You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Quiet Genius—The Work of Joseph Cornell and Jess

THERE WAS A time, not long ago, when nobody wanted to talk about the obscurity of the avant-garde. The astonishing popularity of modern art, with record crowds in the museums and ever-increasing prices in the auction houses, made any mention of the ivory tower or the artist’s garret sound like outdated romantic hooey. That was how things stood until the last year or two, when the packaging and branding of so-called cutting-edge art has become so pervasive that hardly anybody can bear the hype. A reaction has set in. Of course there have always been stalwart believers in modern art’s intimate, quietistic, enigmatic, and even obscurantist side. But I think we are seeing a significant uptick of interest in those aspects of the modernist imagination.

Hermeticism is no longer seen as such a sin. And younger artists may line up to get their hands on two new books, historical studies dedicated to the tidal pull of modern artistic self-absorption. Joseph Cornell’s Manual of Marvels presents a wonderfully elaborate masterwork by the most famous intimist in the history of twentieth-century American art. O! Tricky Cad & Other Jessoterica, an anthology of collages and pamphlets by the San Francisco artist Jess, who died in 2004, unearths inventions ranging from the comic to the mystic, sometimes made for friends, sometimes published in small, long out-of-print editions. Both Cornell and Jess owe a large debt to the Surrealists, especially the collages that Max Ernst made out of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century engravings. Both Cornell and Jess are American originals, highly sophisticated artists who weren’t afraid to be seen as outliers or cranks. And both publications are put together with an elegance and ingenuity that I am fairly sure would have thrilled the creators of this work.

Joseph Cornell’s Manual of Marvels is a bolt from the blue—an essential achievement until now virtually unknown. Sometime in the 1930s, Cornell, who was an inveterate book collector, purchased an early twentieth-century French agricultural manual—Journal d’Agriculture Pratique—that he proceeded to transform, adding collaged and drawn elements, cutting peep holes through the pages, inserting sheets of colored and transparent paper. The result is intricate and beguiling, a poetic puzzlement that stands with the very finest work he ever produced. This extraordinarily fragile object—which is now known as the Untitled Book Object and is in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art—first attracted attention when displayed in the museum’s 1998 show, “Joseph Cornell/Marcel Duchamp … in resonance.”

Joseph Cornell’s Manual of Marvels includes a CD reproducing all 844 pages of the Untitled Book Object, as well as two volumes, one a facsimile of selected pages from the book and the other a collection of scholarly essays. The result is a brilliant (and I think nearly unprecedented) combination of new and old technologies. The facsimile conveys some of the sensuous feel of the original, so that a reader can appreciate the immediacy of cut-outs offering glimpses of later pages and the surprise of origami elements that give the pages a rich dimensionality. Working your way through the entirety of the Journal d’Agriculture Pratique as reproduced on the CD, you begin to appreciate the full extent of Cornell’s transformations, the determination with which he turned a dry technical manual into a dream book. And first-rate essays—by Dickran Tashjian, Dawn Ades, and Analisa Leppanen-Guerra—locate the Untitled Book Object within what is the already daunting scholarly work on Cornell in particular and on Surrealism more generally.

Joseph Cornell was an alchemist and a magus, and his playful pedantry was never more enchanting than in the pages of this transformed text. The mood is fluid and informal in what amounts to a genre-breaking or genre-making project. The pages of the Journal d’Agriculture Pratique, with its columns of text and its various charts, become the game board on which the mesmerist does his enchanting. From a balloon—actually an old engraving of a balloon—a meandering line extends across four more pages, until it ends up in the hand of a boy. A young woman’s head, pasted beneath an illustration of a strawberry, turns the foodstuff into an exotically elegant hat. A woman’s profile, cut into one page, turns ghostly because the empty space is filled with the cloudy sky of a Dutch landscape on the following page. Cornell’s intricate decorative schemes recall the formal wit of medieval and Renaissance illuminated manuscripts. The next page always beckons; we know there is going to be another visual surprise. The themes are ones familiar from Cornell’s work, including salutes to the artists, dancers, and actresses he admired. Especially treasured here are painters from three centuries: Velázquez, Corot, Picasso. And there is an elaborate salute to Duchamp, who was a friend of Cornell’s.

