Gazing Fixedly Upon Infinity: Joseph Cornell and Marcel Duchamp

Prior to the emergence of Warhol, Basquiat, Fluxus, and Pop, and decades before the well-meaning arbiters of effete fetishism began resurrecting the posthumous oeuvres of what is now, for better or worse, rendered as “outsider art,” Joseph Cornell and Marcel Duchamp consciously set themselves at the periphery of the artworld.

Although neither might be considered an “outsider” by today’s psycho-social standards, each certainly charted a course through the realms of artworld alienation – Duchamp trading the game of art for the game of chess and Cornell forsaking, well… just about everything for a life of subterranean frugality and self-neglect; both seem to have been content in moving their pieces around at the margins (both literally and figuratively). This shared sense of estrangement might even have been what brought these fellow Surrealist ascetics together. And yet, beyond a short-lived attempt at collaboration (Cornell assisting briefly with Duchamp’s Boîte-en-valise project), Cornell and Duchamp seem to have maintained their mutual admiration, for the most part, from afar.

Despite their shared distain for aesthetic definitions, labels, and movements, the image worlds of the American idolater and the French iconoclast followed separate trajectories – the former an orbit through the mythic cycles of the cosmos, the latter a course into the arbitrary mechanics of desire. Through a brief look at the choice of media, sense of aesthetic rhythm, and use of iconography in Cornell’s Cassiopeia 1 and Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (or: Large Glass), the discrete image worlds of these found-item visionaries are fleetingly revealed.

According to Ecke Bonk’s description in Joseph Cornell / Marcel Duchamp…In Resonance, both served as “a re/minder of our quintessential amnesia: the unforeseeable turbulences of the centripetal and centrifugal dynamics of cultural oblivion . . . as the vortexes of deletion and frequent chance operations control the re/dis/coursing.” Careful study of Cornell’s obsession with these “vortexes of deletion,” in comparison to Duchamp’s reliance upon “frequent chance operations,” allows a significant distinction to be made between these two seminal postmodernists.

For Joseph Cornell, rebellion against the “dynamics of cultural oblivion” found creative direction in his natural tendency towards the artifact and the archive. While drifting about the labyrinthine streets of New York as a fabric salesman, Cornell occasionally found himself with some time on his hands between appointments. During these free moments, he explored various second hand shops and used-book stalls in search of tiny treasures. Perhaps originally as souvenirs to entertain and delight his mentally handicapped brother Robert, these trinkets from the outer world soon evolved into the icons with which Cornell expressed his sensitive, fanciful imaginations of the inner world. In many ways a clairvoyant archaeologist, these “finds,” unearthed from the sediments of neglect, became enriched with private meaning and figurative value.

In stark contrast to the “slice the eye with a razor” posturings of the more established Surrealist movement, Cornell nurtured the more innocent symbolic qualities of nonobjective assemblage. In her analysis of his choice of materials Lindsay F. Noble writes: “Cornell interpreted and developed [healthier] possibilities by using similar images – borrowing from the Surrealist vocabulary – but putting them to an entirely different use. His aim was to connect, not to disconnect, to establish relationships.”

This invitation to convivial dialogue is implicit in many of his works, but few are as accessible and articulate in their communication as Cornell’s Cassiopeia 1 (ca. 1960). A rather small work of assemblage (9 7/8 x 14 7/8 x 3 3/4 in.), the diminutive size of the box in no way diminishes its impact on the viewer. The miniature quality of the box quite literally requires the viewer to approach the artist’s world (become immediately intimate with the environment) in order to enter into the piece.

Within the confines of the box, Cornell allows a glimpse into the spinning shambles of a dream world. Spiraling out from the center (indicated by the blue glow of “Tycho’s Nova”) the viewer is whirled through the constellation of Cassiopeia, past Taurus and Orion, along the silver orbital path of a luminous white sphere, to briefly rest in the lower right corner beside the sleeping (or dreaming) head of a soap bubble pipe. This stasis is not maintained for long as the mirrored sides, top, and bottom draw the attention back towards the center, pulling the viewer further and further in.

