Utopia Parkway: The Life and Work of Joseph Cornell

Utopia Parkway: The Life and Work of Joseph Cornell by Deborah Solomon (Boston: MFA Publications, 1997).

Unfortunately, I was introduced to the artist Joseph Cornell by Rick, foundrymaster at the college where I worked as factotum for the fine arts department for a year. Rick’s take on Joseph Cornell was that he was this guy who lived with his mother in a house in one of the outer boroughs of New York City, and he had a workshop in the basement filled with all kinds of junk and found objects, and he would hire young women as nude models and after he drew them he would try to sleep with them. The sculptors I hung out with at that time liked to dwell on the odd personalities and sexual proclivities of famous artists.

Nina, a Chicago socialite whom I got to know at college and who went to work for one of the New York galleries before moving back to Chicago and opening her own sculpture gallery, was the one who introduced me to Cornell’s art work. She invited me to visit her in the New York gallery where she worked. I dropped in on one of my weekly trips to the city, and there stood a bunch of Cornell’s boxes in one of the back rooms. I remember I actually got to touch one or two, but I no longer remember which boxes I saw. Nina’s Chicago gallery lasted a few years, then she dropped out of the art world entirely, opting to work in the “hospitality industry” — which is to say she began working for one of the big hotel chains.

Since then, I’ve grown fond of Cornell’s assemblages and collages. I was never particularly interested in Cornell’s life, but when I ran across Utopia Parkway: The Life and Work of Joseph Cornell, I idly read a few pages and was instantly hooked:– Cornell led a far stranger life than I could have imagined from Rick the foundrmaster’s distorted account.

Idle facts about the artist Joseph Cornell:

(1) He couldn’t draw. Late in life he audited a life drawing class at Queens College of the CUNY system, taught by Mary Frank…

…Cornell attended her class five or six times, and apparently made an effort at drawing. He would sit on a stool at the side of the classroom with a sketchbook in hand — “the kind you buy in Woolworth’s,” Frank said, “smaller and cheaper than everyone else’s.” As students passed the session sketching from a male or female model, Cornell appeared to do the same. However, when Frank glanced at his page one day, there was nothing inscribed on it beyond “a curving line that crossed over itself.” Cornell insisted she keep the drawing as a gift.

(2) In the latter part of his life, he appeared to subsist entirely on sweets: those cheap supermarket cakes with the thick heavy frosting, bags of cookies, boxes of glazed doughnuts, etc. Solomon reports that “in later life, he was rumored to subsist on nothing but doughnuts.”

(3) Despite what Rick the foundrymaster told me, Cornell did not engage in sexual intercourse with the young women whom he cultivated. Solomon said one of those young women, Leila Hadley, was willing to have sex with Cornell, but he wouldn’t:

…[He offered] a rather quaint reason for his abstinence from intercourse. “He felt he would lose his ability to be an artist if he had sex,” she said, adding that he made this remark to her several times.


The oddness of Cornell’s life seems to have had something to do with the way he perceived reality. In letters, he described the back yard of his house in Flushing as a sort of pastoral haven where he could sit under a quince tree and watch the birds. But, Solomon reports, the back yard does not look so idyllic in photographs taken in 1971…

It [the back yard] looks scruffier than one had imagined: an empty patch of grass enclosed by a chain-link fence, with an ugly apartment complex rising up behind it. Tacky garden statues — a squirrel, a frog, and a rabbit accompanied by four little bunnies — rest on the lawn. How many hours had Cornell spent here daydreaming?

It might be safe to say that Cornell’s pastoral idyll in his back yard was more a result of his imaginative and spiritual journeyings than any reflection of reality. Part of his gift was that Cornell managed to find something transcendent in the ordinary hum-drum life of Flushing. Writing about Cornell’s experimental movies made in the 1950’s, Solomon says:

There are a dozen movies from the fifties altogether. They tend to be short, from three to ten minutes in duration, and most are set in the streets and parks of New York. If they share a theme, it is the yearning for transcendence played off against the grubbiness of city life.

If that’s true, I differ from Cornell in looking for transcendence in everyday life, rather than seeing them as separate. Or you might argue that the fact that Cornell made physical art objects meant that he remained involved with the physical world — perhaps so, but I’d have to say that his involvement was a fairly strange involvement.