Susan Sontag, Tony Curtis and Stan Brakhage all shared an appreciation for the work of American artist Joseph Cornell (1903–1972), and all appear in a 44-minute documentary Joseph Cornell: Worlds in a Box made by Robert McNab for the BBC in 1991. Susan Sontag was also the subject of one of Cornell’s collages, something she discusses here. Tony Curtis collected many of Cornell’s boxes and used to visit the artist when he was in New York; in McNab’s film he discusses their relationship and reads from Cornell’s writings.
I’ve had a tape of this for years courtesy of Kerri Sharp who worked on the film (hi Kerri!) but it’s taken a while to turn up on YouTube. The value of films such as this isn’t so much the view they give of the works themselves—all of which are better judged in books or museums—but the way they function as mini-biographies which give a sense of the environment from which the art emerged. You can read in detail about Cornell’s life in Deborah Solomon’s Utopia Parkway: The Life and Work of Joseph Cornell (1997) but a text description of his home lacks the immediacy of the views McNab gives us of the Cornell house, and the room where he created so much of his work. The film also follows Cornell’s train journeys into New York City, and visits the locations of his short films. Extracts of the latter appear throughout the documentary but you can see them in full at Ubuweb.
If you’re looking for an arty (and costly) Christmas present this year, Thames & Hudson have just published Joseph Cornell’s Manual of Marvels: How Joseph Cornell reinvented a French Agricultural Manual to create an American Masterpiece; two books in a box with a CD, edited by Analisa Leppanen-Guerra and Dickran Tashjian. The NYT reviews it here.