What do we make of that strange thing, an artist’s life? What do we want from it, other than answers—except that the trouble with our lives, yours, mine, anyone’s really, is that often, always, they lead only to more questions, to spiraling bafflement without conclusions or clear cut take-aways.
Bad biographies truck in the false promise of answers. They want us to believe that after chewing through six hundred or so pages we’ll truly understand the biographee under review, while good biographies instead treat the lives of their subjects as they ought to be treated, as the brief, inexplicable, boring, grotesque miracles that they are.
Deborah Solomon’s Utopia Parkway: The Life and Times of Joseph Cornell is a good biography for a lot of reasons: one of which is that it’s fabulously written; another is that Solomon never tries to convince us of anything other than the fact that Cornell is an artist who we should spend a little more quiet time with. Page by page, we follow the day-to-day ramblings of this humdrum fellow, who lived in Queens with his mother and handicapped brother and who constructed these odd works of wonder, shadow boxes that, in the words of critic Robert Motherwell, force “you to use the word ‘beautiful.’ What more do you want?” He was a funny sort, Joseph Cornell. Dressed in clothes that never quite fit right, he wandered the streets of New York, dragging along his personal movie projector and gathering trinkets, baubles, and bits of colored glasses as he went, objects he’d store in labeled boxes in his basement for decades until finally finding the perfect place for them inside one of his designs. Cornell lived a dull life mostly. He was a pack rat, yes, a human magpie, maybe, a guy with a keen eye whose art evokes the “power of reticence,” where what is concealed takes on more importance than what it is visible.
Throughout the book, Solomon interweaves the two primary genesis stories found in artists’ biographies: #1. That the artist is an independent, isolated inventor, a mad genius alone in some ramshackle Dutch colonial or garret room, creating masterpieces and as ignorant of the outside world as the outside world is of her, and #2. That the artist is a byproduct of a highly specific and unique bubble of time, the member of a movement, whose creativity is unleashed thanks to the synergy of being surrounded by other awesome artists. Because Cornell lived in the far-off borough of Queens and because he was a lonesome eccentric, he definitely fits into Category #1. But then, he was also a background character in some rather happening scenes. Cornell still lived in New York after all, and Julien Levy’s gallery was only a train ride away. It’s here, amidst the confluence of artists and innovation and highbrow trends, that Utopia Parkway booms with life; Solomon writes a lovely history of New York’s avant garde from the 1930s through the 1950s—there’s everybody of note, Saldavor Dali, Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp and the local surrealists; William de Kooning and Peggy Guggenheim and the mostly forgotten but important at the time “neo-romantics” like Pavel Tchelitchew (“If his name had been easier to pronounce,” said one critic about Tchelitchew, “it might have had more currency”); and then there’s New York itself, with its gaudy streets, cinemas, opera theaters, and endless bustle, “the teeming life of the metropolis,” as Cornell called it in a letter he wrote later on. For him and for his art, the magnificent city was inspiration enough.
Understanding this rambunctious milieu, Solomon contends, is necessary for understanding Cornell. He wasn’t an outsider by any meanings. Cornell might’ve been aloof and early on his work was not taken seriously (considered, as it was, “toys for adults” by the gallery owners and artistic press). However, he had his contemporaries’ respect. While watching Cornell’s short compilation film Rose Hobart in 1936, Salvador Dali even erupted in anger. “My idea for a film is exactly that,” Dali told Levy, at whose gallery the film was screened, “I never wrote it or told anyone, but it is as if he had stolen it.” Orbiting each other’s brilliance, the artists’ were stealing one another’s undisclosed dreams.
Seeing Cornell in his time and place, “as the quintessential New Yorker: the loner who couldn’t stand to be alone, and who looked to the city as a place in which to live out his dream of connectedness,” we are able to situate him in the necessary art-historical context. We come to understand both his influences—from the French symbolists and surrealists to the Victorian ladies’ craftwork to the silent movies, with their montage techniques, where disparate images are quickly juxtaposed to engender new meanings—and his legacy. Solomon argues Cornell’s body of work presaged much of the art of the latter half of the 20th century, with his mixing of “high” and “low” culture like the Pop Artists would later do, and his love for pastiche and collage, a love shared by so many postmodern folks. Still, though, at the core of Cornell’s art and life, there is an oddness, which can’t be attributed to context or milieu. There is a certain dark, compelling strangeness, a trapped and haunted beauty, the “apparition of glamour sealed inside a box.”
Although Solomon delights in describing the house at 37-08 Utopia Parkway, it’s clear she doesn’t always know what to do or make of the man alone in his basement. Cornell’s internal life is poked at, but Solomon refuses to delve into the armchair psychoanalysis found in most biographies. Yet we’re left to wonder: Cornell climbs down the creaky steps and emerges later from “that cramped space overflowing with books and newspaper clippings” with a masterpiece like A Parrot for Juan Gris or Medici Slot Machine in hand, sure, but what else occurs, what other thoughts and desires and impulses floated about that well-organized hovel horde of debris and souvenirs whose orchestration was “a chronicle of infatuations whose meaning was as complicatedly inward as a private journal”? What do we make of Cornell’s creepiness, of how he hired Pat Johanson, an “attractive brunette” forty years his junior, just to look at her, and how even after she quit he kept “court[ing] her with letters and phone calls”? Courting here seems like much too generous a word for Solomon to use, but it’s a word that let’s us avoid that dank, subterranean unpleasantness that lurks in the corners of Cornell’s world.
“The ratio between the material Cornell collected,” Solomon writes, “and the material that ended up in his boxes was probably a thousand to one.” We can see the magic created with that 1/1000th of material, but what do we make of everything else, of everything that’s saved in some way and leftover, of everything that lingers unmentioned? When Cornell told an interviewer in 1967, “I thought, everything can be used in a lifetime, can’t it,” he was being fanciful and perpetuating a falsehood. Most of everything in our lives, the 999/1000ths of material, is never used. It waits and rots and rusts in the scrapheap of memory. And yet what we are we to make of it, still, everything else, all these trinkets and totems and silly scraps of paper (receipts, movie ticket stubs, the post-it notes you left me every morning) that have been imbued with a meaning beyond words? No coffin in the world is large enough to hold all this, no work of art either–and yet we try to make sense of it, still, to see how it all adds up into these strange, monstrous, gorgeous jokes we call our lives.