There may never before have been a work of art quite like this intricately altered old agricultural manual. And although what it all means is extraordinarily difficult—and perhaps ultimately impossible—to say, Analisa Leppanen-Guerra makes a strong case for the coherence of Cornell’s thought, with the earthbound setting of an agricultural text used as the jumping-off point for speculative flights about the creative spirits he admired. Leppanen-Guerra is a strikingly convincing and original voice in the already crowded literature on Cornell. And those who are interested in her two essays here will want to look into the book she published last year, Children’s Stories and “Child-Time” in the Works of Joseph Cornell and the Transatlantic Avant-Garde (Ashgate).

She sees the logic behind Cornell’s enchanted hermeticism. She suggests that Cornell’s leaping, cascading, dissonant imagery has a deeply integrated character. He is creating his own cosmology, to which she offers a guide, arguing that for Cornell “cultural figures” are identified “with planets, constellations, astral phenomena, and elements of the sky (such as birds, butterflies, and balloons),” and that this celestial realm of art and genius is in turn dialectically related to the terrestrial region of the Journal d’Agriculture Pratique—to the workaday world. I think she does a better job than any writer before her of showing how Cornell’s lifelong involvement with Christian Science and the thought of Mary Baker Eddy grounded his aesthetic, beginning with Eddy’s belief that children were “the spiritual thoughts and representatives of Life, Truth, and Love.”

Cornell has tucked away a major achievement in the pages of an old book. And there are certainly parallels to that quirky yet insistent inwardness in the new volume of collages, pamphlets, and sundry creations by the artist Jess, who was born in 1923, exactly twenty years after Cornell. The critic and curator Michael Duncan—who probably knows as much as anybody alive about Jess and the bohemian Bay Area circle that included his life partner, the poet Robert Duncan—has gathered together works that appeared only in limited editions and in some instances have never been published before. Included are Jess’s cut-and-paste transformations of Dick Tracy cartoons as well as a homoerotic collage book, When a Young Lad Dreams of Manhood, made around 1953. O! Tricky Cad & Other Jessoterica is wonderfully produced, with illustrations that evoke the richness of the original collages, a pocket containing a replica of O! (a pamphlet published in 1960), and a dust-jacket that unfolds to reveal a poster Jess designed for a show in 1967 on its backside. Jess had a taste for the high kitsch of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century engravings, and in some of his collages he enjoyed mixing these with halftone images from contemporary magazines and newspapers.

In a spirited and beautifully written introductory essay, Duncan writes that Jess’s “is the ultimate revisionist history, one where multifaceted elements meld into each other in a protean, alchemical Periodic Table.” His collages—which he called “paste-ups”—have a denser, thicker atmosphere than Cornell’s. If there is something of Ravel’s light touch about Cornell’s work in the Untitled Book Object, Jess can be alternately thunderous and slangy, perhaps more in the mode of a visual Charles Ives. At times, Jess seems to be rearranging the furniture in some Pre-Raphaelite hothouse nightmare. At other times, his collages of cut-and-pasted words suggest the work of a Middle American oddball high school kid.

Both Joseph Cornell’s Manual of Marvels and O! Tricky Cad & Other Jessoterica are portraits of artists making their own separate peace with the onslaught of modern life. They are reconfiguring standard reading matter into material that matters to them. In the process, they offer glimpses of the era’s collective unconscious, or at least what they imagine might have been their countrymen’s hidden dreams. When Jess remade the Dick Tracy cartoons, he prided himself on using only the words and images from the cartoons themselves, employing what Duncan calls “re-sequenced” and “re-lettered” images to create “allusive, disjunctive utterances [that] resemble nothing so much as the jangled prose of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake,” a favorite of Jess’s. In Cornell’s Untitled Book Object, the agricultural manual is a practical pastoral from which flights of fancy are launched. Is it any wonder Jess is an artist younger artists find illuminating? Is it any wonder Cornell’s standing remains sky-high? What Cornell and Jess suggest is that the new can come from the old, even when the old is merely old hat, the pictures from last week’s or last decade’s or last century’s popular books and magazines. How it is all transformed involves the mysteries of the modern magician, an artistic alchemy practiced in private. I am eager for the esoterica that comes after Jessoterica. 

Jed Perl is the art critic at The New Republic.