Unpublished letters, ca. 1963-68, from the artist to his early assistant feature poetic, philosophical musings and collages
“Artist letters such as these are a crucial aspect of our collections,” said Thomas W. Gaehtgens, director of the Getty Research Institute. “They are an important source for understanding an artist’s work – especially of an artist as mysterious and multi-layered as Cornell.”
The letters were mailed over a period lasting from 1963-1968 to Susanna De Maria Wilson, who was then married to Minimalist sculptor Walter De Maria (American, 1925-2013), when she worked as Cornell’s assistant. As the first letter notes, the two met in the spring of 1962, when De Maria Wilson was working at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The letters document diverse aspects of their working relationship, including Cornell’s directions concerning where De Maria Wilson might find source material for his collage and assemblage work, guidance on what kind of images appealed to him, and even sample images.
Interspersed with social notes – holiday cards and thank-you notes – many of the letters are very reflective, offering his thoughts on process, dreams, and mythological ideas. Throughout, the writing is typical of the artist’s allusive and laconic style, although there are surprising moments of humor.
Cornell’s mail is also strongly visual. Even the most mundane letters and postcards appear to have had stamps affixed with great care. Some of the correspondence contain multiple envelopes to be opened in succession, producing a layered experience of reading and viewing. One envelope, stamped February 13, 1964, contains a collage bouquet of pressed flowers and paper angels, especially demonstrative of Cornell’s artistry.
“The aesthetic composition of these letters is as important as the textual content of this correspondence,” noted John Tain, curator of modern and contemporary art at the GRI. ”It is as much a collection of collage work on paper by Joseph Cornell as it is an archive of art historical documents.”
Together with supplemental ephemera, these letters, written when Cornell was 60 to 65 years old, also capture his curiosity about, and his connections to, the art scene in Manhattan during the 1960’s. For example, he inquires about “Happenings” and discusses screenings of films from his collection.
The small archive joins significant collections on surrealism, including earlier letters written by Cornell to his friend, poet and artist Charles Henri Ford (American, 1913-2002). A bibliographic record of the archive will be available to researchers online in late 2014.
The Getty Research Institute is an operating program of the J. Paul Getty Trust. It serves education in the broadest sense by increasing knowledge and understanding about art and its history through advanced research. The Research Institute provides intellectual leadership through its research, exhibition, and publication programs and provides service to a wide range of scholars worldwide through residencies, fellowships, online resources, and a Research Library. The Research Library—housed in the 201,000-square-foot Research Institute building designed by Richard Meier—is one of the largest art and architecture libraries in the world. The general library collections (secondary sources) include almost 900,000 volumes of books, periodicals, and auction catalogues encompassing the history of Western art and related fields in the humanities. The Research Library's special collections include rare books, artists' journals, sketchbooks, architectural drawings and models, photographs, and archival materials.
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