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Cockatoo with Watch Faces)" (circa

Cockatoo with Watch Faces)" (circa 

Poetic Theaters, Romantic Fevers

SALEM, Mass., July 7 — “Star-light, what is star-light, star-light is a little light that is not always mentioned with the sun, it is mentioned with the moon and the sun, it is mixed up with the rest of the time.” That’s Gertrude Stein in the “Rooms” section of “Tender Buttons,” her great, splintered portrait of interior space evoked through light, emotions and memory.

Her portrait might easily be of a person, the American artist Joseph Cornell (1903-72), a poet of light; an architect of memory-fractured rooms; a connoisseur of stars, celestial and otherwise. He was an archivist of time, immersed in it, buoyed up and pulled down. All of this comes through in the dusky retrospective of his collages and shadow boxes at the Peabody Essex Museum here.

Much of Cornell’s art is spun from the past, a past that was arcane even in his day. The names Rose Hobart, Henriette Sontag and Fanny Cerrito — B-movie actress, 19th-century soprano and Romantic danseuse — mean little or nothing now. But they meant the world to this intensely shy artist, who lived on sweets, worshiped forgotten divas and made portable shrines to them — his version of spiritual art — in the basement of the small house he shared with his mother and disabled brother in Flushing, Queens.

He was also an artist alive to modern culture. His contemporaries saw him as America’s first surrealist, and self-taught at that. He was passionate about automats, New York City pigeons, Balanchine, Mallarmé and Hollywood. A born fan, his idols included Geraldine Farrar, Mary Baker Eddy, Lauren Bacall, Susan Sontag and Yvette Mimieux. Although he created his work in isolation, it had a popular following and influenced generations of American artists.

Cornell still inspires affection. But maybe affection is not quite the word. Curiosity is more like it, shading into voyeurism. His work gives off provocatively contradictory signals: it is guileless but sophisticated, occult but self-revealing, sweet and corrupt.

The Peabody Essex show, “Joseph Cornell: Navigating the Imagination,” is a full survey of his career. The sunk-in-darkness installation plays up the underground, lunar aspects of Cornell’s art and life, but there was sunlight in the picture too. The oldest of four children, he was born to a family of means in Nyack, N.Y. He was a bookish, daydreamy boy. The family home was a house to dream in: a rambling, turreted Queen Anne pile overlooking the Hudson. He could see the river from his bedroom, and birds, and a sky full of stars at night.

This idyll ended when Cornell’s father died in 1917, leaving Cornell’s mother in debt. She sold the Nyack home and moved the children to a succession of small houses in Queens, the last being at 37-08 Utopia Parkway. Cornell spent his life there, in the company of his mother and his younger brother Robert, who was born with cerebral palsy.

Feeling responsible for his family, Cornell took a full-time job straight out of high school in his father’s trade, the textile business, starting as a sample salesman in Manhattan. He hated it; the social interaction was agony for him, and he developed punishing migraines. As an antidote he became a convert to Christian Science and spent his work lunch hours alone in the used-book shops that lined Fourth Avenue below Union Square and in art galleries. At one, the Julien Levy Gallery, he came across collages by Max Ernst, zany cut-and-paste things combining high art and popular images.

By this time, in 1931, Cornell had accumulated a stash of comparable images: advertisements, fashion shots, antique prints, art-history reproductions, photo spreads of singers and starlets. After seeing the Ernst pieces he made collages of his own, working at night on the kitchen table. Then, in a convulsive gesture of self-assertion, he showed them to Mr. Levy, who at first saw Ernst knockoffs. Then he realized how different Cornell’s work was: romantic, not sardonic; sensual but not overtly sexual; sophisticated but unearthly. The gallery was about to open a survey of new Surrealist art from Europe. Levy added Cornell to the mix, and with that began a 40-year career.

A few years later, in 1936, Cornell made the first of many shadow boxes, his “poetic theaters.” Alfred H. Barr Jr. was looking for American artists for his exhibition “Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism” at the Museum of Modern Art. He consulted Mr. Levy about Cornell. And Mr. Levy, who had taken to promoting the work as toys for adults, advised Cornell to make something uncharacteristically large and eye-holding for the occasion.

He did: “Untitled (Soap Bubble Set).” Its components, recessed behind glass, included a doll’s head, a bird’s egg, a clay soap-bubble pipe, a print of Galileo’s tower at Pisa, an antique map of the moon. Childhood, nature, fantasy, science, space. Most of the essential ingredients of Cornell’s art are here.

The piece was an instant success. And if it wasn’t really Surrealist, that was O.K. Cornell rejected that label and all others. Somehow he floated above eras and fashion. Duchamp was an admirer in the 1930s; De Kooning was in the 1950s, when the expressionist nature of Cornell’s work became apparent. In the 1960s Warhol recognized him as a proto-Pop artist. And everything about him, from his fixation on childhood to his play with gender to his mix of fantasy and darkness to his outsider/insider allure, makes sense today.

