The study of Robert Lehrman’s Northwest D.C. home is lined not only with books but with boxes. Nestled into the shelves are works by eccentric 20th-century American artist Joseph Cornell, intimate constructions in which the Victorian pastime of shadow-box-building meets the disjunctive poetry of surrealism. Self-contained and glassed-in, these worlds in miniature teem with birds and ballerinas, star charts and sand, marbles and Medici princesses. It’s an art of collecting, and Lehrman has, in turn, assembled one of the foremost collections of Cornell’s art.
“I have been told that all art is magicit’s a quote from Agnes Martinsome of it so faint you can barely notice it, but some so powerful you can’t ignore it, some dark and some light,” Lehrman recites. “And people have described Cornell’s work as having this white magic, which, frankly, I didn’t fully understand and wondered if it wasn’t a little too”he struggles to find the words”over the top. But then when I went to handle this box…”
He walks to the corner of the room, toward a mid-’50s piece titled An Image for 2 Emilies. It’s one in a series of “dovecotes,” gridded structures whose compartments are reminiscent of those in a pigeon hutch. In each of 12 cells, a blue marble is cradled by the chimney from a tiny hurricane lamp. The piece is an homage to Emily Dickinsonand to a friend of the poet’s, also named Emily, who “would, of course, visit her in her whitewashed New England home in Amherst, Mass.,” explains Lehrman.
“You can see this box has that very bright, whitewashed look to it. And when I went to handle it”at this point, Lehrman lifts the piece from the shelf and gently shakes it, coaxing a glassy tinkling from its contents”[it] just had a white, winter sound, almost like horses’ sleigh bells upon her arrival.”
It’s an astonishing moment. If you’ve viewed Cornell’s work at the Museum of Modern Art or the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, where Lehrman is chair of the board of trustees, you’ve likely peered at it through the walls of a vitrine. It may never have occurred to you that it was made to be touched, that much of it has movable parts, and that some of it was meant not only to be seen, but also to be heard.
Lehrman, an heir to the Giant Food fortune who also practiced entertainment law, began exploring Cornell 20 years ago on the advice of his “art-world mentor,” Walter Hopps, the legendary curator who conceived the Joseph Cornell Study Center at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Once Lehrman acquired his first box, in 1984, there was no looking back.
“I came to the idea that it would be really meaningful to get a great example of each of Cornell’s main themes and variants because they informed each other in a way that…the sum would be greater than the individual parts,” he recalls. “So I set off towards that goal.” Although contemporary art, from Gerhard Richter to Cindy Sherman to Damien Hirst, remains Lehrman’s chief interest as a collector, his Cornell holdings now run to 40 boxes and 25 collages.
It’s rare to find a Cornell book of recent vintage that doesn’t thank Lehrman in its acknowledgments; it’s rarer still to find one that doesn’t use images of work from his collection. A Convergence of Birds, edited by Everything Is Illuminated wunderkind Jonathan Safran Foer, for example, has a particularly fine Lehrman “aviary” (as Cornell’s bird-themed pieces are dubbed) on the cover, and others on tipped-in plates inside. Over his two-decades-plus as a collector, Lehrman has repeatedly become involved in such projects, hosting scholars, lending work, and funding exhibitions. In the case of Cornell, however, he felt compelled to do more.
“After I read Deborah Solomon’s wonderful biography [1997’s Utopia Parkway], I realized I had something I could contribute about the spiritual whisperings that I heard living with the work for all these years,” he explains. So he organized the Voyager Foundation, a nonprofit devoted to art-educational enterprises, and three years ago began work. This fall, in honor of the artist’s centennial, Voyager released its inaugural project, Joseph Cornell: Shadowplay… Eterniday, a heavily illustrated large-format book published with the assistance of New York’s Thames & Hudson.
The volume includes contributions from Hopps; Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, founding curator of the Cornell Study Center; and Richard Vine, managing editor of Art in America. But its real reason for being is secreted inside the back cover: a DVD-ROM that revitalizes the way traditional visual art is handled by digital media.
Thames & Hudson was at first reluctant to include the disc. When the CD-ROM drive was the latest computer peripheral, a number of publishers issued art-related CDstours of the Louvre and London’s National Gallery, even the Barnes Collection. But the photos were never satisfactory, lacking even the fidelity of magazine reproductions. Clicking through the National Museum of American Art’s 1996 CD-ROM, say, wasn’t nearly as illuminating as going downtown for a visitand when it was superseded by the museum’s Web site, anyone with a high-speed connection was unlikely ever to drop it in the drawer again.
