Friendship in a Box

In 1915 artist Marcel Duchamp arrived in New York, where he would turn himself into a work of art and invent the future of American art. The sophisticated Frenchman had set himself the ambitious goal of making art from nonart, and with his "readymades" (as he called works using found objects) he disoriented viewers, leaving them uncertain of his ultimate intentions. Duchamp made art a matter of choice, hanging his readymades from the ceiling or nailing them to the floor. He invented aliases, disguises and puns and played games with illusions, shadows and optics. When he took a trip to Paris, he returned with a goateed Mona Lisa and a vial of the city's air, as if he needed to deface tradition in order to breathe. An alchemist of sorts, Duchamp shifted art from one plane to another, changing it from the visual to the mental, prodding its conversion from matter to energy.

Joseph Cornell, on the other hand, lived most of his adult life on a Flushing, Long Island, street named Utopia Parkway. There, until his death in 1972, he transformed unremarkable odds and ends into intimate talismans that combine the wonders of childhood (butterflies, stamps, marbles, building blocks, toys) with his adult obsessions (ballerinas, sky charts, driftwood, aperitif glasses, apothecary jars). He never attended college or art school, and he never traveled to Europe, but Cornell thrived on the excitement of Manhattan. He would embark on small voyages of discovery, going to Times Square and Central Park, to curio shops and book stalls. There he would sort through boxes of old photos, pick over trays of seashells and haunt the penny arcades. Collected, isolated, combined and preserved in glass-paneled boxes and collages, Cornell's dreams are intense, delicate crystallizations of thought, feeling, memory and culture. Out of the fantasies that enriched his private, secluded life, Cornell created miniature theatrical stages in which fables were played out by characters as varied as Medici princesses, Hollywood starlets and a company of swans, parrots and romantic heroines.

The differences between Duchamp and Cornell are obvious. Duchamp worked conceptually, putting art "in service of the mind"; Cornell worked poetically. Duchamp, the cool intellectual. Cornell, the wistful imagist. Perhaps Menil Collection curator Walter Hopps best describes their different sensibilities: "Duchamp was always the wise man, and Cornell was forever the wise child."

Yet they were kindred spirits. No other artists in the first half of this century were as committed to elevating everyday objects to the realm of art. Duchamp and Cornell met in 1933 during a Brancusi exhibition, but their friendship didn't develop until the summer of 1942, when Duchamp sailed to New York as a refugee from World War II. Duchamp was 16 years older than Cornell, who was drawn by his flair, his Frenchness and his love of both language and the detritus of daily life. Duchamp, in turn, prized Cornell's handling of common objects and saw in him a truly idiosyncratic personality whose encyclopedic knowledge, especially of turn-of-the-century Paris, sprang from a love of music, dance, books and film.

"Joseph Cornell/Marcel Duchamp ... in resonance," now at the Menil Collection, aims to track the affinities between the two artists. Organized by the Menil and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the exhibition brings together some 80 works that shed light on the pair's recurring mediums, motifs and shared fascinations. Sometimes what we note are the differences: As Duchamp was diminishing his production of art, Cornell was trying out every kind of box and bit of ephemera he could lay his hands on. But more often we note the similarities between the two. Both worked with odd materials (glass, sand, dust, paper) and chose mysterious modes (a cabinet of specimen bottles, a cage of marble "sugar" cubes). Both swung easily from high culture to bits of trash. Cornell kept "explorations," dossiers, letters and journals. Duchamp collected his handwritten scribbles and notes and used them as graphic elements. Both were tinkerers, scribblers who transformed the most ordinary minutiae into vehicles for entering the realms of imagination and memory.

The notes -- lots of notes, on everything from telegrams and short letters to envelope flaps and typing paper -- provide the principal evidence of the artists' relationship, and they form the core of a little-known and never-before-exhibited object that's really a cross between a work of art and an intensely personal archive. The Duchamp Dossier is a flat, lidded cardboard box in which Cornell stashed more than 100 items gleaned from ten years of encounters with Duchamp: sugar packets, napkins, restaurant menus, pipe cleaners and cigarette packages, an envelope from Paris, crumpled laundry receipts, a glue spatula on a discarded envelope. There are more conventional mementos as well: postcards and ads with images of the Mona Lisa, gallery announcements and warm letters received from Duchamp's great love Mary Reynolds. And there are also a few signed readymades, such as the adjusted Le Page's glue box on which Duchamp wrote "gimme" above the printed word "strength." No one knows whether Cornell made the dossier in collaboration with Duchamp or even with his knowledge. Clearly Duchamp gave Cornell some of the things. Others Cornell might have purchased or fished out of the wastebasket.

Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help