In 1940 Cornell finally left his job and accepted some freelance design gigs for glossy magazines like House & Garden and Vogue, freeing up most of his time for art. An avid collector of silent films, he now made some of his own, though without touching a camera. Instead he took readymade Hollywood footage and images by younger contemporaries like Stan Brakhage and Rudy Burckhardt and edited them into something new, with marvelous results. (Several of the films are in the show, which is organized by Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, chief curator of the Peabody Essex.)

His love for ballet blossomed. So did his infatuation with some of its new stars, like Tamara Toumanova, she of the “large, handsome, deadly face,” as the dance critic Edwin Denby described her.

Cornell was in a Romantic fever. Images of dance and fruitful, often submarine nature mingled in his work. Boxes encasing Toumanova memorabilia — her hairpins, a scrap of tulle from her tutu — became erotic keepsakes and reliquaries. Not since Degas had transience, the outstanding feature of dance, been so lavishly honored.

Then, in the 1950s, the style of the boxes changed. They become spartan, geometric, almost abstract, as if Cornell had suddenly turned his eyes from Fokine to Mondrian and De Chirico. The illumination shifts from sunlight or stage light to moonlight. Humid summer becomes chill, bracing winter.

These pieces, referred to as Aviaries or Observatories, often take the form of white structural grids set against a dark background, sometimes spattered with images of comets and nebulae. Some boxes are all but empty; others are packed with rows of identical objects. Theaters have become meditation chambers or columbaria, places of self-composure, self-restraint, self-denial.

An ethereal box titled “Toward the Blue Peninsula,” from around 1953, was inspired by the image of the upstairs bedroom in Amherst, Mass., where Emily Dickinson did her writing. The image is of an empty space, half-caged, half-open, with a window looking out at a twilight sky. The title comes from a Dickinson poem that begins: “It might be lonelier/Without the Loneliness/I’m so accustomed to my Fate.” And ends:

It might be easier

To fail — with Land in Sight —

Than gain — My Blue Peninsula —

To perish — of Delight

What was Cornell’s blue peninsula? A reputation as a modern artist? He had gained that. A relationship? Remote and unrequited devotion was his custom and what he could handle. The celebrity valentines he concocted over the decades — to Garbo, Hedy Lamarr, the Austrian actress Tilly Losch — attest to that, as do certain vaguely creepy, Dargeresque works with dolls. In the 1960s he hired studio assistants, several of them young women on whom he developed crushes. They didn’t stay long.

By then Cornell was pulling away from the New York gallery world, though life in Flushing didn’t change. He bickered with his mother, read to his brother and worked in the basement listening to music: Satie, Debussy, Berlioz. (“Le Spectre de la Rose” was surely his song.)

Robert died in 1965, his mother the following year. Cornell stayed alone in the house. People dropped by; a visit to Utopia Parkway became an art-world trophy trip. He made more collages and fewer labor- intensive boxes. His involvement in Christian Science intensified; his attention to housekeeping declined. He spent time in his garden, but sometimes he just opened his kitchen window, scattered seeds on the table and let sparrows fly in.

He began to invite neighborhood children in to look at his art and play with his boxes if they liked. He had always preferred to exhibit his art in marginal places: in schools rather than in a museum like the Modern, which he considered “pretentious.” (Deborah Solomon’s 1997 “Utopia Parkway: The Life and Work of Joseph Cornell” is especially moving in its accounts of his interactions with children.)

“Act so that there is no use in a center,” Gertrude Stein wrote in the opening line of “Rooms.” She did so with her cut-loose language. Cornell did so too. His reticent, riotous art, nursery size, ambiguous in meaning, ambivalent in gender, essentially religious in disposition, sent tremors through the monument called secular modernism, helped break up and scatter its ideals of bigness, highness and lastingness. Many of the most interesting artists today are in his debt.

At the same time he fought hard to preserve a center, a personal one: a vision of childhood as an imagined perfect past. That was his blue peninsula. He spent a lifetime focused on it, trying to keep the center firm, an effort that demanded ceaseless concentration, painful self-sacrifice and a saving gift for self-delusion. To admit that that past was truly unreachable, or worse, that it never existed, was to perish of despair.

So he continued his quest, and if it was lonely, well, most quests are. That was what art was for. When you are born lost at sea, without compass or directions, you learn to navigate by the sun and moon and stars, those gorgeous baubles. You follow what light you have. You make your own.

“Joseph Cornell: Navigating the Imagination” remains at the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Mass., through Aug. 19. It will then be at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art from Oct. 6 to Jan. 6.

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