Bound by Time
Joseph Cornell and Jirì Kolàr at Pavel Zoubok, Arden Scott at Kathryn Markel Fine Arts

CZESLAW MILOSZ INSISTED: “TO EXPRESS THE EXISTENTIAL SITUATION OF MODERN MAN, one must live in exile of some sort.” The final phrase is key. Exile is not solely a function of politics or regimes. We are all east of Eden, nomads among convictions and outcast from our own traditions. For the artist, what matters is to recognize one’s predicament and to fashion from it a cry of the heart.

Joseph Cornell, Le Bouquet Naufrage, 1966-71

In his way, Joseph Cornell (1903-1972), the cenobite of Utopia Parkway, was as much a witness to exile as Czech poet and activist Jirì Kolàr (1914-2002). The collages of both men, plus Cornell’s boxed constructions, are on view at Pavel Zoubok Gallery.

While Cornell remains an icon of 20th century art, Kolàr’s profile as a collagist has diminished. This show suggests reason for the loss of momentum. Viewed side by side, Cornell stands as the more enduring of the two. Kolàr’s work is smart, modish and fastidiously crafted. But Cornell’s totems of enchantment achieve a disquieting beauty that transcends their moment.

Image-making was Cornell’s mother tongue, spoken with the ease of a native son. A committed Christian Scientist, he maintained a wonder in the presence of experience that universalizes his imagery and saves it from becoming a prisoner of transient style. Cornell embraced the displacements and juxtapositions of 1930s and 1940s Surrealism but kept distance from its affinities. His poetically allusive tableaux are playful, poignant metaphors for life lived within time and the mystery of its bounds.  

“English Miner” (1960s) builds on a portrait of a working man, his face blackened with coal dust. His eyes are blue, the color flame turns in the presence of lethal gas. A canary peeks out from under his jacket collar. Potentially facile social comment achieves complexity by the Big Dipper collaged across the photo. The constellation transforms a single man into an emblem of all “poor banished children of Eve” (in the words of the old antiphon), forever at risk and laboring in the dark.

In “Untitled (Dovecote),” late 1940s, tension between the fixed openings and randomly inserted wooden balls invites manipulation. Cornell’s own delight in making things is extended to the viewer who can alter the design (at home, not here) by moving the balls. His “Untitled (Music Box),” 1952-4, asks for a “hard knock” on its distressed surface to set sound going. Like every piece here, it is an ecstasy of ruin and nostalgia that eludes strict categorization. Each boxed Paradise Lost holds a promise of Paradise Regained in its poise, rhythms and tactile harmonies.

Jirì Kolàr, Book-Bottle, 1969

Unlike Cornell, Kolàr was first a man of words. Immersed in Prague’s avant-garde in the 1950s and 1960s, the poet was imprisoned for a year and barred from publishing for a decade. He turned to visual images for tactical reasons, pursuing “the interface between the fine arts and literature.”

Westerners saw his visual art through the lens of the Warsaw Pact, the Hungarian uprising, and the invasion of Czechoslovakia. The bloodied Berlin Wall was in full view when he exhibited at the Guggenheim in 1975 and 1978. Kolàr’s moral courage earned an admiration that the art itself does not quite sustain. Now, the Warsaw Pact is history the and the Wall a scatter of souvenirs. With the frisson of circumstances gone, what remains is ingenuity, a calculated pictorial cleverness yielding little emotive power.

The most satisfying pieces follow Surrealism’s standard cut-and-paste moves. Kolàr’s own subsets of collage — reportage, ventillage, confrontage, rollage — seem less revelatory than nimble dissents from meaning. A bottle or bird house covered with random snippets of text are barren of evocative vigor. An example of Kolàr’s crumplage, “Self-Portrait” (1979), with its collapsed facial structure, looks now like orthodox Surreal self-conciousness. “A Hatter and His Model” (1969) enjoys a slim joke at Courbet’s expense. Old masters and modern ones are skillfully deconstructed. But demolition has a short life span. Art that seeks a way home lasts  longer.

This exhibition coincides with  “Exquisite Surprise: The Papers of Joseph Cornell,” on view at the Archives of American Art, 1285 Avenue of the Americas, through June 15th.


METAPHORS OF ANOTHER KIND are on view at Kathryn Markel Fine Art. Brancusi’s claim that  all sculpture is water could stand as the motto for this exhibition. On show are 8 elegant, abstract distillations of sailing vessels by sculptor Arden Scott. Longitudinal and spare, they range from approximately 3 to 13 feet in length.

A life-long sailor, Ms. Scott lives in Greenport, an old fishing village on Long Island’s North Fork. Engagement with her motifs — the hydrodynamic structure and grace of boats — is visceral. Without replicating any identifiable kind of boat, the work triggers associations with schooners, skiffs, sculls, canoes, longboats or any craft man has devised to journey over water.

Arden Scott, We're Here, 2007

Free-standing, made mainly from bronze or steel, archetypal forms insinuate the architecture of hulls, the thrust of ballasts and riggings. Ms. Scott exploits the malleable qualities of metal with apparent ease. Her welded structures are spare juxtapositions of rods, steel mesh and sheet metal that, in their economy, eliminate mass to convey buoyancy and speed. In some sense, these are not sculptures at all but schematic designs in the air. But the austerity of them is balanced by an equal suggestiveness that lends imaginative weight to works that barely occupy space.

 “Errand Upon the Bay” (2007) and “Semaphore” (2007), with their upturned prow and stern, evoke hieroglyphs of ancient vessels on the Nile. “Colloquy” (2007) is particularly haunting. With steel muted by copper and stretched cloth, it resembles a relic left by primitive mariners.


“Joseph Cornell and Jirì Kolàr” at Pavel Zoubok Gallery (533 West 23 Street, 212-675-4790).

“Arden Scott: Recent Sculpture” at Kathryn Markel Fine Arts (529 West 20th Street, 212-366-5368).

This essay first appeared in The New York Sun, May 3, 2003.

Copyright 2007, Maureen Mullarkey

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