In this piece Cornell’s disintegrating architecture suggests an exposed ruin, a squat-house window-seat with an excellent view of the night sky. The walls, ceiling, and floor of this miniature room are faced in mirror, bouncing light, reflecting, remembering, and echoing the astral tones of black, blue, and white. The black of the infinite and the blue of stellar transition, heaven, the cosmic sea, are balanced in contrast by the white of the moon-sphere, the soap bubble pipe, and the ghostly border which both separates and connects the lower portion — the physical realm — to the stars above. Expanding and contracting, the entire scene flows forth, cloudlike, from the unconscious, sleeping head of the soap bubble pipe.

From this milky edge, the head of Taurus bursts forth into the region of the stars. Evoking the myth of the Minotaur’s labyrinth, the image of Taurus allows a symbolic escape from the deteriorating world of walls into the spiritual realm. Cornell, perhaps coming to a realization of himself as the “artificer,” Daedalus (and perhaps privately aligning himself with the Icarus figure of his brother Robert), implies a release from the maze. Cornell’s is a flight from the chaos of “cultural oblivion,” towards the emancipation of an imaginary, immortal existence.

The animation of Taurus in turn activates the image of Orion. We are reminded that it was the skin of the ox, which through divine assistance, gave birth to the great hunter, Orion. This episode is echoed in the silver shafts supporting the white, lunar globe in the upper third of the construction, describing both the orbital path of the moon and the arrow of Artemis that, at the jealous challenge of Apollo, was shot into the heart of Orion.

Following the current back into the center of the piece, Cornell confronts the viewer with a cold, scientific representation of the constellation Cassiopeia in contrast to the figurative images of Taurus and Orion that invite allegorical contemplation. This apparent skip in the aesthetic rhythm redirects our the attention to the mysterious, glowing presence of “Tycho’s Nova.” While initially serving as a focal point, an axis of rotation, and as a fulcrum for the balance of the orbits of the various astral bodies, the words, “Tycho’s Nova,” eventually bring the spiraling to a stop.

The evocation of Tycho Brahe’s discovery of a supernova within the constellation of Cassiopeia in the year 1572, introduces the element of time into the equation. Cornell thereby reminds the viewer that Cassiopeia was involved in the discovery that the heavens went beyond the moon, were not stationary and immutable but were subject to change. In addition to turning the focus away from the spiritual realm back towards the physical realm, Cornell also seems to make a tentative, arcane reference to Tycho Brahe’s subterranean observatory. The evocation of the underground observatory, perhaps also referring to Cornell’s own basement studio, returns the viewer’s attention to the bleak environment of the box. Cornell’s tour of the heavens is complete…or so we assume. For although the “interior” cosmos of Cassiopeia I describes Cornell’s theory of relativity in concise enough terms, the work is further acted upon by images hidden on the “exterior” of the box. Perhaps exercising a magical influence on the piece from beneath the surface, the images on the reverse serve to complete the unfinished issue of Cassiopeia’s symbolic importance.

Within the northern hemisphere of a star-chart, the regal likeness of Cassiopeia is walled off, surrounded by a blue barrier reminiscent in shape to the white border on the other side. And below the stellar discs to the lower left are blue rectangles depicting the trails of two comets, astronomical phenomena that have been (from the dawn of human history) connected with the unknown, the divine, and the eternal.

In a conclusive motion of lyrical conjuring, a spell cast, perhaps, by the marble gaze of the enthroned queen, a small group of stargazers is shown gathered around a telescope. And following the trajectory of the lens diagonally to the right, a label bearing Joseph Cornell’s inverted signature is discovered. As the final ingredient in the enchantment, Cornell attempts to fuse with the box, literally drawing an aspect of his own being into the very essence of it. In so doing, Cornell alludes to the alchemy of his art and the multidimensional trinity of space, time, and matter.

