Enchanted Wanderer: A writer returns to a lost afternoon with Joseph Cornell

By Phyllis Tuchman

Harry Roseman, ‘At the End of the Driveway,’ June 7, 1971 © Harry Roseman. Courtesy the artist and Davis & Langdale Company, New York

  • Apr 18, 2020

On a Sunday afternoon in August of 1971, towards the end of a heat wave in New York, I went to Queens to see Joseph Cornell.

I’d fallen in love with Cornell’s art when I was in college, after visiting a survey at the Guggenheim Museum. I was hoping to ask him, in person, if I could please interview him for ‘Artforum,’ in whose pages I had been publishing conversations with artists for a little more than a year. Phil Leider, the now-legendary editor of the magazine, was on board with the idea, though we both knew it was quixotic at best. Cornell was an elusive figure in the art world, beloved for the exquisite work he created in the circumscribed conditions of a solitary life in the far reaches of an outer borough, living alone in a small house he had once shared with his widowed mother and handicapped younger brother. By the late ’60s and early ’70s, he was also known as mercurial, someone who kept to himself and would probably have no interest in explaining himself in the pages of an esoteric journal.

I was in my early 20s and had already conducted talks with formidable figures like Carl Andre, Robert Ryman, Larry Poons and John Chamberlain. Phil and I were astonished that Cornell had agreed even to meet with me at his home, at 3708 Utopia Parkway. The house sat on a fairly generic, tree-lined street, the sort that appears in countless American movies and television shows. It was a two-story frame, with a large backyard, that his mother had purchased in 1929, several years after Cornell’s father had died of leukemia, leaving the family in financial straits. The Auburndale stop on the Long Island Railroad was a few blocks away, but I have no memory of taking the train nor, for that matter, of how I got there. I imagine I took a taxi cab from the Upper East Side.

Joseph Cornell, ‘Chocolat Menier,’ 1952. Courtesy Grey Art Gallery, New York University

Reconstructing that afternoon over the course of several weeks so that I could write this has entailed some professional and personal excavation. It began with the recovery of a draft of a letter I wrote about the visit to my friend Nancy Graves, who was then teaching in a summer program in San Francisco. My notes had been buried hopelessly for years in a box at the bottom of an overstuffed closet. In the correspondence with Nancy, I described Cornell as ‘tall, gaunt and conventionally dressed.’ Today, I can only assume that I meant he was wearing a nice pair of slacks and a short-sleeve cotton shirt. (Earlier that summer, when I’d interviewed Chamberlain in a stiflingly hot SoHo loft, the big, burly sculptor had greeted me bare-chested, his torso covered with tattoos.)

Cornell and I spent the afternoon sitting outside while birds were chirping and the sun flickered through the leaves of a sizeable tree he said he had planted around 1932. Later, when we went into the house, I recall it being dark and dismal, but now I wonder if all the blinds were drawn simply so that the dining and living rooms wouldn’t become overheated. There was no air conditioner in sight. We talked for quite some time. Cornell was then 67 and seemed quite healthy, though 17 months later, a few days after he turned 69, he would die of a heart attack.

As I questioned him, he would close his eyes and appear to be experiencing mini-reveries. I imagined that he was visualizing the places and events about which I just had asked. (In a review of Deborah Solomon’s 1997 biography of Cornell, ‘Utopia Parkway: The Life and Work of Joseph Cornell,’ the artist Anne Truitt described Cornell as a ‘knight whose adventures were entirely in the realm of his imagination.’) According to the notes I later made when I got home, he mentioned that his ancestors had arrived in America in the 17th century on a boat named ‘The Pontiac,’ and we discussed his memories of New York in the 1920s. During this period, he worked for a textile wholesaler, based in Boston, that had an office off Madison Square Park. He still recalled the day in 1925, almost half a century earlier, when Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ Diana, known as Diana of the Tower, now at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, was lowered from its perch atop the crest of the second version of Madison Square Garden, designed by Stanford White, before the arena was razed. As if it had been yesterday, Cornell remembered how the other men with whom he worked snickered and made jokes about the naked figure.

‘When I told him how much I liked one of his boxes filled with a chorus line of miniature plastic lobsters, he seemed wholly unimpressed by my choice.’

In the draft of the letter I saved, I mention that Cornell several times referred to Black Friday. Until recently, I thought Black Friday and the demolishing of the Garden were close in time, not four years apart. When Cornell told me that he left his job after that momentous Friday and never again worked in an office, I incorrectly pictured the sequence of events. After referring to Solomon’s biography, I now wonder if I misunderstood what he said or if he was simply weaving a dramatic story for a future biographer to recount.

I remember that as we talked that afternoon, seated in his backyard, he made Salvador Dalí come alive. I suddenly realized how critical Dalí’s ‘The Persistence of Memory’ and ‘Illumined Pleasures,’ both of which are small canvases not much larger than the size of his own boxes, must have been to him. I was taken aback when he said he was surprised that more people had not been inspired by his boxes to make similar artworks, as if such things were simply a matter of placing a few objects together. When I told him how much I liked one of his boxes filled with a chorus line of miniature plastic lobsters, he seemed wholly unimpressed by my choice.

