Joseph Cornell and Astronomy: A Case for the Stars

  • Kirsten Hoving
Princeton University Press: 2008. 336 pp. $49.50, £35 9780691134987 | ISBN: 978-0-6911-3498-7
Joseph Cornell's work mirrors the 1960s US cultural fascination with astronomy. Credit: E. OWEN/ART RESOURCE/JOSEPH AND ROBERT CORNELL MEM. FOUND./DACS/VAGA

Sculptor Joseph Cornell made boxes. Intricate, three-dimensional montages of photographs, sky maps and paintings, neatly packed into wooden cases full of bric-à-brac: eggs, pipes, glasses, shells, stamps, chains and whatever objects fitted with his internal logic. And, even though he was considered one of the American exponents of surrealism, that epitome of irrationality, there was a logic. In a mesmerizing, if mildly flawed, attempt to immerse us in Cornell's crafted universes, art historian Kirsten Hoving uses the artist's fascination with astronomy to tease out the logic that underlies his work.

Cornell's life was complicated. Although he was from an affluent background, he had to support his younger brother who suffered from cerebral palsy, and until the late 1940s worked variously as a salesman, textile designer and in a plant nursery. He was a staunch believer in the teachings of Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science, and never forged a long-lasting relationship with a companion, spending most of his life in the same house in Utopia Parkway, a working-class neighbourhood of Flushing in Queens, New York. Yet, at the same time, his boxes and experimental films were admired in the high-octane art scene of New York, where he took part in the first surrealist exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. Marcel Duchamp introduced him into the orbit of Peggy Guggenheim and her coterie, and from the early 1950s onwards, he was able to make a living through his art.

Hoving does something ambitious and difficult: she identifies one important thread of his creative process and uses it to help us understand Cornell's art. Astronomy clearly played an important part in his work and life. His boxes, films and the countless dossiers that he stored at his house were littered with star maps, references to Albert Einstein and Arthur Stanley Eddington, solar eclipses and his fascination with space travel. Hoving uses these obsessions to relate a body of work that spans many decades. Albeit an effective choice, astronomy is only one thread of many, and it competes against his fascination with the natural sciences, art, poetry, modern dance and popular culture. Is one strand enough to understand him by?

The book's relentless focus on astronomy is to the detriment of a more comprehensive view of Cornell as an artist and as a man. Very little is said about his personal life, with only fleeting references to his reclusiveness, his close relationship with his brother and mother and his romantic trysts in later life. To compensate, Hoving extends her prose, clogging up the flow of the narrative. She feels obliged to describe the minutiae of individual artworks, to pepper the text with vignettes on cosmology and astronomy, and to make the case for a few of the more tenuous links between his work and astronomy. To be fair, Hoving's arguments are on the whole convincing and at times enthralling, and her access to the debris of Cornell's life puts her in a unique position to back up many of her claims. But her thesis could have been made in half the number of pages. This is certainly a case in which less would have been more.

Yet, with its high-quality production and beautiful and wide-ranging illustrations, the book is extremely absorbing. I see it as Hoving's attempt to construct her own box, a carefully crafted piece laden with excerpts and images that penetrate Cornell's world and his obsessions. Furthermore, it is a showcase for the enthusiasm with the modern that pervaded American popular culture during the twentieth century. By including newspaper articles and advertisements of the time in which astronomy and the space race were prominent, Hoving shows that Cornell was mirroring what he saw around him.

At a time when the interplay of science and art is ever more present in cultural life, and we begin to ask ourselves whether much of what is done is any good, Joseph Cornell and Astronomy gives us a good example of what works best: quiet fascination and obsession allied with genius.