Another magician of metaphor and symbol, Marcel Duchamp attempted to portray the relationship of the physical to the spiritual in a somewhat grander scale. Rising above the viewer (109 1/4 x 69 1/8 in), Duchamp’s Large Glass (ca. 1915) requires the viewer to step back in order to appreciate the piece in its entirety. The slender, metallic lines of its architecture rise from the ground like the towering glass façade of a postmodern skyscraper. In contrast to the passive, ethereal presence of Cornell’s ruinous shell, Duchamp’s Large Glass confronts the viewer with a frenzy of technical complexity.

Duchamp, like Cornell, abandoned the Surrealist aesthetic rules of dissonance and immobility, replacing what he found to be a rather mirthless Surrealist lexicon with his own brand of coded, tongue-in-cheek iconography. Perhaps anxious not to limit the multiplicity of interpretation, he continually tinkered with his own definitions and visual nomenclature. Using these plastic “phrases,” Duchamp constructed the allegorical narrative of this piece. If Cornell’s Cassiopeia 1 might be considered as the alienated romanticism of a lyric poet, Duchamp’s Large Glass represents the technical intellectualism of a bawdy-house comedian.

Outlined in a note titled, “Preface,” within the disjointed pages of his compendium of notes on the Large Glass project, Duchamp writes:

Given: 1. the waterfall [and] 2. the illuminating gas, in the dark, we shall determine (the conditions for) the extra rapid exposition (=allegorical appearance/ allegorical Reproduction) of several collisions seeming strictly to succeed each other according to certain laws, in order to isolate the Sign of the accordance between this extra rapid exposition (capable of all the eccentricities) on the one hand and the choice of the possibilities authorized by these laws on the other.

By applying the concepts of Duchamp’s “given conditions” to an analysis of the piece, the viewer can begin to align the images to a vague, subjective conception of meaning. In contrast to the self-referential simplicity of Cornell’s Cassiopeia 1, this piece offers a flashing glance into the complicated, chance occurrences that are explicitly exposed within the viewer’s mind.

In much the same way that Cornell’s spiraling rhythm connects the physical with the spiritual, so too does Duchamp create a circular relationship between the lower section — the masculine, physical system of the “Bachelors” — and the upper section — the feminine, spiritual system of the “Bride”. The two sections, separated by a horizontal barrier (recalling the silver shafts supporting the moon in Cornell’s box), continue to communicate and influence each other through a circuitous flow of reference from section to section, apparatus to apparatus.

This convoluted interplay of parts is emphasized by Duchamp’s choice of media. According to art critic Linda Dalrymple Henderson, in order to “remove the hand of the artist,” he applied such impersonal, “unorthodox materials as lead wire, lead foil, and dust, in addition to the more conventional oil paint and varnish of lead wire and oil.” The lines, carefully interwoven into the various forms of the piece, were filled in with opaque tints and oil. This choice of lead and oil further accentuates the sense of industrial substance that allows these shapes to appear solid, especially within the Bachelor’s vicinity.

The weight, substance, and complexity of the lower section, by contrast, makes the upper section containing the Bride appear light, suspended in the air. This delicate equilibrium is reinforced by the use of perspective and the implication of a supportive surface upon which the machinery rests within the lower section. Floating in the upper section, the Bride, and the cloud emanating from her, are rendered without volumetric depth. This flat, two-dimensional condition of the Bride heightens her dramatic presence and exaggerates her mechanistic profile. Describing this issue of variable perspective, Henderson writes, “[Duchamp] thought of his image of the Bride as the ‘shadow’ of a three-dimensional Bride, who was, in turn, the shadow or projection of a four-dimensional Bride.” In comparison to the structures employed in Cassiopeia 1, we see that Cornell’s composition also relies upon a juxtaposition of three-dimensional, physical objects against two-dimensional forms. The “moon ball” set against the stars, and the mysterious cloud emanating from the bubble pipe both serve to focus the viewer’s attention on this shift in perspective.

