TIME in Joseph Cornell's Art
Essay by Nohra Corredor
"Perhaps it was Cornell's measuring of time by his own perceptions that allowed him to create an infinity of atmospheres within a small space--one of the most endearing qualities of his work" Kynaston McShine-Senior Curator of the Museum of Modern Art
"Cornell's own numerous epiphanic or 'Proustian' moments are the central points of his diary, these experiences he is so eager to note before they fade. His scribblings everywhere, his files abulge, and his boxes are based upon his faith in the "metaphysics of ephemera", a desperate hope of finding, or refinding, what might at last, in time regained" Mary Ann Caws, "Joseph Cornell's Theater of the Mind"
The Romantic Movement of the nineteenth century left us with the realization of the inherently organic nature of Reality. Romantic poetry, especially, communicated to the individual that he had his real "home" in the surrounding, natural world, and thus stimulated a sense of the individual's connections with Time, History, Nature and to God Himself. The "Age of Reason" of the eighteenth century (Robinson Crusoe) was replaced by the sense of the individual as organically related to society and to Nature. It is within this frame of "poetic imagination" (G.Bachelard) that we find the art of Joseph Cornell, as a way of living out the symbolist aesthetic to its best. Cornell's "work is one of the perfect and perhaps last expressions of the symbolist aesthetic of the last hundred years" Robert Motherwell.
Probably one of the many reasons why the work of Joseph Cornell has been difficult to categorize in the history of aesthetic thought could be that the formal distinction between "ARTS IN TIME" (the performance of the artist or the perception of the spectator takes place over a period of time i.e. the arts of music, the drama, literature, the dance, the film) and "ARTS OF SPACE" (nontemporal arts i.e. painting sculpture, arquitecture, photography, which appreciation do not extend through time because they can be appreciated "all at once" or instantaneously) does not apply. The art of Joseph Cornell shares both experiences: the temporal and nontemporal.
Cornell's aesthetic experience occurs in Time, more than in any other kind of experience. His aesthetic enjoyment and the moments of experience are tightly bound together. What Joseph Cornell was apprehending at a "present" moment was intimately related to what had preceded it, and it aroused in him anticipation of what was to follow. But this aesthetic experience was also "spatial" or "nontemporal" because he 'knew' about "timelessness" enjoyment. He was the "observer" of Time par excellence(in 1964, undated entry in his diary:"Collage "Hotel de L'Etoile" the moment in and out of time" T.S. Eliot-Quartets.) It reminds us of the Greek idea about Time" In Homer, chronos refers to periods of empty time and is distinguished from periods of activity which are thoughts of as days (ephemeros). By the time of Pindar this verbal distinction had disappear, but a tendency to think of Time as an alternation between contraries' active and inactive, persisted. In the classical period this idea underwent further development so that in the language of philosophy, Time was an oscillation of vitality between two contrasted poles" (Frankel, H. 1955).
The art of Joseph Cornell is inexhaustibly rich. There is no limit to what it will give to those who approach it. Neither a single or a whole host of interpretations can sum up all of the values which his work may disclose. And as of any other work of art, no matter how much it is said about it, "at the hypothetical limit of attention and interest there will always remain, quite untouched, the thing itself" (Blackmur,"A Critic's Job of Work")
It comes to mind, at the end of the Millennium and in the context of 'Time and the art of Joseph Cornell', to reflect on Kant:."Everything goes past like a river and the changing taste and the various shapes of men make the whole game uncertain and delusive. Where do I find fixed points in Nature, which cannot be moved by man, and where I can indicate the markers by the shore to which he ought to adhere?" (Written by hand in his own printed copy of the "Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime").
Joseph Cornell spent all his life observing "the passing of Time", he wanted to capture it, to measure it, to mark the moments of his aesthetic path. He left for Art History, Artists and future generations, a "Virtual Reality" of a thought-provoking experience of Time's processes, associations ("network of correspondences") and interconnections ("vases communicants"). His art is beautiful, sublime, harmonious!
"Cornell's work seemed to me, and still does, a genuine expression of what used to be called a "poetic soul." Dore Ashton.