Enthralling Books: Utopia Parkway: The Life and Work of Joseph Cornell, by Deborah Solomon

This is one in a series of essays about enthralling books. I asked my friends and colleagues to recommend a book that took over their life. I told them the book didn't have to be a literary masterpiece. The only thing that mattered was that the book captivated them and carried them into the world within its pages, making them ignore the world around them. I asked: "Did you shirk responsibilities so you could read it? Did you call in sick? Did you read it until dawn? That's the book I want you to tell us about!" See all the essays in the Enthralling Book series here. -- Mark

Utopia parkwayUtopia Parkway: The Life and Work of Joseph Cornell by Deborah Solomon

A gaunt-looking man is sitting at his mother’s kitchen table in Flushing, NY. It is nighttime and everyone else in the house is asleep. He is meticulously cutting out a photo-copied engraving of a long-dead ballerina with small scissors. Later, he carefully arranges a few small objects inside of a homemade wooden box. On the chair beside him sits a huge plate of jelly donuts. He shoves a donut into his mouth, wipes his hands with a dish towel and keeps on doing his thing. The oven is on, but he is shivering. The man is Joseph Cornell, famous American artist and insatiable lover of sweets.

Joseph Cornell, who lived from 1903 until 1972, was a huge fan of female opera stars, poets, ballerinas and actresses. He made friends with them, he longed for them, and he stared at them, but he never acted out his fantasies. Instead, Cornell spent hours collecting bits of ephemera into files. He constructed romantic boxes dedicated to the objects of his affection (from Fanny Cerrito to Lauren Bacall). He poured all of his frustrations into his art. Sometimes he presented the boxes to them as gifts.

Perhaps he had a case of arrested development. His father died suddenly when he was only 13 and, after that, he felt pressingly obligated to become the man of his family. For most of his life, he lived with his widowed mother and he took care of his brother, Robert, who was born with severe cerebral palsy. In some ways, he was a little bit like a martyr, a saint or a monk. He joined the Christian Science church at 21 and he never took an art class. His mother criticized him day and night.

It wasn’t until his late 20s, while holding down a full-time job as a textile salesman, that he began to make collages and boxes from various souvenirs that he collected. He was inspired by Max Ernst’s collage novel of 1929 (La Femme 100 Têtes) and Marcel Duchamp’s found objects.

By an incredible stroke of luck, this oddball outsider became an insider. After shyly dropping off a package of collages at the Julien Levy Gallery, Joseph Cornell (described by some as a “Victorian old maid” or “Charles Addams-like character”) was invited to be in a landmark show of surrealists with Max Ernst, Man Ray, Pierre Roy, Pablo Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, Salvador Dali, and Jean Cocteau in 1932 (he was even asked to design the announcement).

Ten months later, Levy offered him a show of his objects (labeled “toys for adults” in the press). Before long, he was included in shows at Peggy Guggenheim’s gallery and various shows at the Museum of Modern Art. Still later, he demonstrated a surprising ability to fit into any art movement by showing his boxes (with bird and astronomy themes) alongside the Abstract Expressionists.

In her beautifully written book about Joseph Cornell entitled Utopia Parkway, author Deborah Solomon tells the compelling story of a strangely awkward man with nervous afflictions who became a great American artist. With gentle finesse, Solomon shines a compassionate light on his idiosyncrasies and introduces us to the important people in his life. She also treats us to a fascinating tour of his NYC stomping grounds: galleries, automats, coffee shops, bookstores, parks and theaters. The surrealist show at Julien Levy was, of course, just the beginning of a career spanning a few decades and more than a few art movements in NYC. His life story is as poetic and poignant as his art. This book is surprising at every turn.

Born on Xmas eve 1903 in South Nyack, NY, Joseph I. Cornell, VI was the eldest of 4 siblings. The family made regular trips to Manhattan to see vaudeville acts in elaborate theaters. (I have memorabilia from a great, great uncle who was a singer on the Great White Way during this time, so I can imagine how magical it must have been.) As a child, Cornell saw Harry Houdini and Buffalo Bill. Houdini made a deep impression on him. One of my favorite quotes from the book is: “Houdini escaped out of boxes, Cornell would one day escape into them.”

Cornell also enjoyed the penny arcades of Coney Island with their fortune telling machines and shooting galleries. These childhood influences, memories and souvenirs would later show up in his art. His sister took drawing lessons from Edward Hopper at that time, but Joseph preferred reading books. They lived in a storybook mansion with towers and a view of the Hudson River.

Cornell was sent off to boarding school after his father died. The house on the river was sold. He never talked about his four years at Phillips Academy in Andover, MA and he did not graduate. (My father, who went to the same school many years later, also under stressful family conditions, would never talk about his experience there either).

The family moved to a rental in Bayside, Queens, where Buster Keaton and W.C. Fields had houses. One day, Cornell and his brother witnessed D.W. Griffith filming a movie. His fascination with silent films continued throughout his life. Cornell had a huge collection of rare films and stills, including the films of French cinemagician Georges Méliès (1896-1913). He also created his own experimental films (one of which made Salvador Dali foam at the mouth with envy).

In 1929, his mother bought a small house at 37-08 Utopia Parkway in Flushing, NY. That is where Cornell would live for the rest of his life. He never travelled, not even to the openings of his shows. At the age of 61, Joseph Cornell finally shared his first kiss with an 18 year old waitress who worked at a NYC coffee shop. Unfortunately, she was tragically murdered right after his beloved brother Robert died.

There are so many fascinating little stories in this book about Cornell’s friendships -Marcel Duchamp, Salvador Dali, Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, Andy Warhol, Tony Curtis, Susan Sontag, and Yayoi Kusama (who is currently having a big show at the Whitney Museum), to name a few. Many people made pilgrimages out to Utopia Parkway to visit Cornell.

Surrealists, neo-romanticists, actresses, ballerinas, experimental filmmakers, art dealers, art critics, writers, abstract expressionists, performance artists and pop artists are all found parading through this book. Cornell’s art of assemblage was a forerunner of pop art and it, undoubtedly, also influenced the huge amateur craft movement.

In 1967, Cornell had retrospectives at the Guggenheim Museum and the Pasadena Art Museum. Life magazine gave him a 12-page spread that year. The article is called Enigmatic Bachelor of Utopia Parkway, December 15, 1967.

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  1. This is an excellent read. Combining the best of biography with an intimate view of a very exciting period in the American art world. I have had a rather curious relationship with Cornell. When I first began making my art, I had never heard of him. My work began very organically, just a smattering of things on my desk that somehow found their way into some boxes. It wasn’t until about 5 years into making them, that I found out about Cornell. One really weird thing was finding that he and I had both used the exact same rather obscure illustration from a 19th Century woodcut of a mechanical flying man in 2 collages, seperated by so much time and space. I have also  been fortunate to cross paths, with several important people from his life in the time I have been making my art.

  2. An excellent book about one of the greatest, most interesting, and most eccentric artists of the 20th century.

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