What is it about boxes that is so fascinating? I was thinking this as I went into Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art to see Pandora’s Box, a show that displays artist Joseph Cornell’s signature assemblages alongside the works of artists who allegedly were inspired by him or who were in artistic sympathy with him. I can think of historical precedents: medieval reliquaries; Victorian memento mori, which often look strikingly like Cornell’s miniature worlds. But these forebears don’t quite explain the combination of weirdness and visual beauty of something made by Cornell, nor the undoubted fascination with him since his death. His boxes frame the objects in a different way than a conventional picture frame, of course; they concentrate the viewer’s attention; but there’s something else, which finally came to me after I’d seen this show.
The exhibition is organized by themes such as miscellanous things in boxes, whether birds, voyeurism (cue Jeff Koons!), stars, collage, buildings (Christo, anyone?) or the sea (er, Pipilotti Rist singing “Wicked Game”). The work in the show by artists who are not named Joseph Cornell consists of stuff that’s clearly influenced by him and stuff that clearly isn’t. For example, in the very first room, we see a piece of delicate assemblage by Cornell called “Untitled (Medici Princess),” and a box by Marcel Duchamp. The Duchamp piece is very Cornell-like, with its folding and sliding pieces, its pictorial collage and its gathering of tiny gew-gaws. It turns out Cornell actually made a series of these boxes for Duchamp, so no wonder they’re similar. In another room, placing a Gabriel Orozco lapidary pieces near a Cornell cornucopia indicates an echo, if not a clear influence. Louise Nevelson’s ‘Tidal Wave and Moon” may have more to do with Cubist construction than Cornell, but here too one sees the box device at work.
In other rooms, the juxtaposition of works seems entirely random. Collage is one of the least original elements of Cornell’s work, so the choice work in that room could easily be replaced by a hundred other equally applicable (or misapplied) works. There are pieces by Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt, Christo and Robert Rauschenberg, which render any connection to Cornell completely irrelevant, for the simple reason that they were incomparably greater artists than he was. Seeing Judd’s plywood boxes, you rather forget the Cornell box next to it, and you’re just grateful that the show provided an excuse to bring some masterpieces out of the MCA’s storage rooms.
But then I went up to a beautiful Cornell piece called “Untitled (Caravaggio Boy)” (1953) I was captivated by the haunting little black and white photo of the face, bleached out and then printed several dozen times in separate compartments of the shadow box, each with a little wooden bead placed in front of it. My immediate response was there is a fineness, precision and finish to this which other practitioners of putting things in a box (and many of us who are artists have tried it) tend to miss out. My next response was this is so like Andy Warhol, and Christian Boltanski. And I turned around, and right there was a large Warhol screenprint painting and a room filled with one of Boltanski’s photo/lightbulb installations.
Bingo. Boltanski, in particular, is the artist who, more than any other artist on display, makes the curators’ case that Cornell had a significant influence on contemporary art. The effect of Cornell’s work, to me, is founded on Surrealist absurdity, the gathering together of things that you don’t expect to see side by side. Boltanski places more emphasis on taxidermy with his boxes, lightbulbs and photos of dead people, or people who look like they could be dead. But looking at Boltanski’s “Monument: Les Enfants de Dijon” led me to realize what it was about the box that, perhaps, constitutes Cornell’s preoccupation with it as a form, and our preoccupation with Cornell. What Boltanski does with a room, Cornell accomplished in his little boxes. Cornell created a different kind of space for art, both as defined against the four edges of a frame and the wall to which it is attached, and also a literal space, with depth from front to back, a segment of trapped air into which he breathed the strangeness of outside reality.
Pandora’s Box: Joseph Cornell Unlocks the MCA Collection was open at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (220 East Chicago Ave, Chicago, IL 60611) from June 18 to October 16, 2011.