Lehrman’s crucial insight was that to understand Cornell as he had come to understand himas an artist who was “trying to reflect his love through his work to share it with the world”one had to come by that knowledge as he had come by it: not by trudging through a museum but by taking up one’s interests, at length and at leisure, in one’s study. By enlisting a crew of professionals ranging from local artwork photographer Mark Gulezian to British multimedia company Cognitive Applications, Lehrman has attempted to offer that collector’s prerogative to just about anybody.
“When it became apparent what we could do with the DVD, the scope grew astronomically from what we originally imagined and budgeted,” he says, “I had to pause and consider the financial implications, which were considerable. And the way I ended up framing it was, Would I rather have one more Cornell box…or would I rather share all of what I know about Cornell’s works…? I thought the latter would be the much more rewarding course.”
Accordingly, the elaborate system of cross-references that allows the user to select his or her own path through the Shadowplay DVD was inspired by Lehrman’s own copy of the catalog to MoMA’s 1980-1981 Cornell retrospective. Although Lehrman missed the show, he has more than made up for it since. “This is the product not of hours or days or weeks but of years of work,” he says, thumbing the catalog, a paperback more worn than a church lady’s Bible and bristling with Post-its and colored tabs.
The disc is filled with amazingly sharp and detailed photos not only of Cornell’s works, but also of numerous examples of his raw materials, ranging from cut-out paper owls mounted on wood to spangly, yellowing Superballs, all of which were assiduously collected, categorized, and filed away in boxes of their own. There is also a plethora of moviesthe artist’s own films, interviews with those who knew him, and a rare documentary.
“I cannot think of a better artist than Joseph Cornell to be the beneficiary of this kind of technology,” says Smithsonian American Art Museum Chief Curator Eleanor Jones Harvey. “He’s perfect for it.”
The aim, of course, is not only to educate, but to skirt the rather serious problem Cornell poses for museum display: His pieces don’t really survive being placed at a distance.
“You know the old scene in the movie where you go to the prison to talk with a person and you pick up the telephone through the glass and the other person picks up the telephone and there’s only 2 inches of glass between you, but something’s not there anymore?” Lehrman asks. “There’s that quality of diminution when Cornell works are put, as they need be for conservation concerns, behind glass.”
For a Cornell, a gallery setting can be better than a museum one, but the situation is still far from ideal. The opening late last month of a show drawn largely from Lehrman’s holdings at New York’s Feigen Gallery, for instance, was packed with art-world luminaries, but there was barely room to move: If you wanted to see the box over in the corner, you had to wait until Christo and Jeanne-Claude were through looking.
Still, it was something of a wonder that most of Lehrman’s boxes weren’t in cases but perched on shallow shelves and fixed in place with friction brackets. It was even more of a miracle that nobody put an elbow through one of them before the evening was out. But it was a disappointment, however unavoidable, to encounter 1940’s L’Egypte de Mlle Cléo de Mérode Cours Elémentaire d’Histoire Naturelle in a vitrine, when just two weeks earlier it lay open to inspection in Lehrman’s study.
The piece consists of a chest containing 12 stoppered bottles, each filled with beads or pigments or, in one case, a photo half-buried in yellow sand. It is a work obviously intended to be handled, the bottles extracted from their case and held up to the light, much as a naturalist fusses over his specimens. And this is exactly what Lehrman was doing: revealing its secrets to his guests.
When he turned to his computer to demonstrate the DVD-ROM, it was this piece he chose to highlight. Clicking on the image of a closed chest, he opened it. He then selected a bottle and picked it up for a closer look. Swiveling the mouse left or right, he turned the bottle on the screen, as if rolling it around between the fingers of an invisible hand. Another bottle, then anotherwriting became legible, obscured contents became visible.
For the noncollector with the right machine, it’s the next best thing to being there, conjuring what Lehrman calls “that quality of heightened consciousness where the world becomes a richer, more beautiful place.”
“It’s not a rarefied experience,” he notes, “and it’s important that it not be seen as necessarily a rarefied experience.” In coming weeks, he’ll take Shadowplay on the road, stopping at venues ranging from Politics and Prose to Art Basel Miami Beach to the Art Institute of Chicago. Each will be a chance to win over an audience for an hour or two, but what Lehrman ultimately hopes his project will pass along is the quiet spiritual resonance that a Cornell yields over time.
“A work of art is like a good friend,” he says. “It gets better with age. And some friends that you grow with offer you far more than you might initially have imagined.” CP