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Friendship in a Box

Cornell, however, composed his boxes deliberately. Take Rose de Vents -- dwarfed mementos, emblems of travels Cornell never took, things set in compartments with determined rigor, each of the 21 compass needles pointing in different directions. It is a log of no ordinary journey.

We see, too, that both artists sometimes expected their works to be handled, played with, shuffled. Cornell's boxes were once meant to be held and manipulated; Duchamp's Green Box originally invited casual jumbling by the viewer.

Cornell's dossiers and "explorations" were a constellation of works in various states of readiness, always to be continued. Friends, strangers, artists -- "readers," as he considered them all -- would have direct access to the projects, browsing them as if in a secondhand store. With the enormous GC 44, an autobiographical exploration, he aimed to capture the revelatory beauty of nature he experienced during the summer of 1944: "a journey album, journal album, esperanto of imagery, keepsake, repository, romantic museum, childhood regained, tower of visions, center of labyrinth, sanctuary, diary, a method," all in one.

Other dossiers reveal Cornell's full-blown engagement with the cult of celebrity and his lifelong quest for memorabilia about public performers, primarily women. There's the expansive Portrait of Ondine, an "unauthorized biography" of Romantic ballerina Fanny Cerrito composed of Kodachrome postcards of New York, European maps, a Cerrito autograph, excerpts from 19th-century books, 19th-century watercolors of Naples and drafts of explanatory notes.

If GC 44 and Portrait of Ondine are among Cornell's most voluminous, ambitious explorations, his dossier Penny Arcade Portrait of Lauren Bacall is among the most disciplined. With the help of contacts at Vogue and Harper's Bazaar, Cornell accumulated Bacall's Hollywood publicity shots and photographs of her as a fashion model. By 1946 he had completed a box construction as well as the heavyweight paper folder he had made to house his collection of Bacall photos, movie magazine excerpts, biographical material and notes. Its hand-creased, unpretentious design has the charm of a fan's notebook.

Overall, the exhibition reveals that Cornell and Duchamp had an exotic if eccentric friendship. In Cornell's Hotel Eden, a green parrot portentously pulls a string that appears to activate a Duchampian rotary disc above its head. For Cabinet of Natural History, Cornell labeled the glass bottles and vials with the names of innovative scientists from the 17th through 19th centuries. Included in the group is one writer (Edgar Allan Poe, who loved scientific hoaxes) and one artist (Duchamp). The bottle labeled "Methode de M. Duchomp" is full of jagged strips of glass. The deliberate misspelling suggests Cornell's understanding of the manner in which Duchamp's readymades had chewed up perceptions of modern art.

And there are more glimpses of mutual interests. Cornell's bisque-faced doll standing amid a tangle of twigs and branches may have sparked Duchamp's Etant donnes, in which a nude figure lies on a similar bed of twigs and branches. Duchamp devised the complete title of Etant Donnes as if writing a theorem: "Given: 1. The Waterfall/2. The Illuminating Gas." That fragment of language seems similar to Cornell's: cryptic, evocative and multileveled, a sound and idea to be savored, rolled around in the mind while viewing the object to which it's attached.

But the more Cornell and Duchamp are explained, the more inexplicable they become. Since their deaths, their works remain empowered by their own energy, able to charge the zigzag pathways of association. If anything, the exhibition clearly shows that Cornell/Duchamp scholarship is still intense, but that it's also still possible to engage their work on various levels. The exhibition asks that you look, read and dig through your own memory, then link those fragments with suggestions from this vast repository. The possibilities are endless and open to all.

"Joseph Cornell/ Marcel Duchamp ... in resonance" is on view at the Menil Collection, 1515 Sul Ross, through May 16.

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