It would he hard to find a more painfully private man than Joseph Cornell. The American assemblage artist lived his entire life in Flushing, Queens, with a disabled brother and tyrannical mother. Though he showed his work in Manhattan galleries, he was always a long subway ride from that world.
Cornell’s curious admirers now have something to get excited about, thanks to the Getty Research Institute’s announcement yesterday that it has acquired a cache of 33 previously unpublished letters between Cornell and one of his first assistants, Susanna De Maria Wilson, then-wife to the Minimalist sculptor Walter De Maria. The Getty’s correspondence bundle begins in 1963, when Cornell was 60 years old, and continues through 1968; it complements the institute’s collection of letters written by Cornell to poet and artist Charles Henri Ford from 1938 to 1957.
According to their letters, Cornell’s professional relationship with Wilson began after the spring of 1962; they met while she was working at the Museum of Modern Art. She would soon prove a reliable assistant, keeping Cornell updated about the goings-on in the New York art world, informing him about happenings, and arranging screenings of films from his collection.
Cornell must have been an unusual character to work for. He sent Wilson highly visual letters, postcards, and thank-you notes, which were embellished with pressed flowers, magazine clippings, and unique stamps, and sometimes encased in several envelopes. In them, the shy artist instructed her on where to find the kinds of ephemera he liked to use in his collages and assemblage objects. He also shared peculiar dreams and waxed poetic about whatever occupied his mind.
The correspondence offers a small peek into one of the 20th century’s most thoughtful artistic minds. Would the bashful Cornell have approved? It’s hard to say, though his dying confession reportedly was, “I wish I had not been so reserved.”