Henderson interprets Duchamp’s use of dimensional shift as an exercise in geometric relativity: “He defined the Bachelors’ realm as ‘measurable’ and made up of ‘imperfect’ forms, in contrast to the Bride’s implicitly perfect forms and topological freedom from measure . . . the Bride [is] a four-dimensional creature, ever beyond the reach of the Bachelors, who are confined in a three-dimensional perspective construction.” While their movements are limited to the area below the belt, so to speak, their influence is felt throughout the piece.

The lower half of Large Glass is frenetic in its implied movements; machinery and gears overlap and cross on either side of each other as if a well-ordered, clockwork merry-go-round. To the left side stand the Bachelors, milling about, as would a gang of hooligans. Their distinctive, Cubist-like forms give away their identities. Included in the bunch are (clockwise from the top): a priest, an undertaker, a policeman, a stationmaster, a busboy, a servant, a cavalryman, a gendarme, and a delivery boy. Just as the rotating action in Cornell’s work originates within the arc of Cassiopeia’s nine principal stars, so too does Duchamp’s masculine mobile lurch into motion, initiating the production of meaning within the mind of the viewer.

The animation of the Bachelor machine allows the lower region processes to begin. The tubes attached to each Bachelor lead to an arching array of cones in the background. In the foreground, a cage suspended on runners, complete with a water-mill wheel, is attached to (what appear to be) a pair of giant scissors. These scissors in turn serve as the catalyst to the motion of a chocolate grinder. Like an electric dynamo, this chocolate grinder seems to generate power and transmit its current through a four-layer lens focused upwards towards the nethers of the Bride. This lens system (serving a similar purpose to that of the “Nova” in Cornell’s box) acts as a metaphysical gateway for the influence of the Bachelors upon the Bride.

Directly above the lens system and to the left side of the “cloud” (“Milky Way”), nine small holes are drilled into the glass. These holes indicate the voyeuristic presence of the Bachelors and also allude to a forced entrance into the Bride’s space. This cloud is often discussed within critical literature as the Bride’s “orgasm,” or as a kind of exhaust from her engine. On the other hand, we might also consider this cloud, containing three dangling windows, as a “dream sequence,” a structure close to Cornell’s cosmic cloud pouring out from the head of a bubble pipe.

These three blanks in the oily murk of the Bride’s “dream sequence” are actually the representation of a trio of delicate hankies that Duchamp had hung above a radiator and allowed to waft upon the warm, rising air. These shapes are captured here within the Bride’s orgasmic dream and seem to float above the radiant heat (the passionate desire) of the Bachelor machines flowing up from the lower section.

In striking opposition to the complexity of its involved, technological form, the Bride appears to remain still, arrested, shadow like in its chiaroscuro interplay of light and shade. The fragile asymmetry of its form balances above the entire scene like a teetering skeletal constellation. The anatomical precision of the Bride’s form, in contrast to the dark, rusty red, robotic Bachelors, further personifies the Bride’s presence and transcends her two-dimensionality.

This orchestration of perspective and form creates and maintains the conversational relationship between the upper and lower sections. In contrast to the spiral rhythm that comes eventually to a rest in the center of Cornell’s piece, the interaction of Bride and Bachelors in Large Glass appears to describe an eternal rotation. The open, infinitely interpretable “frequent chance operations” in Large Glass serve as a unified working model of the universal balance of opposing forces.

Through his use of eviscerated imagery and impersonal media, Duchamp attempts to distance himself (and the viewer) from the act (and result) of creation. Cornell, on the other hand, relies upon a personalized spiritual magic in order to reveal these opposites and connections. He enters into his art, endowing it with the essence of his existence in an attempt to symbolically suspend the “vortexes of deletion.”

However, for the imaginative viewer still languishing in the “unforeseeable turbulences of cultural oblivion,” both of these two formulas of balance, union, and allegory allow a momentary deciphering of chaos – though one calls it change, the other calls it chance.