Living Below Ground – Joseph Cornell’s Basement Studio

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*All images: Cornell’s basement studio, 3708 Utopia Parkway, Flushing, New York, 1964.  © Terry Schutté.

Joseph Cornell’s studio was in the basement of his home, located aptly on Utopia Parkway in Flushing, New York. Hidden in the shoe boxes, folders, tins and other assorted organizing containers, was the source material for his art. Each receptacle was painted white and labelled in Cornell’s hand and indicated what was inside. These include descriptive labels, “Watch Parts,” “Love Letters,” and “Seashells.” But Cornell also used more poetic phrases for organizing his source material, such as “Centre of a Labyrinth,” “Celestial Theatre,” and “Childhood Regained.” Inside these boxes and files were assorted objects, images, newspaper clippings, and other archival material that was collected with dedication.  While other artists use paint, marble, or other mediums – Cornell used the detritus of life to create his artwork.

But what do we make of Cornell using his basement as a studio? Cornell did not live alone in the house on Utopian Parkway. Sharing it with his mother and brother, one can imagine space was tight. Where Virginia Woolf, in her extended essay “A Room of One’s Own,” claimed that space was needed to write – one could easily expand Woolf’s concept to include the artist. In the lowly basement, Cornell claimed the space he needed to create his work.

The use of a basement for his studio makes me think of the interiority of his work. A basement is typically limited to small windows, if there are any at all. From the first picture above, we can see Cornell’s studio had at least one window. And yet, Cornell created these miniature universes within six-sided shadow boxes. These containers work like windows into small constructed spaces, and isn’t that what windows do? Compose a view out into the world? Contained and interior, much like a basement, Cornell’s boxes afford the viewer an access point into the interiority of Cornell’s life. Both window and world.

 

 

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