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Though since followed by a number of monographs (including Lynda Roscoe Hartigan's beautiful multimedia Shadowplay/Eterniday), Kynaston McShine's thick, satisfying, and unputdownable Joseph Cornell still reserves a special place in my heart as the book that told me it was actually okay to be as quiet, vulnerable, and open to the ineffable feeling of life's passage that I'd spent most of my early adulthood learning how to suppress.
The body of the book is of course a thorough, mostly color catalog of Cornell's enchanting box constructions, but the real grabber is the sparkling, page-turning introduction, an illustrated biography detailing Cornell's vaguely privileged boyhood, his pinched and uncomfortable young adulthood when he became caretaker to his mother and palsied brother in greatly reduced surroundings in Queens, and the shadowbox/soap bubble/wonder cabinet–like artwork into which, for the rest of his life, he poured his depression and nostalgia for... something.
Needless to say, Cornell's celestially ecstatic work is bone-strippingly and mind-expandingly more sophisticated than simple sentimental longing — so much so that he takes on that all-enveloping sense of being one of those artists that only "you" understand — but the nuts and bolts behind it, as presented here, are a compact, inspiring, and companionable introduction for anyone who might have any inclination toward figuring out why we make art at all; Cornell alone shielded the flame of 19th-century humanism from the extinguishing bloviation of paint-slapping modernism in all its "heroism," and for this we owe him our thanks.
Finally, the connections to Christmas (understandably Cornell's favorite holiday) which string through and light up the text here and there are an added surprise and delight, and make it an appropriate gift for the season, as well.
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Chris Ware is the author of Building Stories. He is widely acknowledged as the most gifted and beloved cartoonist of his generation by both his mother and seven-year-old daughter. His Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth won the Guardian First Book Award and was listed as one of the "100 Best Books of the Decade" by the Times (London) in 2009. An irregular contributor to This American Life and the New Yorker, his original drawings have been exhibited in the Whitney Biennial, in the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, and in piles behind his work table in Oak Park, Illinois.
Books mentioned in this post
Chris Ware is the author of Building Stories