On October 21, 1953, Joseph Cornell (American, 1903–1972) visited an exhibition of modern art at the Sidney Janis Gallery in New York and was enthralled by one work, The Man at the Café (1914), by the Cubist artist Juan Gris (Spanish, 1887–1927).
An oil on canvas with newspaper collage, this mysterious image depicts a man "covered almost completely by his reading matter," as Cornell wrote in his diary. Its dramatic play of shadows, glowing colors, and faux wood-grain surfaces captured his imagination, and over the following 13 years, he produced 18 glass-fronted boxes, two collages, and one sand tray in homage to Gris—the largest series that Cornell dedicated to any one artist. The leitmotif of these works is the image of a white-crested cockatoo, based on an engraving from William Thomas Greene's Parrots in Captivity (1884).
Cornell's series, with its bird, conspicuous shadows, and accompanying collage elements, revels in verbal and visual aviary puns, as well as allusions to the life of Gris, whom Cornell considered "a warm fraternal spirit." This exhibition brings together, for the first time, the original work that inspired Cornell and twelve of his Gris boxes.
The Man at the Café is a promised gift to The Metropolitan Museum of Art from the Leonard A. Lauder Cubist Collection. Birds of a Feather: Joseph Cornell's Homage to Juan Gris inaugurates a series of focused dossier exhibitions inspired by a work in the Lauder Collection and organized under the auspices of the Leonard A. Lauder Research Center for Modern Art at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
This exhibition is also made possible by the Eugene V. and Clare E. Thaw Charitable Trust.
The Man at the Café is the largest collage by Gris, and the only one to feature a human figure. Inspired by the fictional criminal mastermind Fantômas, popular in serial novels and silent films, Gris humorously captured a shady character hiding his face, his fedora casting an ominous shadow. The newspaper article, cut and pasted from Le Matin, reads, "One will no longer be able to make fake works of art," although Gris himself attempted to trick the eye with the wood-grain paneling of the café interior.
Cornell's Gris boxes include various collage materials that mimic this image: the French newsprint and mastheads, trompe l'oeil wood grain, and black cut-paper silhouettes. They also subtly reiterate the blue, yellow, and orange accents. The white plumage of the cockatoo that inhabits these boxes even "parrots" the brimming foam of the man's beer.
In the initial boxes in this series, Cornell took up Gris's play with shadows, dividing the bird's "projection" between its upper and lower halves. In Homage to Juan Gris, the black cutout, though split midway (a classic Gris maneuver), becomes more bottle than bird. As in many of the boxes, a real piece of wood serves as the bird's perch, which sits, Cubist style, on a round table indicated by the wood-grain printed paper.
Cornell's renewed interest in cut-and-pasted papers was a direct response to Gris's collages. The artist lined his cockatoo boxes with pages from 19th-century French texts that he found in Manhattan bookstalls. The masthead he used most was that of Le Soir, or the evening news, a witty reversal of Le Matin, the morning news, that Gris pasted into The Man at the Café. Other elements that characterize the Gris boxes are fragments of floral wallpaper, marbleized paper, and commercial labels; particular to this box is the extensive use of mirrors and glass.
This box is named for Josette Herpin, Gris's companion. In November 1959, Cornell dreamed of a "blue cockatoo" and explained in his diary that "Josette came to life." The artist knew of her two portraits by Gris, where she sits in a black armchair, the contour of which mimics the projected shadows of Cornell's first cockatoos. He was likely inspired by the blue hues of her bust-length portrait—reproduced in Douglas Cooper's book Le Goût du solennel (on view in this gallery)—for the colored silhouette in this box.
This box contains fragments cut from a reproduction of Gris's collage The Breakfast (1914): the bird joins the table at this morning repast, in which the Cubist artist inserted himself by adding his own name, visible beneath a newspaper headline. Here, again, Cornell incorporated the name of the Hôtel de l'Etoile, likely a punning reference to the star (l'etoile) of the series, Juan Gris—and the white-crested cockatoo.
Joseph Cornell, Homage to Juan Gris, 1953–54. Box construction. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Purchased with the John D. McIlhenny Fund, 1976. Image © The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY