Solomon, art critic for the Wall Street Journal, has written the very first biography of Joseph Cornell (1903-72), one of the world's most elusive artists, and it is a work of compelling perception and glorious inclusiveness. A self-taught artist uncomfortable with traditional mediums, Cornell made provocative collages and reliquary-like boxes, unprecedented creations inspired by his fascination with the quiet poetics of found objects and recycled images, French literature, the magic of movies and dance, and a highly romanticized notion of innocence. Cornell is usually characterized as an isolated genius constructing his beautiful assemblages in the cluttered basement of a deceptively ordinary house on Utopia Parkway in Flushing, New York, where he lived with his shrewish, widowed mother and sweet-natured, handicapped brother. This image of Cornell as an "art monk" is accurate to a point, but--and this is the main thrust of Solomon's eye-opening interpretation--he was profoundly affected by the art world percolating intensely just a train ride away in Manhattan and forged mutually inspiring associations with Marcel Duchamp, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, and Andy Warhol. Solomon also analyzes Cornell's troubled sexuality, his work as a devout Christian Scientist, and his highly influential experimental films. The quiet storm of Cornell's art arose from a conflict of universal significance: the clash between his "spiritual aspirations and sensual compulsions."
From: Patricia C. Johnson, "Critic opens box artist's life with respect" (Review of Utopia Parkway: The Life and Work of Joseph Cornell, by Deborah Solomon. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 1997) published in The Houston Chronicle, 19 June 1997 (http://www.chron.com/cgi-bin/auth/story/content/chronicle/features/books/archives/97/june/cornell.html; viewed 14 July 2005):
Deborah Solomon has written the first full biography of Joseph Cornell, one of the more-coveted but also less-known American artists.
He is the one who created intimate assemblages filled with mundane objects made poetic by his hands. Things as commonplace as a wine glass and cutouts of birds became powerfully allusive inside the hermetic little worlds he constructed late at night on the kitchen table.
...He was born Christmas Eve 1903 in Nyack, N.J... never went to art school... included in the landmark exhibition Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism that Alfred Barr curated for the Museum of Modern Art in 1936.
He was 63, however, before Walter Hopps, as director of the Pasadena (Calif.) Museum of Art, organized his first solo exhibition in a museum in 1966. The Guggenheim Museum followed with a prestigious retrospective in 1967...
He was a Christian Scientist (to his mother's dismay) and urged his brother to convert as well. For many years, he earned his meager income working in the church library.
He was a bachelor who developed romantic attachments to numerous women -- celebrities, especially ballerinas like Fanny Cerrito, a 19th-century dancer he never met, and contemporary beauties like Lee Miller and Audrey Hepburn [a fellow Christian Scientist], whom he really knew. He became infatuated with waitresses and shopgirls...
It is not surprising that film was fascinating to him. What is surprising -- or at least not well known -- is that he not only gathered a prime collection of film stills, but also made movies. In the '30s he spliced found B-movie footage together, then beginning in the 1950s, Solomon writes, he left "the solitude of his basement to work side by side with distinguished filmmakers."
The first project, in collaboration with a young experimental filmmaker named Stan Brakhage, was a terrible disappointment. But then Rudy Burkhardt (who would become a leading filmmaker and photographer) joined him to film in the physical world those images Cornell envisioned behind his eyelids.