cover image Dime-Store Alchemy: The Art of Joseph Cornell

Dime-Store Alchemy: The Art of Joseph Cornell

Charles Simic. Ecco, $19.95 (77pp) ISBN 978-0-88001-303-1

It's hard to do justice to the charm and power of Joseph Cornell's boxes. His reliance on collage, indifference to technical display, and Surrealist mining of private obsession make him very much a modern artist, yet his work also brings to mind bourgeois parlors, the tidy vitrines of collectors, and the odds and ends children carry around for comfort and distraction. It is an art at once hermetic and matter-of-fact, sophisticated and simple. Appropriately, this study is neither a straightforward critical account of Cornell's art nor a merely literary embellishment of it, but rather a parallel text: written by Simic ( Hotel Insomnia ), one of our best poets, it includes his own poems and reminiscences, as well as quotations from a variety of other writers. Simic mingles biography and critical discussion with selections of writings from the artist's notebooks. The book emerges as a piece of writing constructed along the enigmatic lines of Cornell's art. And that art, as Simic sees it, gathers from the scattered pieces of the American past a new, redeeming reality; at heart, this art is a religious practice. Only seemingly random, Simic's approach develops both the plain detail of Cornell's life and illuminates the nature of his work. Illustrations. (Dec.)