Joseph Cornell at SFMOMA

Max Goldberg October 11, 2007

There is a piece in the last room of SFMOMA’s “Joseph Cornell: Navigating the Imagination” exhibit called “Untitled [Blue Sand Box with Starfish].” It is one of Cornell’s famous boxes, from 1952: blue sand, starfish, shells, and a coin in a single chamber, encased in glass painted to form a grid evoking ocean cartography. The piece lays on its back in MOMA, but movement is implied in the construction. Pick it up and the contents will shift, the sand splaying out as with the tide. Of all Cornell’s time machines, this is one of my favorites, its relatively unadorned arrangement gently illustrating the eternal in the ephemeral. Most artists deserve being revisited, but Cornell’s keepsakes practically cry out for it. Walking around the exhibit, we experience the quality of nostalgia rather than the thing itself: that conflation of perception and imagination, time and space.

After touring the Smithsonian and Peabody Essex Museums, “Joseph Cornell: Navigating the Imagination” comes to San Francisco for the first major west-coast exhibition of the artist’s work in 40 years. Accompanying this retrospective (which runs through January 6th) will be three programs of Cornell’s film work in the museum’s Phyllis Wattis Theatre (the films will also be available on a general basis on video, but as works of collage, physicality is all, meaning that experiencing the prints is, in this case, a must).

Born in 1903 (on Christmas Eve, no less), Joseph Cornell was an artist very much of his time, his work suggesting a curious, gentle soul with one foot in the Victorian age (the collecting in little “school boy’s museums,” the fixation on natural history and antiquated toys) and another in the brave new world of records and movies, cafeterias and the subway (he frequently rode the lines back and forth from Manhattan to the Queens home where he looked after his mother and his brother, Robert, who lived with cerebral palsy). In one of his early scrapbooks, there’s a quotation from the critic Thomas Craven: “The idea that there is a center of culture which automatically exudes the flavour of art is a delusion and a snare. Art, on the contrary, is not produced by culture — is the child of new evaluations of common things.