My own feeling is that Cornell is best described as the eminence grise of assemblage – he laid the groundwork for the coming mash-up in late 20th-century art. Too much attention has been lavished on the Francophile in Cornell and not enough has been said about his American qualities. He belongs to the vein of American realism that elevated prosaic objects to art, going back to John F. Peto’s trompe l’oeil paintings in the late 19th century and extending up through Warhol’s soup cans and Jeff Koons Hon RA’s 8ft-tall aluminium lobsters. (Art, I realise, is not a race between two contestants, but Cornell arranged plastic lobsters into fantasy ballets decades before Koons revealed a fascination with marine crustacea.)
Cornell is seldom given his due in art-history textbooks, which tend to repeat the familiar post- war narrative in which Robert Rauschenberg and his ‘Combines’ (Monogram, 1955-59) launched the junk-into-art aesthetic in America. (Put another way, Rauschenberg did for New York what Peter Blake did for London.) Yet Cornell directly inspired Rauschenberg’s early use of found objects. They befriended each other around 1953, when Rauschenberg, then an unknown artist in his twenties, was making “hanging fetishes” and elemental sculptures notable for their accretions of recycled detritus. “The only difference between me and Cornell,” Rauschenberg once told me, “is that he put his work behind glass, and mine is out in the world.”
What debt do today’s recyclers owe to Cornell? On any day, making the rounds of the galleries in New York, you might be stopped in your tracks by an exquisite construction cobbled together by Rachel Harrison, Isa Genzken or Jessica Stockholder, or the sparer, almost fragile cardboard-and-tape creations of Gedi Sibony, or the socially charged bric- a-brac assembled by Nick Cave. You can even speak of an entire subcategory of artists who put stuff into glass vitrines — Damien Hirst, Mark Dion, David Altmejd and Josephine Meckseper (Las Meninas (2Xist), 2013, above) come to mind.
Of course, their work might not seem particularly Cornellian. He worked on an intimate scale, in contrast to the expensively fabricated, elephantine assemblages to be seen in so many galleries today. Interestingly, the found object – deployed by Cornell as a talisman of the past and transfigured so successfully that a dimestore trinket can seem antique – has evolved to become, in contemporary art, an extension of our round-the-clock consumerist present and a critique of the global economy.
At any rate, as Joseph Cornell: Wanderlust descends on London and then Vienna, one is reminded that the artist’s work is infinitely better travelled than he was. He loved Europe, so long as he kept a protective distance from it and could create a space large enough in which to dream. He was very much a poet of yearning who seemed to believe that true love is unrequited. Nonetheless, I think we can safely say that if London or Vienna does decide to love him back, that will not ruin the relationship.
Joseph Cornell: Wanderlust is in The Sackler Wing at the RA from 4 July — 27 September 2015.
Deborah Solomon is the art critic of WNYC Public Radio in New York. Her most recent book is American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell. Her Utopia Parkway: The Life and Work of Joseph Cornell (1997) will be republished this autumn in a new edition by Other Press, New York.