Thursday 24 October 2002

Mechanic of the ineffable

Joseph Cornell, Untitled (Medici Boy), 1942-52
Joseph Cornell: Untitled (Medici Boy), 1942-52

“Obeying the dictates of the mechanical picturesque, Cornell transformed his workshop into an enchanted assembly line. Turning out box after box, each a slight variation on one of a few basic models, Cornell shows something in common with Henry Ford. Yet he is too restless to fit that comparison for more than a moment. His endless tinkering, the sudden sparks of invention that illuminate his mechanical drudgery, remind me more of Thomas Edison. Like Edison’s, Cornell’s work seems to have been ninety-nine per cent perspiration, one per cent inspiration. Each came up with devices for shedding light, transmitting messages, and rendering memory permanent. They made light, messages, and memory more powerful, and gave us greater control over all three. Both were mechanics. One employed that most elusive mechanical force, electricity. The other channeled the currents of meaning that have pulsed for two centuries through the image-circuits of the mechanical picturesque. Edison’s devices—especially the movie camera—gave some of those circuits physical form. Cornell isn’t quite so down-to-earth. He is the Edison of the ineffable.”

Carter Ratcliff: Joseph Cornell, Mechanic of the Ineffable

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