Box of Wonders


Joseph Cornell’s boxes seem to set writers' imaginations on fire. 

Ever since I saw Cornell’s ‘Untitled (Medici Princess)’ [c.1948], I’ve been similarly intrigued. From his process of finding and filing objects, through to the assemblage of the final art object, his art is wondrous.

 'Untitled (Medici Princess)', c.1948, Private Collection, New York   

'Untitled (Medici Princess)', c.1948, Private Collection, New York


That idea of wonder is most often associated with children. It’s no coincidence that Cornell used to loan these box/artworks to neighbouring kids, and that his last museum exhibition in 1972 was curated especially for children. Cornell would often ‘gift’ his boxes, which indicates how he considered these boxes as a part of life, not necessarily objects to be sequestered away in museums and in collector’s homes.

In many ways, the seemingly random connections between objects in his assemblages [or perhaps it is only Cornell who could truly divine the connection between items in his boxes], inspires a sense of wanting to know; of wanting to figure out the relationships, or simply, to allow the imagination to drift, fathom, meander and leap to find meaning in Cornell’s work.

They are magical in that way of the ordinary and the strange weaving into our lives to be transformed by how we choose to experience them.

In an earlier post on Louise Bourgeois I spoke of how I began writing Art Stories. It was the art historian, Paul Barolsky, who first provided a context for my own art writing with his essay on the imaginative literary tradition of writing about art, ‘Writing Art History’ [Art Bulletin, September 1996, vol. LXXVIII, no.3]. In this essay Barolsky also discussed a marvellous book on Cornell’s boxes, the poet Charles Simic’s ‘Dime-Store Alchemy’.

Simic combines original poems, stories, observations, as well as journal entries and notes made by Cornell, creating a body of work similar to Cornell’s; a mirroring of the creative process as a way to enter into and re-imagine Cornell’s art. This was one of those books that was a revelation for me, not only in the deep understanding Simic had of Cornell’s work, but in the way he chose to engage with Cornell through writing.

Here is an excerpt from Simic's 'Dime Store-Alchemy':

The Truth of Poetry

A toy is a trap for dreamers. The true toy is a poetic object.

There's an early sculpture of Giacometti's called The Palace at 4 A.M. (1932). It consists of no more than a few sticks assembled into a spare scaffolding, which the mysterious title makes haunting and unforgettable. Giacometti said that it was a dream house for him and the woman with whom he was in love.

These are dreams that a child would know, Dreams in which objects are renamed and invested with imaginary lives. A pebble becomes a human being. Two sticks leaning against each other make a house. In that world one plays the game of being someone else.

This is what Cornell is after, too. How to construct a vehicle of reverie, an object that would enrich the imagination of the viewer and keep him company forever. 

Such writing goes beyond simple ‘appreciation’ to become a creative and imaginative engagement with the artwork; its inspirations, challenges, meanings and ultimately, how the artwork has a life through the efforts to unravel its mysteries by the audience.