In celebration of the Walker Art Center’s 75th anniversary as a public art center, Martin Friedman–Walker director from 1961 to 1990–has generously agreed to share his unpublished writings from the era. In the fourth installment of the ongoing series Martin Friedman: Art (re)Collecting, he recalls his 1967 visit with Joseph Cornell (1903–1972) at the artist’s home in Flushing, Queens–and how a selection of Cornell’s famed shadow boxes, including three now on view in the exhibition Art at the Center: 75 Years of Walker Collections, came to find a permanent home at the Walker.
Transfixed as I was by many a Joseph Cornell box, I wanted to meet their wizardly creator.
I had seen the boxes in various settings, from museums, galleries, and private collections to artists’ studios, and invariably I was mesmerized by them. The juxtaposition of their contents–fragments of the everyday world that alluded to fragments of imaginary ones–gave rise to free-associating on the part of viewers. A frequenter of used book stores and thrift shops, Cornell could conjure up worlds that never were, from improbable materials like faded photographs of long-since-departed opera divas removed from old magazines to portrayals of obscure Renaissance court figures. Not all was solemnity; his sly underlay many a box composition, as evidenced by rows of dime-store dancing plastic lobsters in one of his boxes or quasi-cartoon figures ascending in balloons in another.
Earlier in his life, Cornell was frequently in New York City seeing exhibitions and meeting with friends. Artists associated with a wide range of stylistic approaches were among his New York friends and included such eminences as Marcel Duchamp, Louise Nevelson, Robert Motherwell, Mark Rothko, and Andy Warhol. Though he had become a cult figure in the art world, by the time I met him he was reclusive, rarely leaving his neighborhood in Flushing, Queens.
Born in 1903 in Nyack, New York, he was one of four children of Joseph Cornell, Sr., and Helen, each from a prominent well-off family. Cornell’s father was in the textile business, involved in manufacturing and sales. However, he was not the best manager of his own finances, and when he died, the family was left with little to live on. So dire were the circumstances that Helen, a take-charge type, moved the family to Douglaston, Long Island, where they lived in a series of increasingly modest houses.
After finishing high school, through family contacts, Cornell worked briefly in the textile business, performing various duties, from designing fabrics to peddling textiles door-to-door, the latter which he hated. He was able to do some graphic design for several magazines, as well as other odd jobs, but for the most part he was at home taking care of his younger brother, Robert, a victim of cerebral palsy.
Cornell had never attended art school and was essentially self-taught. During his perusals of art magazines and visits to Manhattan galleries, he was especially attracted by works he saw at Julien Levy’s gallery. The fanciful collages of Max Ernst, with their Surrealist overtones, especially interested him, to the point where he decided to make his own collages. When he showed them to Julien Levy, the gallerist was sufficiently interested to include a few in group shows; a series of Cornell collages were shown in the gallery’s back room. It was about this time that Alfred Barr, the Museum of Modern Art’s director, was organizing a landmark exhibition, Fantastic Art: Dada, and Surrealism (1936). After seeing Cornell’s collages at Levy’s gallery, he included some in the show. A year before the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford held a modest exhibition of Cornell pieces.
With foot in two camps, Surrealism and Assemblage, the small scale of Cornell’s work, the intimacy, made him a singular figure on the art scene. In an era when painting was bombastically covering walls from floor to ceiling, his art, by contrast, was withdrawn and ineffable. What came forth from his workbench were miniature realms–reliquaries whose contents were viewed through glass windows. They were among the objects he made to entertain his brother.
The more I learned about Cornell’s family, the more I began thinking of the boxes as wistful meditations on times gone by. I thought of them more in those terms than as Surrealist objects.
I was aware of the mystique about him and of his loner status in the art world. I suspect he was fully aware of how highly he was regarded and made canny use of this in his deals with curators, gallery owners, and collectors. With all this in mind I was eager to make Cornell’s acquaintance.
Having obtained Cornell’s phone number from an artist friend, I called him from Minneapolis. A faint hesitant voice at the other end answered. Introducing myself, I asked if I might come to see him, as I would be in New York City the following week. My reasons, I explained, were to discuss the possibility of a long-term loan of a group of boxes to the museum with the objective of acquiring some. I reminded him that in 1953 the Walker had been the first museum in the country to give him a solo exhibition. He was suddenly interested and invited me to come by for lunch.
I had heard from previous visitors that Cornell had a passion for chocolate cake and that it would be a good idea to arm myself with one. The day of our appointment I stopped by the Patisserie de Versaille, not far from my Manhattan hotel, and bought an elaborate concoction on display in the window. I had the box festooned in ribbons and placed it next to me in the cab. It was a gray day and lowering clouds promised rain, but no matter–I was off to Utopia Parkway.
Cornell had lived in a modest old blue-collar neighborhood, its houses similar in size. It was one of four identical houses in a row. The sky grew even darker and rain fell lightly, so when we arrived at his house I asked the driver to wait until my appointment was over.
Greeting me at the front door was a slight, frail-looking older man with thin aqualine features and wispy hair. He had a birdlike affect. He eyed the box I was carrying.
“I brought you a present, Mr. Cornell,” I said, handing it to him. He peered inside, smiled broadly, and grasped it.
