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.

Following Cornell's death in 1972, Walter Hopps discovered the Duchamp Dossier at Cornell's home. "I happened to know that Cornell sometimes made collages inside books," Hopps writes in the exhibition catalog. "I looked in each of the books to see what was there, and I found two extraordinary things. One was Volume XXII of a set of French agricultural journals: There were innumerable cutouts and collages integrated into it. In one of its pages was a collage portrait of Duchamp, and the book as a whole had become an extended symbolic portrait of him. The other unique object I found was the Duchamp Dossier, which was filed upright among the books."

Shortly thereafter Hopps conceived of an exhibition that would explore associative underpinnings as well as offer profound insights into the thought processes of both the cataloger, Cornell, and his subject, Duchamp. Significantly, the unearthed notes and receipts confirmed a long-rumored collaboration between the two. Before leaving Paris in 1942 to settle in New York, Duchamp shipped over his Box-in-a-Valise, a miniature "museum" in the form of a carrying case containing 69 reproductions and facsimiles of his principal works. The Box was conceived of as a multiple, but Duchamp needed assistance to assemble the portable units. At the end of July, he visited Cornell's house for the first time, taking Box-in-a-Valise to him and his brother, Robert, for close examination. Just a few weeks later, Cornell began working on a number of specific components and may also have helped produce some of the complete ensembles.

Handy valises for traveling art. Portable ideas. "Everything important that I have done can be put into a little suitcase," wrote Duchamp. Essentially he employed Cornell as a craftsman. Duchamp gave him at least four receipts, their playful spirit mimicking commercial ventures: "Dear Cornell, / Here's the $3.75 that I'm sorry has taken so long to send you." If anything, the Duchamp Dossier contains much evidence of Cornell's efforts to recapture a relationship based on mutual admiration and affection. Certainly the Dossier complemented Cornell's "spare parts department" -- files stored in his basement studio in every manner of container: shoe boxes, cookie tins, stationery boxes and packing cartons.

In the show's catalog, Don Quaintance notes that serious consideration of the Duchamp Dossier may be hindered since much of its contents were acquired from the trash baskets of Duchamp's residence or studio. But Cornell felt justified in collecting even Duchamp's castoffs. Quaintance explains that it fit an established pattern, given that Cornell believed all artifacts, no matter how lowly, possess a talismanic quality. Co-curator Lynda Roscoe Hartigan writes that Cornell "juggled the multiple pursuits of artist, collector and resident archivist responsible for sorting and maintaining it all." "This was an artist for whom browsing, collecting and sifting were, at heart, experiences to be savored and lingered over for equal measures of stimulation and reverie," she adds.

In a similar manner, viewers must visually pick through the valise, the box or file to form their own relationships. Co-curator Ecke Bonk maintains that the objects represent both the "meandering of an aimless stroll" and the "deterministic result of a careful, selective filtering process."

Throughout the show, connections between Cornell and Duchamp are only implied or suggested. Connections unfold slowly, in bits and pieces. The Duchamp Dossier is installed in flat vitrines down the center of the gallery; Duchamp's works are to the left, Cornell's to the right. Contemplating the ephemera then moving back and forth between the principal works is tiring and requires patience. But in doing so, viewers are compelled to question traditional categories that have defined the notion of the art object, the creative act and the position of the artist. Viewers complete the creative process, not as passive consumers but as active interpreters.

Certain selections will stop you in your tracks. Duchamp's With Hidden Noise (1916), an "assisted" readymade, is the famous ball of twine compressed between two metal plates with four long screws. As its title suggests, a small object has been hidden inside the package so that it makes a noise when shaken. Another kind of readymade is Apolinere Enameled (1916-17), a cardboard-and-painted-tin advertisement for the Sapolin brand of enamels. Duchamp alters it by covering some letters in black paint and inserting new letters. He also draws a reflection of the girl's hair in the mirror above the chest of drawers, thereby adding new visual details to the original image.

Included among these early works are Fresh Window (1920), a verbal and visual pun in the form of a carpenter's scale model of a window frame with its eight panes neatly covered by black leather. An obvious parallel is Cornell's gridded white Window Facade with its cracked glass panes. It's followed by Why Not Sneeze Rose Selavy?, a birdcage filled with marble cubes that look like lumps of sugar. Nearby Cornell plays the Duchampian game of chance with the free movement of the glass "ice cubes" he has placed in the construction Hommage to the Romantic Ballet.

There are four versions of Duchamp's Box-in-a-Valise, which incorporate reproductions of such early works as the notorious Nude Descending a Staircase and the Fountain urinal. Pristinely delicate and neat, they are objects of personal grooming and civility, objects of a gentleman on the move, traveling light. More important, Box-in-a-Valise opens up a new way of approaching Duchamp's work: as a language where meaning is not guaranteed by the artist's intention or by history. Rather, it is there to be newly created each time by the viewer, generated by the interplay and positioning of the valise's elements.

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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