Joseph Cornell: Enigmatic American Surrealist Artist Explored In New Film

I recently bumped into an old friend and filmmaker, Arnold Barkus.  He told me about a film he is developing about the artist Joseph Cornell, with his longtime friend and collaborator, filmmaker Caveh Zahedi,. When I think about my top ten all-time favorite artists, Joseph Cornell instantly comes to mind. While the work is demure, quietly puzzling, and sometimes diminutive in size, it remains nonetheless unforgettable. As a teenager, I cherished his work. I would argue that Joseph Cornell, to all who know his work, is an artist who touches you on a personal level – to the point where one feels that the artist is speaking to you personally. That is why his work is only rarely seen at auction: people can’t part with his boxed assemblages and collages so they remain in personal collections for life. Yet it surprised me greatly when I asked a few recent art history graduates if they knew of Cornell’s work and they hadn’t heard of him! For this reason, I find it increasingly important that Barkus and Zahedi have embarked on this project.

The film not only portrays Cornell as an artist, but also details the sexual psychodrama of Cornell as a man, who died at age 69, a virgin. The story will be anchored around the impossible love story between Cornell and a New York City coffee shop waitress named Joyce Hunter. Very little is known about Joyce. What we do know is that she ran away to New York at age 16, gave birth to a daughter at age 17, and was murdered at age of 21 by a mentally deranged man who had just been released from an insane asylum.  Hunter had been Cornell’s muse but she was also the thief who broke into his studio and stole his art to make money. After she was caught and arrested, Cornell paid her bail. When she died, Cornell picked out her coffin and paid for her gravesite. He was the only person who attended her funeral. He even sent his experimental filmmaker friend Larry Jordan to the nearby cemetery in Queens to make a film (Flushing Meadows, 1965) about her grave.  Cornell later hired a detective to track down her daughter in the hopes of adopting her, but the detective never was able to find her. Researching the film, Arnold Barkus and his director and co-writer Caveh Zahedi managed to track down the daughter, amongst the many other previously unearthed facts about the artist.

Although the narrative film, The Sky Is Blue Like An Orange, will be a fictionalised account, the filmmakers are also planning to release a companion documentary that will round out the story and provide historical veracity. With regards to the narrative, the filmmakers are focused more on showing Cornell’s iconic art through the prism of Cornell’s love life, or rather lack thereof. It is a deeply romantic and tragic love story set within the early ‘60s art revolution, about a chance encounter between a reclusive artist and a rough-trade young gal. Cornell becomes obsessed with her. He gives her gifts of art. She and her boyfriend immediately sell the work behind Cornell’s back.  Cornell shows her some of his private art pieces, those using nude figures, and she offers to pose for him. When Cornell’s dealer finds out that Joyce has been selling his pieces, Cornell feels betrayed by her and stops giving her gifts. So Joyce and her boyfriend break into Cornell’s unlocked garage; steal a dozen of his prime boxes. Cornell’s mother and art dealer insist on calling the police. Joyce gets arrested. Her three year-old daughter is put into foster care. Cornell feels terrible and regrets having called the police. He pays her bail and hires a lawyer to get her released.  The filmmakers use this historical incident, reported at the time in the New York Times, as the turning point of the film, and hypothesize on the intimate relationship that might have occurred between the artist and his unruly muse.

It is fairly common knowledge, that Joseph Cornell was a shy, simple man, living his entire life in Queens, NY with his mother and caring for his cerebral palsy inflicted brother. I was aware, previously, that his renowned shadow boxes grew out of his desire to create toy-like amusements for his invalid brother. As a young art student, I would look at his work and admire the way his art could capture a curious moment of unspeakable wonder.  He would put together simple incongruous objects, like a bird’s egg beside an open window in an otherwise empty room. The small spare vignettes would always stop me in my tracks. I would stand before them and gently question my world.

Cornell is considered America’s first real surrealist. He never went to art school or learned to draw and so he expressed his artistic urge through combining images he found in old books or magazines. His use of clippings and found objects inspired other artists to partake of the medium of ‘assemblage.’ Jasper Johns credits Cornell as his inspiration and had a Cornell box hanging in his entrance. Rauchenberg, Rosenquist and many other artists were likewise deeply influenced by and collected Cornell’s unique and original work. It is said that Cornell’s work is what spurred Warhol’s media driven serial silk-screens of Jackie and Marilyn, the electric chairs and so forth.  Warhol declared Cornell to be America’s greatest living artist and he visited Cornell out in Queens numerous times.  So did John and Yoko! And, when they all came to visit him at his modest home, he served them Jell-O. 

Cornell was well revered and well loved. Yet he often declined requests for retrospectives – remaining humble and living frugally until the end. He became a devout Christian Scientist at a young age, perhaps to help cope with his brother’s illness. His religion undoubtedly gave him a metaphysical orientation towards the physical world. Cornell saw through the tangible ephemera of the material world toward a truer spiritual realm of existence. His art was his attempt to point toward this ineffable metaphysical beyond by producing moments of epiphany, irreconcilable correspondences that transcend the mundane and reach for a more vast understanding.

Barkus and Zahedi will attempt to make a film ascetically commensurate with Cornell’s own work. The goal is for the film to look and feel like a Cornell box dreamy, enigmatic, pointed, playful, sad and sometimes menacing. Zahedi is known in cult circles for his groundbreaking experimental cinematic style. There will be overlays, collaged footage, and split screen juxtapositions. Richard Linklater has signed on as executive producer. Linklater, the recent Academy award winner for his film Boyhood, may just see in this film another opportunity to study a young male, who in this case may not fully grow up.

The film’s target audience goes way beyond what we refer to lovingly as ‘the art world’. The story takes place in Cornell’s imaginary mindscape. It will tell of a chaste man who creates art of aching beauty, all the while obsessed with secret longing for an unobtainable girl. Cornell had such a fervent imagination that compensated for his lack of experience and travel. He did a suite of boxes depicting hotel rooms in Paris, even though he never traveled beyond the New York area. Likewise, the filmmakers have mined their own imaginations to propose a script of fanciful ‘what if’s’ in their dramatic retelling of Cornell’s life. 

Would Cornell have even made art if he had lived a life that partook of carnal pleasures? Perhaps not.  Was his life, lived in his mind, a happy and satisfying one? Those are questions that perhaps will never be fully answered, but meaning can be gleaned from his last words to his sister on his death bed. He told her: “I wish I had not been so reserved.”

Barkus and Zahedi are currently casting the film and planning to shoot late summer/early Fall 2016. They are actively seeking funding for this film and have reached out to some of the big players in today’s art world. I am rooting for them.

Words: Lizanne Merrill © Artlyst 2016

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