Exhibit takes flight

The effect of a single event can resonate for years.

That premise is artfully illustrated by “Birds of a Feather: Joseph Cornell’s Homage to Juan Gris,” which is underway at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan.

Joseph Cornell (American, 1903–1972),
“Untitled” (Juan Gris Series, Black Cockatoo
Silhouette), ca. 1954-65.
Box construction, 19 5/8 × 12 × 4 3/8 in. (49.8 × 30.5 × 11.1 cm). The Fralin Museum of Art at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville Art, Gift of The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation. © The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

In a compact gallery nestled within the Lila Acheson Wallace Wing, “The Man at the Café,” the celebrated 1914 collage by the Spanish artist, presides over a dozen shadow boxes.

These are all designed by Cornell, the self-taught, Nyack-born artist, who would go on to create his famed assemblages in the cellar-turned-studio of his family’s eventual New York City home.

Following the death of his father and the family falling on hard times, the Cornell family would relocate to Queens, where Joseph (1903-1972) would spend the rest of his life, balancing his role as de facto family caretaker with his work as an artist.

It was on Oct. 22, 1953, that Cornell wrote in his diary, “Juan Gris/Janis Yesterday.” The words refer to his previous day, when on one of his frequent trips to the gallery district in midtown Manhattan, Cornell found himself at the Sidney Janis Gallery on East 57th Street. In a show of several dozen works of art, it was the one work by Gris — in which oil paint and pasted newsprint create a scene of a mysterious male figure reading a newspaper that obscures his face — that had an immediate (and far-reaching) effect on Cornell. 

The Gris work, a Cubist masterpiece that is now a promised gift to The Met as part of the Leonard A. Lauder Cubist Collection, inspired Cornell to begin a series in homage to Gris, whom Cornell would call a “warm fraternal spirit.”

With a great white-crested cockatoo as his focal point, Cornell would work on the series for more than a decade, creating some 18 of his signature shadow boxes as well as two collages and one sand tray, all filled with layers of meaning. This exhibition unites the inspiration and a dozen of these shadow boxes for the first time.

Joseph Cornell (American, 1903–1972), “A Parrot for Juan Gris.” Mixed media: gazed wooden box; wooden
parts; cut chromolithograph; paper collage; ink;
crayon; metal dowel and ring; string; cork ball;
folded note, 17 3/4 × 12 3/16 × 4 5/8 in. (45.1 × 31 × 11.7 cm). Collection of Robert Lehrman, Courtesy of Aimee and Robert Lehrman. © The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

Cornell, known for his intricate design work in creating these boxed assemblages, would often dedicate works to those he admired, particularly artists, entertainers and writers.

A well-established artist decades into his career when he began the Gris series, Cornell would again pull from his assortment of materials that included old journals, textbooks, postage stamps, fishing tackle and other pieces of what he would call “flotsam and jetsam.” Cornell also kept extensive notes on his subjects, creating virtual libraries of reference materials and would explore Gris (1887-1927) through conversations with his fellow artists and friends, including Marcel Duchamp and Robert Motherwell.

Cornell used his signature self-contained boxes to present concepts or explore subjects or lives that caught his interest. 

In this series, Cornell uses the cockatoo to consider the shadow play in Gris’ work, creating elaborate shadows himself.

Cornell, with his chosen subject matter, also tapped into his own passion for foreign language texts, hotel advertisements and maps, though he didn’t travel himself. Throughout his work, he also incorporated his deep appreciation for the arts, especially ballet and opera.

Mary Clare McKinley, an independent art historian based in London and a former assistant curator in the Leonard A. Lauder Research Center for Modern Art at The Met, has curated this exploration of Cornell, which she said is filled with “the work of somebody who enjoyed the life of the mind.”

“Birds of a Feather: Joseph Cornell’s Homage to Juan Gris,” which continues through April 15 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on Fifth Avenue, is the first in a series of dossier exhibitions under the auspices of the Leonard A. Lauder Research Center for Modern Art at the museum. For more, visit metmuseum.org.

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