In his diary entry dated April 15, 1946, Joseph Cornell wrote: “One of best days at home. . . . Had satisfactory feeling about cleaning up debris on cellar floor—‘sweepings’ represent all the rich cross-currents ramifications that go into the boxes but which are not apparent…” Sweepings of gray bits of fuzz and balls of dust—material for a mouse.
Cornell could have been mistaken for a pack rat even without grabbing a broom. He assiduously gathered society’s flotsam and jetsam, filling up the basement of his modest clapboard home on Utopia Parkway in Flushing, Queens, New York. Rather he was a master shadow-box maker, a consummate artist, and all those found objects, the detritus from the shops and the streets, were his “source material.” He called his cellar studio, his “spare parts department,” which over the course of his life spread to the upstairs and left his living room shrouded in piles of yellowing newspapers, photograph albums, and magazine clippings. And in among the jumble, the past’s presence, was a tan-colored cardboard box, the size of a book, labeled in his hand: Mouse Material.
Paradoxically a recluse and an eager communicator, Cornell was a self-taught artist who barely could draw and paint; yet he found artistic legitimacy in his sheer manipulation of things, his assemblages of illustrations cut out from books and bric-a-brac—clouds and cork and carved birds, sand and stars and sewing notions, moons and marbles—whose meanings either eluded lucidity or begged myriad interpretations. As a result critics and art historians have tried to connect him to a multiple of isms, to every notable movement in the hundred-year span between 1840 and 1940. They’ve said he’s a child of the transcendentalists, a progeny of the romantics; they’ve called him nostalgic. They’ve considered him a Symbolist, a Dadaist, and a Surrealist. Of the latter Cornell said, “I do not share in the subconscious and the dream theories of the surrealists.”
In his Museum series, each “museum in a box” that he made in the 1940s consists of twenty tiny glass jars filled with the vastness of the universe, such as ‘the Speed of Light’ and a ‘Thousand & One Nights,’ a ‘Juggling Act’ and a ‘White Landscape.’ The specific items vary slightly from one box to another, depending it seems on what he may have spotted in a particular moment and the associations he found. “Mayan feathers,” a “Venetian map,” and a “Sailors’ game.” But one item that appeared in all his museum boxes was that source material he had saved to the end of his life, the “Mouse material.”
Sources of quotes: Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, “Joseph Cornell: A Biography,” Joseph Cornell, The Museum of Modern Art, 1980.
Other sources: Carter Ratcliff, “Joseph Cornell: Mechanic of the Ineffable,” Ibid.; Juan Antonio Suárez, “Joseph Cornell and the Secret Life of Things,” Pop Modernism: Noise And the Reinvention of the Everyday, 2007; Jeff Bagato, Mondo DC, 2005; Kirsten Hoving, Joseph Cornell and Astronomy: A Case for the Stars, 2008.
(Image: Museum, assemblage by Joseph Cornell, 1944-1948, reproduced for non-commercial use only.)