“Straight” biography (ha, ha) is something I very rarely take up in my reading—I prefer memoirs, personal diaries, and journals whenever possible—and it’s even more rare for me to actually read a bio all the way through, opting instead to read chapters or sections specific to my interests. I had fully expected this to be more or less my experience with Utopia Parkway, currently the only biography available on the life of nonconformist artist Joseph Cornell, but I quickly became so engrossed in the specifics of Cornell’s life that I ended up reading the whole thing. Oddly, it’s probably the closest I’ve experienced to a “page turner” in a good while, and frankly, I could hardly put it down.
Untitled (Penny Arcade Portrait of Lauren Bacall), ca. 1945–46
Art critic and journalist Deborah Solomon certainly had her work cut out for her by taking on this subject. All accounts and analyses of Cornell’s life I’ve otherwise encountered seem to struggle with accounting for his utter unconventionality, and in some accounts he can come off as a whimsical, almost child-like recluse under the domineering thumb of his “dear Mama,” others reify him as a kind of hermit willfully wandering on the fringes of art and society, and yet others emphasize the creepy, voyeuristic aspect of his life, a man whose largely repressed sexual urges were the engine behind his work as he struggled to dominate, at least representationally, the various female figures he venerated as muses. As Solomon demonstrates, Cornell was an extremely complex individual, and all of the above characterizations might contain elements of truth but nonetheless fail to capture the whole. Her portrait of the artist documents all of the individual facets of personality, and demonstrate how they shift and permutate with even the slightest alteration of perspective.
Cornell emerges as an endlessly baffling bundle of contradictions throughout Utopia Parkway, but to Solomon’s immense credit she does a remarkable job of not simply accounting for these “quirks” but regards them from an empathetic perspective that makes them understandable. This is largely achieved by continuously insisting on contextualizing Cornell’s life and the art that it inspired within larger social, cultural, and artistic movements, rather than even attempt to “figure him out,” pathologizing or even diagnosing such an enigmatic subject (though, perhaps inevitably, the study is not completely free from such impulses, especially in the later sections).
One reviewer on Goodreads found this book “kind of a downer, about a sad and very limited life,” a description that rather took me aback, because as we find out through Utopia Parkway, Cornell’s life seems anything but—what is remarkable is how rich of a life he seemed capable of creating for himself, largely within the carefully controlled confines of his own home. Despite any reclusive tendencies, he managed to know just about everyone (from Duchamp to Breton to to Marianne Moore to Toumanova to Sontag to Yoko Ono and just about anybody who’s anybody in between). Which is ultimately what proves to be so inspiring: so many life stories of famous people and artists in particular seem to involve extensive travels, glittering parties, heartbreak and ecstasy in equal ,alternating measure, all of the glamorous, easily romanticized trappings of what many of us to constitute the stuff of “REAL living”—especially when it comes to those we consider geniuses or exceptional individuals in some way. Cornell points to possible alternatives, and how richness of the mind, creativity and great accomplishment can take other forms as well.*
This probably isn’t the ideal place to start one’s explorations of Cornell’s work—it’s much more enriching when one at least has some idea of some of the work Solomon constantly alludes to—but an essential resource for anybody who is already a fan.
*I wrote this review long before encountering Benjamin Kahan’s Celibacies: American Modernism & Sexual Life (2013), but I suspect that this fascinating study would be a very productive place to start such a reevaluation, something I allude to in my thoughts on the book itself.
[This is a revision of a review that was originally posted on Goodreads.]
Kahan, Benjamin. Celibacies: American Modernism & Sexual Life. Durham: Duke UP, 2013.
Solomon, Deborah. Utopia Parkway: The Life and Work of Joseph Cornell. Boston: MFA Publications, 2004. Print.