Thursday, January 21, 2010

37-08 Utopia Parkway

Joseph Cornell (1903-1972)
Medici Slot-Machine, 1942
Box construction with painted glass.

Betty Benton was a good friend of my grandparents’. She and her husband, Jack, lived for many years on an adjoining duck farm in Westhampton. As a child Betty studied art with Edward Hopper, but it was her older brother, Joseph Cornell, with great support from his sister, who went on to artistic acclaim. Joseph (1903-1972) and younger brother Robert (1910-1965), who had cerebral palsy, lived most of their lives at 37-08 Utopia Parkway in Flushing with their domineering mother (d. 1966) and annually visited Betty and Jack, as well as their sister Helen Jagger, on Long Island. My father remembers both Robert and Joseph being in Westhampton. According to his biography, "Cornell shared close relationships with his siblings, and was especially attached to his brother whom he took care of as an adult."

In 1964, my grandfather, an avid collector of antique toy trains, received this letter from Robert, also a collector of trains, after a visit to Utopia Parkway:
March 7, '64

Dear Charlie,

I want to thank you for helping to make February 23rd a wonderful day for me and the rest of the folks--a day to be remembered for years on end! I don't know where to start. It was grand to see Fran, you, Betty and my new friend--Henry.

He certainly had a lot of interesting things to tel us. Gee--I wish I had a tape recorder that day!! At last we got together. Can't wait to see you again sometime in the near future. Joe Ranker--the big fellow--has been wanting to meet you for a long time.

Now let me thank you for the large Lionel dump car. It has been cleaned and oiled and looks just great. My "line" of 200 series cars grows apace.

Your trolley cars sure did "steal the show." I was glad to see Joe's "Presidents' Special" set--Never thought I'd live to see one outside of a catalog--a real one. The Trolley and the Special were all "show stoppers"--Let us say. Your items are in remarkable condition. A lot of collectors would like to be in your shoes!

Am glad you say my new shelves--on the wall over my desk--they are a wonderful place for storage and display. Thank you again very much for the Lionel car and for all you did for all of us. Hope we have another "Meeting" sometime.

Please give my very best to Fran and everyone.

My Great Aunt Helen was an early scholar of Cornell’s work, writing her masters thesis on Cornell's Medici Slot-Machine at the University of Iowa in 1978. The version archived here includes a note of approval and appreciation from Betty. In 1981, Helen published a version of this article on Cornell in Arts Magazine.

Included in this online Cornell archive at the Smithsonian is a wonderful article on Cornell by his friend and admirer, the poet, Mina Loy, who writes, “It was a long aesthetic itinerary from Brancusi’s ‘Golden Bird’ to Cornell’s ‘Aviary.’ The first is the purest abstraction I have ever seen; the latter the purest enticement of the abstract into the objective.”

Mina Loy on Joseph Cornell, 1950

From the notes on the Joseph Cornell Papers:
After Robert's death in February 1965, Cornell created a series of collages in his memory, many of which incorporated his brother's drawings of animal characters. In January 1966, he exhibited some of these collages, alongside a selection of Robert's drawings, in a show at the Robert Schoelkopf Gallery, "Robert Cornell: Memorial Exhibition."
. . .
Estate Papers provide insight on the exhibition and sale of Cornell art works after his death; the disposition of his belongings (including art work, papers, books, records, and source material); and [Elizabeth] Benton's efforts to foster and safeguard the memory and legacy of Cornell. The Robert Cornell Papers include correspondence, writings, art works, photographs, printed material, and scattered financial and personal records, documenting the full and creative life Robert led despite being confined to a wheelchair. Their inclusion in the collection suggests the family's effort to foster Robert's memory.
In addition, the poet Elizabeth Bishop was a great admirer of Cornell's work, making this painting in homage to the Medici Slot-Machine:

"E. Bishop’s Patented Slot-Machine" [watercolor and graphite on paper, 7 7/8" wide x 9 7/8" high] (Benton 77)

The catalog description of the painting notes:
The slot-machine fascinated Bishop, who wrote about it in her poem "The Soldier and the Slot Machine":

Its notions all are preconceived.
It tempts one much to tear apart The metal frame, to investigate
The workings of its metal heart,

The grindings of its metal brain,
The bite of its decisive teeth.
Oh yes, they decorate the top
But not the underneath.

Written in the 1940s, the poem was rejected by The New Yorker at the time, and finally published in Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box (2006). Bishop mentioned her rapture at first seeing Joseph Cornell’s Medici Slot Machine while she was an undergraduate at Vassar in an interview with Elizabeth Spires in 1978.

Joseph Cornell papers, 1804-1986, bulk 1939-1972. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institute.

James S. Jaffe Rare Books,

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