Joseph Cornell – a meeting of minds

Originally posted here

The Museum hosts an unusual blog post about an unusual and supreme object artist. Less about the objects than the neurology, Sonia Boué attempts to explore a like mind.

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Joseph Cornell: Untitled (Multiple Cubes), constructed in 1946-48

Before taking a break away from work and blogging I took in five major London exhibitions over two days and I am still digesting it all three weeks later, on my return from the Americas.

What astonished me was the incidence of neurodivergence I found in my art going foray. For example, I’m certain that two of the three major exhibitions featured artists who demonstrated both in their output and biographies evidence of neurodivergent minds. Perhaps all I am really noticing is the high degree of intersection between artists and neurodivergence. Just to clarify, in using this term I refer to biological differences which alter perception and have been generally considered deficits but which we are merely variations in the human genome bestowing many advantageous qualities, particularly in the arts and sciences where original thought is at a premium.

For a good definition of these terms check this link.

So this blog post will focus on Joseph Cornell, but I have written about Agnes Martin and the autistic spectrum on my blog, The Other Side, which deals with matters neurodiverse.

My inability to keep art out of my neurodivergent blog and vice versa seem to say much about me but also to make my point for me. The intersection is there – I would say it is unavoidable. I would go further – it should rather be approached head on, as we know that neurodivergence has not been recognised, and our contributions to general society and culture remain unacknowledged.

It’s incredibly important to begin to unpick the net worth of this hidden talent in our world. Neurodivergent people have lacked role models and been undervalued for ever. This has to change and the change most logically is being driven from within our community. It is easy for neurodivergent minds to recognise one another at work and this makes it vital for us to write about what we see and know.

In the case of Joseph Cornell I found it astonishing that a quick Google search revealed no hits for autism or Asperger’s – his biography alone allows those familiar with the spectrum of human variation we know as autistic, to recognise many such signs. But then Cornell’s life span did not coincide with advances in the true dissemination of knowledge about autism, it’s range and incidence, which are counter to older and quite inaccurate definitions and stereotypes.

There is also a view that it is wrong to offer retrospective “diagnosis”, which could account for the omissions and lack of investigation that I could find. Honestly – I don’t buy this reticence. As we move further away from medical model views of neurodivergence and understand this as more common biologically driven variations in human experience and perception, the more imperative it becomes to recognise it. Further this ceases to be a case of “diagnosis” and more one of cultural recovery in my view. It seems to me that neurodivergent communities should be welcome to explore this territory. Recognition (as I shall call it rather than diagnosis) only becomes taboo if neurodivergence is viewed as negatively as it has been, but as both our knowledge base and the civil rights movement grows this becomes unviable.

It is also true that neurodivergent perspectives on the life of an artist can bring fresh interpretations to the work. Neurotypical assumptions could be holding back knowledge and understanding in the case of neurodivergent artists.

So my contribution will focus on what I saw and recognised from the perspective of a neurodivergent artist who also works with objects. Aside from the “it takes one to know one” – that is to say the felt response to a strikingly familiar vision – what can I offer in terms of “evidence” for neurodivergence on viewing Joseph Cornell at the Royal Academy?

Well, the heat of recognition felt in the region of the heart can’t be discounted. It’s power and the soaring joy accompanying it were immediate. This is how it often is, and forms the beginning of what then becomes more analytical. You have to describe, even to yourself, why you feel you know you have encountered a like mind. A recent comment by a family member, who is also an art historian by training, comes to mind. She described neurodivergent individuals as “mind dancers”. I’ll hold that thought in my pocket as I try to unpick what I’m getting at.

Much of what I could say about Cornell is not exclusive to the neurodivergent creative so this is not just about the consistently meticulous attention to detail or the extraordinary focus and variation within the forms he employs, nor the rich and quirky language this builds and builds on throughout his career. But the embers of recognition are there in the subjects of journey and relationship – more specifically their sideways approach and otherness when compared to mainstream narratives of travel and romance. They are also present in the creation of a most particular world through his oeuvre, so complete and comprehensive as to be entirely convincing and immersive. I hesitate to say it is hermetic but it does stand alone and apart. Bewitching or enchanting are words I would be happy to use, and I sensed the gently tapping rhythms of a mind dancer at work in casting the spell.

But these are general observations. How about a particular example? When I write about the shows I see I generally do so straight off the bat when my memory for detail is good. Here I’m working with a gap – wider than the three weeks due to all the input from the Americas – so I’m going to go with what now stands out and remains. We know that for neurodivergent people relationship can be different and we are coming to know that this is not lesser, just other. Relationship is often not direct, it may also be not primarily human in focus. Both objects and animals can provide rich sources of contact and emotional mediation and modulation. Human relationship may be to a small group (immediate family and a handful of close friends) and can often be transacted sideways rather than head on, or what we call through side by side approaches or activities.

Of all the myriad exhibits on view, my mind flies to the latter stages of the show where touchingly Cornell pays tribute to Mondrian. Cornell still uses the box form but strips it down to a minimalistic grid – the example shown above is not precisely the one I had in mind but demonstrates adaption and adoption – the moulding and mimicry that can form the basis for neurodivergent interaction. But more significantly Cornell I feel attains an intimacy with Mondrian through these pieces. Rather than reflecting a mere admiration for Mondrian’s Theosophy and a penchant for collecting crates at the time (as Dore Ashton in, A Joseph Cornell Album, Da Capo Press, 2009, suggests) these Mondrian homages speak of a deeper empathic and intuitive experience it seems to me.

It would be easy to dismiss the playfulness of Cornell’s pieces and miss the invitation to the viewer I discerned in so many of his works. These works it seems to me form a basis for interaction, the very font of relationship. We are invited to explore and engage through the exquisite objects Cornell has created. I feel he always has the viewer in mind as his playmate albeit perhaps an imaginary one, the relationship invited feels vibrant and direct. This has to do with the many game and toy references in the works as much as with their placing – just so the viewer’s hand is welcomed in. Again the mind dancer finds joy in infinite variation and association and I sense his rhythm. It cannot be beyond the realms of possibility that the works and objects he employs are about this primary relationship (through which other relationships could be mediated), rather than the other way about.

The Royal Academy arrived at a great hook line in dubbing Cornell an armchair traveller and it is true that this extensive body of works was created in his New York basement. Reference is also often made to his limited or thwarted relationship to women. I don’t really want to comment too much on this apart from to say that these observations too come from a neurotypical perspective.

As a neurodivergent artist it feels important to begin a conversation in which alternative perspectives can be recognised and the interpretation of such an artist as Joseph Cornell can be deepened and amplified.