In Which Joseph Cornell Cannot Be Taken At Face Value



After a long detour of dreams, I’ve learned to love reality a little better.

– Pierre Reverdy

1911. Joseph Cornell’s father develops leukemia. Six years later he dies deeply in debt.

1918. The Cornell family moves to Queens.

1945. Cornell asks Marianne Moore to recommend him for a Guggenheim fellowship. She does so reluctantly. He doesn’t get it.

1962. Cornell wants to incorporate nudes into his work. He asks his friend Larry Jordan take nudes of young women, including those of his daughter. He returns the photographs in 1970, not wanting them to be found after his death.

1949. The Hugo Gallery presents La Lanterne Magique du Ballet Romantique of Joseph Cornell.

1965. Joseph’s brother Robert Cornell dies. A friend says of Robert’s battle with cerebral palsy, “He had the minimum amount of body that would contain a soul.”

1941. Cornell writes, “A suggestion of that wonderful feeling of detachment which comes over me so often — a leisurely kind of feeling that seems to impart to the routine events of the day a certain sense of ‘festivity.’ This feeling which I started off the day with was increased by an unexpected letter from Tamara Toumanova written with deep feeling and sincerity. She sends a ticket for her performance of Swan Lake this Thursday and invites me to her dressing room afterwards. Have never seen her dance but she has told me before that it is one of her favorites.”

1943. World War II arrives, and Cornell works in a defense plant.

1929. Cornell moves into a house with his mother and brother in Flushing, where he resides for the majority of his adult life.

1962. Cornell meets a waitress on Sixth Avenue named Joyce Hunter. All his thoughts are soon consumed by her. She is a single mother who takes a job as the cashier at Ripley’s Believe-It-Or-Not Museum in Times Square.

1964. After he nervously begs her, Joyce Hunter moves in with Cornell.

1950. Cornell writes, “Lunch of pancakes a complete sense of peace (rare) before leaving for New York.”

1921. Cornell takes a job as a woolen goods salesman for the William Whitman Company. He works there for the next ten years.

1952. He meets the artist Robert Motherwell, who complains that you can never have a conversation with Cornell: “It’s always a monologue.”

1951. Cornell writes to Mina Loy:

I had a beautiful early morning in the back yard under the Chinese quince tree — very early, in fact not much after five; and I could not help but think of you, looking up at the moon, when the first rays of the sun turn into silver. A long time ago, you may remember, you told me that your destiny was ravelled up somehow with the lunar globe, but even aside from this I have always experienced something wonderful evoked in this mood.

1966. His mother dies in the Hamptons. “What a beautiful child she once was.”

1958. “Subway ride home ‘people’ etc too obsessive. People on subway — preoccupation with faces.” Cornell sits for hours in cafes and train stations, picking at a danish, nursing his tea until it gets cold, staring.

1964. Joyce Hunter moves out of Cornell’s house. She and her friends take nine of his boxes. Instead of prosecuting her, he makes a box depicting her as a winsome rat with tiny pink babies.

1925. Cornell becomes a member of the First Church of Christ, Scientist in Great Neck.

1958. Cornell hires assistants to begin cataloguing the vast store of boxes housed in his basement. He is absolutely compulsive about the order of them, calling his collections of clippings and illustrations of birds “extensions,” and the folders that contain them “dossiers.”

1956. Cornell’s fascination with young women becomes more important to him. He writes, “Jackie as much personal diary when too harassed to enter properly the events seeming flavored so beautifully by preoccupation as vs. personal obsession but these multiple overtones could not get captured in words.” Robert Motherwell later has to prevent an usher at a movie theater from calling the police when Cornell gives her a bouquet of flowers.

1938. Julien Levy holds Cornell’s first solo show, and some of his boxes are included in an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art.

1962. “Loneliness is stronger than sex.”

1944. Cornell has a nightmare about his frail, incapacitated brother Robert. “Dreamed that a crow flew right through the windowpane without breaking it and lighted upon Robert’s chest. Took him into the bathroom and opened the window for him to fly out.”

He asks Allegra Kent, a ballerina, to gift him a book on erotic art because he is ashamed to buy it for himself. She does so, but thinks it weird.

1940. He works for Vogue and House and Garden, contributing some freelance design.

1951. Robert and Joseph Cornell visit their sister Elizabeth at her farm. They continue to go there often in the summer.

1956. “Satie music. This seemingly almost miraculous accomplishment amidst vile days of sluggishness — expressing lethargy.”

1963. The poet Charles Henri Ford — Cornell’s friend by way of correspondence — brings Robert Indiana, Andy Warhol and James Rosenquist for a visit to his house. They are absolutely flabbergasted.

1964. Joyce Hunter is found murdered in a West Side hotel room.

1966. “My recent reading: Gadda’s Pasticiaccio, Foucault’s Madness and Civilization. Sontag’s Against Interpretation. I had not been au courant with the pieces as published. They are the most meaningful things I’ve come across lately.” Cornell pursues strange, intimate correspondences with the young daughters of his friends.

1972. Cornell dies a virgin.

1959. “Recurrent obsession to make objects move.”

1956. The dancer Carole Schneemann occasionally goes out to Flushing in order to visit Cornell. “He would have everything set up like a little tea party, and it would be enchanting, like something out of a poem. But he’d get very upset if I said anything real.”

1948. Objects by Joseph Cornell is shown in Beverly Hills.

1966. Letter to John Ashbery: “I have certain dossiers capable of a high potential for someone like yourself but it needs a very close rapport and empathy — they are past my own labors and have been so for a few years now.”

1957. In a letter to Ford: “The sunset mingling the past and present with a special grace.”

1967. “What seemed special at the start of writing all this may seem commonplace, taken for granted by many.”

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. You can find an archive of his writing on This Recording here. Visit our mobile site at

“Game That I Play” – Jessica Pratt (mp3)

“Strange Melody” – Jessica Pratt (mp3)

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