Over the years, I’ve often thought back to him telling me how much it meant to him that he had once met someone who knew Claude Debussy. By spending several hours one afternoon with him, I, too, was playing his highly poetic form of six degrees of separation, long before that idea gained currency—spending time with someone who knew someone who knew Debussy.

Because I had worked for the photographer Hans Namuth, I was familiar with the studio Cornell maintained in the basement of his home. But he also kept a wealth of ‘materielle’—the word he liked to use—in his garage. Given that he had once had a job in the textile business, materielle must indeed have been a meaningful word for him. After we had been talking for a while about Paris in the 1880s, an epoch that was deeply important to him, he walked a few yards to the garage and returned with several hand-tinted views of Paris at the turn of the century. They were, as I put it in the letter, ‘small, delicate, full of bustling life and activity.’ One of the cards showed a tiny sign advertising Chocolat Menier, a candy company that was a recurring motif in his art. When I spotted its logo, I gathered that I was probably learning more about his art through images than I would ever grasp through his words. In fact, an appreciation Cornell once wrote of Hedy Lamarr for an issue of ‘View’ magazine in 1940, titled ‘Enchanted Wanderer,’ was, I noted to Nancy, far and away ‘the best interview he ever could have given.’ (‘In a world of shadow and subdued light,’ Cornell wrote, ‘she moves, clothed in a white silk robe trimmed with dark fur, against dim white walls.’)

Harry Roseman, ‘3708 Utopia Parkway,’ May 1970. © Harry Roseman. Courtesy the artist and Davis & Langdale Company, New York.

At one point, he went into his house and came back with two pieces of cake and some ice cream. He asked if I could eat the larger slice, and over the years I’ve regretted that I answered in the affirmative. In the end, he declined to let me come back to interview him. The draft of the letter to Nancy suggests that I readily accepted this decision. Instead, he told me, he wanted to have a friend deliver to me a kind of storage box that would be filled with all sorts of objects. I know two people who worked as Cornell’s assistants who were given such boxes, filled with a wealth of seemingly unrelated items. The content of these boxes has, to this day, never been made public. As it turned out, no one ever dropped a box off at my apartment. A few months before Cornell died, on December 29, 1972, I received a phone call telling me to expect a delivery, but nothing arrived. Instead, I have my memories, just as Joseph Cornell had his.

When I began interviewing artists for ‘Artforum’—and soon afterwards, for ‘Art News’ and ‘Art in America’—I was a graduate student at the Institute of Fine Arts and was already deeply involved with the lives of artists, though lives lived many years before mine. I passionately wanted to prove, for example, that Sassetta, the painter from Siena, knew the great Florentine Renaissance artist Masaccio. I couldn’t manage to do it, though years later, in a lecture class taught by John Pope-Hennessy, the distinguished art historian casually mentioned that the two titans were indeed familiar. Studying art history, it began to dawn on me that I was able talk to artists in the here and now, living right around me in New York and find out firsthand who they knew, what they thought, how they worked, who they loved and even who they hated, which mattered, too. (I used to stay up late to watch Dick Cavett’s talk show and remember being struck by the passion of the infamous put-down that novelist Mary McCarthy directed toward playwright Lillian Hellman.)

While doing interviews for ‘Artforum,’ I was constantly surprised by the wildly diverse personalities and dispositions of the painters and sculptors I met. We talked in light-filled studios; around tables in dark anterooms; in neat and tidy places and in places barely more habitable than hoarders’ dens. Some subjects were long-winded; others decidedly the opposite (Warhol answered brilliantly despite replying with monosyllables). I edited the interviews before they were published, sending the revised transcripts to the artists for review. Everyone treated the edits differently. I remember Chamberlain unexpectedly marking up the manuscript as if he were an English teacher. Anthony Caro’s pages flew back and forth across the Atlantic several times, during which travels his initial reference to Henry Moore eventually became ‘someone I once knew.’ Only Larry Poons insisted that I run the interview as it proceeded in real time. And only Michael Heizer refused to allow me to publish our conversations, even after he marked up every sheet of paper with slashes that made them look like a set of Cy Twombly drawings.

With each passing year, I remember all of these things more fondly. I treasure the innocence that was mine back in the day. And I love thinking back to the interview that I never did, the afternoon I spent with Joseph Cornell in his backyard eating cake and ice cream while the birds chirped and the sun flickered through the leaves of a tree he planted around 1932.

– An art historian and critic, Phyllis Tuchman has written for numerous publications, including ‘Artforum,’ ‘ARTnews,’ ‘Art in America,’ ‘The New York Times’ and ‘Vogue.’ She has written exhibition catalog essays on the work of Ken Price, Robert Smithson and Mary Weatherford, and many others, and has taught at Williams College and Hunter College of the City University of New York. She is currently organizing an exhibition about Abstract Expressionism for Guild Hall’s 90th Anniversary, in August 2021.