almost happened to Joseph Cornell, an artist well connected to the New York abstract expressionist scene in the first half of the 20th century, but whose work was considered peripheral to that movement, at best.
Cornell came out of a surrealist influence in the 1930s, but eventually settled into a highly idiosyncratic medium which stood apart from the work of his contemporaries and came to represent the bulk of his creation: the Cornell box. 
Cornell built small wooden boxes with glass fronts like a display cabinet as a home for his artwork. He filled them with imagery culled from his many passions– ballet or (especially silent) film– as well as objects and magazine clippings he found near his Queens, New York, home.
Cornell’s boxes shifted in style and subject matter over the course of his long career, but each one still retains an extremely personal, unaffected quality, just the sort of thing folk art strives for, though Cornell managed this as a serious and engaged artist, one who not only knew the artwork of his time, but often the artists as well. 
Cornell’s work was always known within the art community, but it did not find a wider audience until an exhibit at the Museum Of Modern Art in the early ‘80s, almost a decade after his death. 
In a very exciting recent development, the University of Virginia Art Museum has received a gift of four Cornell boxes and eight collages, an addition that impressively enlarges their previously modest Cornell collection. 
The new additions to UVA’s holdings certainly fit within the main body of Cornell’s work. Some of the boxes now on display, such as “Untitled, Harlequin Box” or “Untitled (Game Box with Red Ball)” double as toys, a familiar element in Cornell’s work which strips the distance most people create between themselves and artwork. 
These pieces look like they’re meant to be taken down and played with. Other work on display includes classic Cornell elements, such as a satiny black and white photo of a young woman– which may be a by-product of Cornell’s love of Hollywood’s golden age movie starlets– and small, odd touches, like the collages which turn up on both the front and backside of Cornell’s frames. 
Charlottesville is lucky to have a collection of this caliber in our backyard.


Joseph Cornell’s boxes and collages will be on display at the University of Virginia Art Museum through June. Rugby Road. 924-3952.

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