Joseph Cornell’s Manual of Marvels in the New York Times 30/11/2012

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Cornell’s Almanac

Joseph Cornell’s Manual of Marvels

In the early 1930s, as he wandered through the secondhand bookstores and antique shops in Lower Manhattan scavenging for materials, manual_of_marvels.jpgCornell stumbled upon a French agricultural yearbook from 1911. He took it home and went to work, altering and remaking the pages.       

The fragile volume, discovered in Cornell’s basement studio by the curator Walter Hopps after the artist’s death, languished at the Smithsonian for more than 20 years before wending its way to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Kept under glass, it was almost impossible to examine beyond the single spread on display. Now, in collaboration with the Philadelphia Museum, 60 pages have been reproduced in an abridged facsimile edition and packaged together with a collection of essays compiled by the project’s editors, Analisa Leppanen-Guerra and Dickran Tashjian. An interactive CD of the entire work — all 844 pages — with pop-up footnotes explaining in even more detail the references, materials and Cornell’s methods, completes the set.       

The results, more than 10 years in the making, are marvelous indeed. The contents come in a faux-wooden box, lined in blue, with a red ribbon inside — to be unpacked like the pieces of a board game. And unlike most of Cornell’s work, with which you are allowed to take in all the whimsical detail only from afar, here you can touch and run your fingers along the cutouts and tissues, unfold bits of paper and feel his special genius at work. As you hold the book in your hands, each page reveals new secrets.       

For instance: A color reproduction of da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” is cut so that she is clutching a dried leaf, a photograph of a straw hat and engravings of bottles of French perfume; a piece of origami conceals a drawing to discover once it’s unfolded; Margarita from Velázquez’s painting “Las Meninas” swings across the page on a chandelier, with Velázquez himself peeking out from behind a canvas further down; a collaged engraving of three cats has them hanging laundry on the rigging of a diagram of a Russian ship; and various silhouettes of a flamenco dancer are strewed across a page in mid-dance....

.....The facsimile volume is endlessly entertaining on its own, but the context the essays and footnotes provide is essential for grasping the countless references and external influences as well as the work’s place in Cornell’s body of art as a whole. Leppanen-Guerra, who teaches in the art history and architecture department at DePaul University, and Tashjian, an emeritus professor of art history at the University of California, Irvine, made great efforts to identify as many of the collaged images and allusions as possible....       

....(The CD is indeed a treasure trove, yet one wishes it had been built as a downloadable app — the way Aperture recently digitized most of Merce Cunningham’s archives — so that you can download and then enjoy the material from anywhere without the clumsy player. Who still wants to be tethered to one of those?)....    

Why? you must wonder. Her air of mystery is apt. Cornell’s work is in the end a set of secrets waiting to be revealed. This “Manual of Marvels” helps us get closer.