Joseph Cornell exhibit takes flight

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has opened an exhibition devoted to a series of work by Nyack-born artist Joseph Cornell.

The effect of a single event can resonate for years.

That premise is artfully illustrated by an exhibition that opened earlier this week at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan.

WAG spent the morning of Jan. 22 at The Met Fifth Avenue for the press preview of “Birds of a Feather: Joseph Cornell’s Homage to Juan Gris.”

“The Man at the Café,” the celebrated 1914 collage by the Spanish artist, presides over a dozen shadow boxes by Cornell, the Nyack-born, self-taught artist noted for his assemblage work.

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. Within a show of several dozen works of art, it was 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 captivated Cornell. The Gris work, a promised gift to The Met as part of the Leonard A. Lauder Cubist Collection, inspired Cornell – then an established artist – to begin a series in homage to Gris, whom Cornell would call a “warm fraternal spirit.”

With a white 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 symbolism and meaning. 

Mary Clare McKinley, an independent art historian based in London and a former assistant curator in the Lauder research center, 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,” the first in a series of dossier exhibitions under the auspices of the Leonard A. Lauder Research Center for Modern Art at the museum, continues through April 15 in Gallery 918 of the Lila Acheson Wallace Wing. 

And closer to home, art lovers will want to note that next month, the Hudson River Museum will be installing its own Cornell work, “Untitled, (Hotel de l’Etoil), 1953-62,” as part of its new Object of the Month series. Assistant curator Ted Barrow will offer a gallery talk devoted to the work at 2 p.m. Feb. 3.

A full feature on “Birds of a Feather” will appear in the March issue of WAG. Until then, for more, visit or

– Mary Shustack

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