Joseph Cornell's Theater of the Mind: Selected Diaries, Letters, and Files

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joseph cornell theater of the mind
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Joseph Cornell’s Theater of the Mind: Selected Diaries, Letters, and Files by Mary Ann Caws (Editor)Robert Motherwell (Introduction).

Joseph Cornell is at once a legendary yet living presence in American art. His famous boxes, with their ineffably perfect choice of elements – the stuffed birds, the buttons and toys, the fragments of old theatrical posters, the poignant allusions to the worlds of the 19th century ballet and opera – are some of the most recognizable signatures in all of 20th century art.

This book is the first extended selection of Cornell’s diaries and other written material to be published, and from his writings Cornell emerges as a deeply dedicated and conscious artist, though one whose personality was every bit as unusual as many had perceived. Cornell used his diaries as he used his boxes, to capture and preserve his passing feelings, his momentary urges, and his anguished hesitations. He was an incessant and brilliant recorder of his thoughts as he considered his art, or traveled to New York to haunt antiquarian bookstores and shops where he collected material for his boxes.

We see here his deep immersion in French symbolist poetry and his intense interest in his surrealist contemporaries. We see also his plangent yearning for “les sylphides.” the fairies of the ballet world who seemed to be reincarnated for him in the form of certain waitresses, dancers, actresses, and shopgirls of his own world. Cornell corresponded with an astonishing range of people including Parker Tyler, Marianne Moore, Tony Curtis, Robert Motherwell, and Susan Sontag. His letters were often sent in the form of collages, and several of them are reproduced in this book.

Mary Ann Caws has edited these diaries from a vast and prolix collection of scribbled notes and journals left by Cornell. Her text, which provides an extended introduction to the life and work of Cornell, traces the unique correspondence of the life, the art, and the writings of a great American artist. In addition to John Ashbery’s foreword, an appreciation of Cornell by Robert Motherwell is published here for the first time.