Joseph Cornell, “A Parrot for Juan Gris” (winter 1953-54; then June 25, 1957) mixed media: glazed wooden box; wooden parts; cut chromolithograph; paper collage; ink; crayon; metal dowel and ring; string; cork ball; folded note
17 3/4 × 12 3/16 × 4 5/8 in. (45.1 × 31 × 11.7 cm); collection of Robert Lehrman (courtesy of Aimee and Robert Lehrman
© the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY)

In an afterword to Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov remembers that the novel,

was somehow prompted by a newspaper story about an ape in the Jardin des Plantes who, after months of coaxing by a scientist, produced the first drawing ever charcoaled by an animal: this sketch showed the bars of the poor creature’s cage.

No one has recovered any trace of this article, partly, I suspect, because Nabokov was illustrating a larger point about the act of writing: that it involves finding in oneself both coaxing scientist and captive ape, and always begins with the recognition of limitation.

This same duality between coaxer and captive applies to many artists, but none more so than Joseph Cornell, whose idiosyncratic “shadow boxes” exist entirely in the tension between creation and confinement. Viewing one of Cornell’s boxes — wooden frames filled with found objects — is an almost heartbreaking encounter with inner vitality and outer limitation. It’s almost so, if the interiors were not so alive, populated with toy rings, cork balls, mirrors, or prints of exotic animals. Like cages, they display the self-sufficiency of a circumscribed world.

Joseph Cornell, “Homage to Juan Gris” (1953–54) box construction, 18 1/2 × 12 1/2 × 4 5/8 in. (47 × 31.8 × 11.7 cm) Philadelphia Museum of Art, Purchased: John D. McIlhenny Fund (© The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY)

Cornell spent most of his adult life at his family home in Flushing, New York with his mother and younger brother, Robert, who suffered from cerebral palsy. The careful attention Cornell paid to Robert for his entire life precluded Cornell from venturing far beyond the city, but by all accounts Cornell never expressed bitterness. Instead, he converted his basement into a studio where he produced his assemblages, read widely, attended the opera and ballet, and held court on Utopia Parkway for a social circle that included Marcel Duchamp, Marianne Moore, and Allegra Kent.

Cornell worked mostly in series, spinning obsessions with Renaissance portraitists and film stars into microcosms of Victorian anachronism and eccentricity. Among references to Bronzino’s Medici princess and Lauren Bacall, however, it’s surprising to find that Cornell’s most extended obsession was with the Spanish Cubist Juan Gris. Cornell first saw Gris’s painting “The Man at the Café” (1914) at the Sidney Janis Gallery in Manhattan in 1953 and spent the next decade creating over twenty works in response.

Newly promised to the Met by Leonard Lauder, Gris’s collage is the centerpiece of Birds of a Feather: Joseph Cornell’s Homage to Juan Gris, the first of a new series of “dossier exhibitions” highlighting a single work. Twelve of Cornell’s boxes accompany Gris’s collage, skillfully arranged to reveal the adorned verso sides. A small but illuminating case displays books that Cornell read and a few biographical curios, like a self-published pamphlet to the opera diva Maria Malibran.

No artist is more fitting to inaugurate this experiment than Cornell, who kept his own dossiers on favorite artists such as Duchamp and Gris, as well as boxes delightfully labelled with the fruits of Cornell’s expeditions: “owls,” “clock hands,” and “shells.” But why did Juan Gris capture Cornell’s attention for so long?

Joseph Cornell, “Grand Hotel Bon Port” (late 1950s) Box construction 17 1/2 × 10 1/4 × 4 in. (44.5 × 26 × 10.2 cm) private collection (© The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY)

No doubt part of the attraction was biographical. Cornell and Gris were both infatuated with France and shared a common affinity for Symbolist poetry. Cornell may have been interested in Gris’s stints designing sets and costumes for Sergei Diaghilev, or possibly empathized with Gris’s long periods of confinement due to uremia. Regardless of the particulars, Cornell described Gris as a “warm fraternal spirit,” a rare appellation for an artist who favored the company of women to the point of making their male companions wait outside his studio. Gris is not only one of the few modern artists who appears in Cornell’s boxes, but also one of the few men.

In Gris, Cornell likely also found an aesthetic forbear. Often overshadowed by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, Gris perfected the technique of papier collé long after the other two artists had abandoned it, continuing to paste scraps of newsprint and shards of mirror to his collages. Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, Gris’s dealer and the author of a biography that Cornell read, contrasted Gris with his peers by writing that “Gris hid behind his works; papier collé was, for him, no more than another step towards anonymity.”

“The Man at the Café” depicts a seated figure almost entirely obscured by a newspaper. Only the top of his hat appears. The front page bears the headline “The Berthillon Method / One will no longer be able to make fake works of art,” a reference to art forgery that Cornell plays on by incorporating real materials like newsprint, while also studiously mimicking the wood grain of the table with oil paint.

Cornell takes up this provocation, all the while uncovering fragments of the Spanish painter’s life behind his art. Like Gris, he blurs the “fake” and the “real”: a paper bird rests on a wooden perch. His Gris series abounds in verbal and visual playfulness. By choosing the white cockatoo as the protagonist for his series, Cornell announces his intention to “parrot” Gris. Labels emblazoned “La Estrella” point to the “star” of the show.

Juan Gris, “The Man at the Café” (1914) oil and newsprint collage on canvas 39 × 28 1/4 in. (99.1 × 71.8 cm) the Metropolitan Museum of Art (courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Other gestures take on the form of inside jokes traveling through time. The investigative work of the curator, Mary Clare McKinley, uncovers, for example, the hidden meaning behind a pasted image of a Milanese opera house: its star singer was named Giulia Grisi. In “Grand Hôtel Bon Port” (1959–60), miniature buoys bear Spanish stamps, paying passage to Gris’s native country. Gris even makes cameo appearances, like in “Déjeuner de Kakatoes” (1959–60), where Cornell’s parrot sits down to clippings of Gris’s still life “Breakfast” (1914).

Cornell’s artistic sympathies no doubt hinted at a real affinity of spirit. Kahnweiler notes how Gris embodied the words of the French poet Andre Chénier, “of new thinkers, make old verses,” a sentiment that Cornell echoes when he states, “I have a feeling of freshness for an era that’s past.” Neither artist had any use for timeliness. Cornell’s series also resembles an infatuation, however, encouraged by his vivid imagination, his longing for remote times, and a so all-encompassing need to live vicariously, that it prompted him to sign letters to Alexina “Teeny” Duchamp with the name “Gris.”

In all of his boxes, Cornell retains the childlike impulse to associate dreams with reality, the magnanimity to view things and people as they desire to be viewed. In this sense he differs from the Surrealists, who wanted to topple the status quo, and Pop artists, who too often belittle their subjects. Cornell had the trust of a child toward its parents.

John Ashbery explains in a review of Cornell’s 1967 retrospective at the Guggenheim, “the genius of Cornell is that he sees, and enables us to see, with the eyes of childhood, before our vision got clouded by experience.” The clarity of Cornell’s vision makes us forget our own confinement. It’s no coincidence that Cornell replaces the bars of a birdcage with glass windows — tinted, but translucent nevertheless.

Birds of a Feather: Joseph Cornell’s Homage to Juan Gris continues at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through April 15, 2018.

Dennis Zhou is a writer living in New York City. He holds a master's degree from the University of Oxford, and his work has appeared most recently in the Times Literary Supplement.