These Shadow Boxes Are Striking. The Story of Their Origin Is, Too.

Joseph Cornell’s “Homage to Juan Gris,” 1953–54. His shadow boxes are the focus of “Birds of a Feather: Joseph Cornell’s Homage to Juan Gris,” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Joseph Cornell, the homebody artist known for his glass-fronted shadow boxes, made no secret of his infatuations. He openly dedicated his works to other artists, preferably dead or distant ones who originated in different centuries and countries. His own life was less glamorous than theirs. He spent his adulthood in Flushing, Queens, in an ordinary wood-frame house that he shared with his mother and younger brother. Working in his cramped cellar, he arranged five-and-dime objects into richly poetic tableaus that prove that sometimes it’s better to think inside the box.

Birds of a Feather: Joseph Cornell’s Homage to Juan Gris,” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is a small, hyper-specialized, stunning exhibition that seeks to track the fluttery ways of artistic inspiration. It occupies just one gallery, bringing together a dozen boxes by Cornell and a Cubist masterwork that he cited as their direct inspiration. Juan Gris’s “The Man at the Café,” of 1914, a painting adorned with scraps of glued-on newsprint, might seem like a surprising fascination for Cornell, who was neither a painter nor a Cubist. He and Gris never met. They did not inhabit the same city or even the same continent.

But Gris came to inhabit Cornell’s thoughts in the fall of 1953, a time when you could still make the rounds of the Manhattan galleries in the space of an afternoon. Chancing upon “The Man at the Café” in a group show at the Janis Gallery, Cornell was riveted by this image of “a man reading a newspaper at a cafe table covered almost completely by his reading material,” as he noted later in his journals.

The sentence is ambiguous. Was Cornell saying that the tabletop was strewn with papers? Or rather that the man was hidden behind the opened pages of his newspaper? Either idea accurately describes the Gris painting. Rendered in dramatic contrasts of mustardy yellow and powder black, “The Man at the Café” is one of those hide-and-seek Cubist compositions whose flattened and diligently tilting planes conceal as much as they reveal. After a few seconds of looking, your eyes start to pick out figurative details — the outline of a man’s hat, the curve of his left shoulder, the coal-black shadow cast by his body on a back wall. You can read the headline of his morning newspaper (Le Matin), although presumably morning has passed. A mug of beer is on the table, pressed against a yellow triangle that hints at the day’s last light.

Most striking is the fastidiously painted surface of the tabletop. It could almost pass for a plank of real wood. The wood grain seems to be of a higher order of reality than either the collaged-on snippets of newspaper or the human figure who is represented. The man lacks the sharpness, the physical thereness, of the objects around him.

Cornell, too, was a shadow of a man who read voraciously and disappeared into his books. As the writer Susan Sontag, a friend of his, once observed, “Cornell seemed to be a person who lived in his head rather than in his body.” He no doubt felt a temperamental affinity with Gris’s idiosyncratic version of Cubism, which was more cerebral than Picasso’s, more measured, less an evocation of omnivorous appetite than of calm and patient craftsmanship.

Much about Gris’s life appealed to the part of Cornell that valorized the marginal. A Spaniard who settled in Paris, Gris was the overshadowed, tag-along third in the Cubist triumvirate that featured Picasso and Braque. By the 1950s, Picasso was an international celebrity posing bare-chested for photographers at his villa in Cannes, but Gris didn’t live long enough to garner worldly perks. He died of uremia in 1927, at the age of 40.

Cornell always worked in series, and his Juan Gris boxes, of which there are more than a dozen, would consume him intermittently from 1953 into the ’60s. They’re easy to recognize. They stand about 18-inches tall and feature the same attractive bird — a paper cutout of a great white-crested cockatoo that the artist lifted from a 19th-century British book on ornithology. Gris’s influence at times asserted itself with remarkable specificity. For starters, Cornell adapted the telltale human shadow that appears in the upper right of the Gris painting. Cutting out silhouettes and reverse silhouettes from black paper, and pasting them to the back wall of his boxes, Cornell equipped each bird with an inseparable companion.

At other moments, the Gris influence feels more generalized, especially in the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s magnificent “Homage to Juan Gris” (1953-54). The interior is wallpapered with pages from a French history book, as if to lend the bird never-ending hours of reading pleasure. The lesser boxes, by contrast, lack such unity. In “Untitled (Juan Gris Series),” circa 1953-54, the familiar cockatoo rests amid bare white walls, and assorted paper cutouts — including the bird’s shadow — lie in loose disarray on the bottom of the box, as if the artist became distracted and forgot to finish what he had started.

Its presence is understandable in a show that aims to offer a complete inventory of Cornell’s Gris-themed boxes — and to thereby initiate a new series of “dossier exhibitions” under the direction of the Met’s Leonard A. Lauder Research Center for Modern Art. The Cornell show was conceived, at least partly, to draw scholarly attention to Gris’s “The Man in the Café,” which entered the Met as a promised gift from Mr. Lauder.

Curated by Mary Clare McKinley, the show has been given a wonderfully elegant installation. The boxes are displayed toward the center of the room, in four glass vitrines. This allows you to admire the nifty verso embellishments. Two tall windows in the gallery overlook Central Park and create the possibility that a real bird (though probably not a white-crested cockatoo) might wing into view.

In the end, Gris’s influence on Cornell’s art was relatively limited. Cornell’s greatest works —- the blue-hued Medici boxes from the 1940s, the palaces twinkling in European forests — were already completed by the time he stumbled upon Gris’s masterwork. It was Surrealism, not Cubism, that first alerted Cornell to the power of art, and which gave him permission to devise a style in which common objects could be made to shed their usual meanings and acquire an aura of jarring strangeness.

On the other hand, it is moving to think of Cornell’s late-life embrace of Cubism, though not the textbook version of Cubism, with all that implies about cold analysis and a fixed program designed to compress multiple views of an object into a single image. What’s interesting is the way Cornell came at Gris from an unfamiliar aisle of appreciation.

He never exactly explained it, but I suspect his attachment to “The Man in the Café” was rooted in its realistic-looking wood grain. Standing in front of the Gris, for a second I saw the squarish shapes of the tabletop and the newspaper combine into a long rectangle tilted at a 45-degree angle — a wooden plane rising out of shadow to the forefront of the picture. The uncanny part was that the rectangle had the scale and timbered texture of a Cornell box. Perhaps Cornell described Gris as “a warm fraternal spirit” because the painting shows a man in the midst of tinkering with a wooden box.

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