“Please come in, Mr. Friedman,” he said. Leading me through a glass-enclosed porch, through a living space which was in itself a Cornell box, filled with orange and apple crates whose interiors were stuffed with stacks of yellowing paper–newspaper and magazines, old theater and opera programs, and other documentary materials–that looked as though it had been there, undisturbed, for ages.
“What a pleasure to meet you, Joseph,” I said, moving quickly to a first-name basis.
We walked to the kitchen and opened the refrigerator, where I saw two, if not three, more chocolate cakes, as yet uncut. Lifting my multilayered gift from its cardboard container, he carefully placed it next to the others on a shelf and quickly closed the door.
He led me back to the porch where we sat on a pair of old chairs. The rain fell harder; the driver was in his cab, no doubt watching the meter ticking away. Before we got down to discussing a loan of boxes to the Walker, he said, “Might we deal with another subject?” I knew that he was concerned about the safety of his boxes: a number of them had been stolen from the garage by an erstwhile friend, a young waitress with whom he was infatuated, a curious relationship that went nowhere.
Would I mind telling him, he began, a bit more about the Walker Art Center and what was in the collection? Also, would I mind telling him a bit more about myself?
What I thought was to be my session devoted to my questions was turning out one devoted to his. First and foremost, he was thinking of establishing a foundation that would care for his work upon his death. Who did I think should be invited to serve as its trustees? He asked this as he reached for a yellow legal pad and pen. Who would be the best possible, unimpeachably ethical person who should be invited? Why did I have the feeling that this was a well-practiced ploy on his part, a way of keeping museum types at bay? But what choice did I have but to participate?
“Well,” I said, “what about the former Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren or the head of the Library of Congress or Senator Hubert Humphrey?”
He wrote those names down dutifully. Didn’t he have a lawyer who could help him enlist such sterling characters in the cause? Yes, but he wanted my views about who should serve. No art world personalities, he added.
This went on for about a half hour. As I looked out the window I could see rain had stopped briefly and the driver slowly wiping the windshield with a squeegee–he smiled broadly at me.
As to the questions I wanted to ask about the loan of works, Cornell suggested that we talk about that later.
“Why don’t you go downstairs, Mr. Friedman, and look around for a while? I’ll make us a nice lunch.”
Downstairs! I must have passed the test. I had heard from various sources that the ultimate test of a successful visit to Cornell’s house was whether or not one made it not just to the garage, where he assembled his boxes, but to the basement.
At the bottom of the steep stairwell, along a rough concrete wall, was a worktable with a few windowless empty Cornell boxes either ready for assembling or having been disassembled. Not a whole lot to look at. On the shelves above were a few film canisters, their labels half off and unreadable. Looking glumly around the putative treasure room, my mind drifted; there was nothing down here to hold my interest. I began thinking about the garage–or, maybe, a second floor bedroom, which, those in the know said, contained numerous finished boxes. How to escape from this dank dungeon? During my exile there I could hear Joseph puttering about upstairs, dishes clanking.
“Well, Joseph, it is certainly interesting down here, but I’m ready to come up,” I said.
“I’m not quite ready, Mr. Friedman. A few minutes more.”
Finally, I heard, “You can come up now, Mr. Friedman. Our lunch is almost ready.”
The dark wood dining table, covered with a stained lace cloth, had been set with what looked like vintage dime-store glass plates, cups, and saucers. When I arrived Joseph had just opened a large can of tuna, using a hand-held can opener. He was dumping the contents, oil and all, into a glass bowl and, after adding salt and pepper, proceeded to stir the mess. He then poured this sludge over a few leaves of wilted lettuce on our glass plates.
Tea was served by pouring tepid water over a few tea bags in two cups, where they remained, even as Joseph liberally added milk. What sustained me through that oily lunch was the prospect not only of seeing a few boxes in their entirety, but of having a slice of chocolate cake to counteract what we had just consumed.
Alas, that was not to be. After poking at my salad for awhile and munching on it a bit, I brightly suggested to Cornell how nice it would be, and even rose quickly, making my way to the refrigerator so I could help slice a few servings. He got there first: “Well, Mr. Friedman, I was hoping to save the cake for myself and eat it another time. I hope you don’t mind.”
Back to the front porch he directed me. Now we could talk about the loan of a group of boxes. I made my case. He listened attentively, wrote some more things on the yellow pad, and smiled enigmatically. He thanked me for coming. He would think about my request; it was so wonderful to meet me, he’d said. I felt the same, I told him, and glumly said my goodbyes. I, of course, thanked him for lunch, which I could still taste. Back to New York City in a driving rainstorm and a still-smiling driver whom I obliged to lavishly reward.
A few months later I had a call from Joseph. He sounded tense, even alarmed. His friend, the painter Ad Reinhart, had just died, suddenly, he told me, his voice tense. “I want you to give sanctuary to my work,” he went on. Was I still interested in borrowing some? I was, I replied, and would make the necessary shipping arrangements right away. That seemed to calm him.
Within a few weeks, 11 wonderful Cornell boxes and three coal ashes arrived and were put on view where they remained until shortly after Cornell’s own death in 1972. Today, six of these boxes, plus a number of collages and other works on paper, have a permanent home in the Walker collection.