Joseph Cornell has a retrospective in SF right now and so I have been reading about him here and there. He seems to be the favorite collage artist, if people tempt to name one. Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of his work. While living in San Francisco in the 80s, I saw a nice Cornell box show at Acme Art, run by Richard Polsky.
Then of course there are the fine works at the MOMA. They almost startled me when I first saw them - because I had studied them so much in books and there they were finally. I saw them in winter and to this day, I associate Cornell with the cold. - And the white: perhaps the show to really blow me away was a collection of works all in white by him at Pace. This must have been around 1990 – every work was almost nothing but crackled white paint – pretty impressive.
However. Since then I have come across a million – yes, it seems like a million – artists who use a bird in a box as a launch-pad. It’s very tempting to use an ethereal night-sky in a collage (I’m as guilty as anyone), but much more difficult to make it your own. Of course Joseph Cornell doesn’t own the sky – in fact maybe Max Ernst (below), a more sweeping, exhaustive artist, beat him to it – but it is the challenge of any collage artist to make the methods and materials and images their own. It must speak to his great talent and ownership of imagery, for what I see way too often is that many artists haven’t bothered to do that.
Perhaps I would not be so aware of the million artists if it were not for the Internet. You might think you know one or two (or ten!) artists who think like Cornell, till you get online. For me this exposure has somehow weakened his punch a bit.
It made me think just how easy (or not) it is to copy someone. If you have all the basic ingredients, it’s not that difficult. The proof is out there unfortunately. And this is just another reason why I always keep going back to John Heartfield. Try copying him – it ain’t easy.
The only people who are up to those skills (of shooting their own pictures, resizing, airbrushing, etc) are using a computer - and are probably working on fashion or vodka ads. Technically the work is very unique. It is also peerless in terms of risk.
Years ago I had a fun discussion with a mastermind about subjective vs objective art. At this time, I knew a lot of creative people who stated they preferred a political art. They had a rampant repulsion towards things spiritual, you might say, a reaction against the prevailing new ageism of California at that time. I contended to the mastermind that subjective artists could make some really good art.
“Yes, good art,” he conceded. “But not the greatest art. That’s left for objective artists.” He meant artists like Malevich or Mondrian - and probably Joseph Cornell. - I could not have brought up the inimitable work of Heartfield then, for many reasons. Masterminds need to be always right! But like I said, in retrospect, I think his inimitable qualities speak for themselves.