Joseph Cornell: Navigating the Imagination


Dutch clay pipes and Victorian doll heads. Remnants of antique maps and snippets of theatrical handbills. Parrots and cockatoos, starlets and ballerinas, apothecary vitrines and penny-arcade gewgaws. Seashells and postage stamps, thimbles and corks, bric and brac. Found objects from lost worlds. It’s the stuff that one man’s reveries were made of — and the raw material for an exquisitely enigmatic body of work that still casts a spell in mint condition.

In these image-saturated times when fanciful visual manipulation is a picnic for anyone who can point and click, you might think that the antiquarian assemblages and old-school cutouts of Joseph Cornell would have taken on the look of cob-webbed knick-knacks hauled out of granddad’s attic. Not so: Thirty-five years after his death at age 69 in the plain frame house on Utopia Parkway in Flushing, Queens, where he had dwelled monkishly since the onset of the Depression years, it’s abundantly evident that Cornell’s uncanny handiwork has lost none of its power to mesmerize.

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