NARRATOR: This is just a little box lined with paper cut from sky charts and maps of constellations. In it you see a few small objects: a cork ball, some glasses . . . Yet the artist, Joseph Cornell, has given this small work a large title: he calls it Celestial Navigation.
DEBORAHSOLOMON: He is trying to remind us of the transporting character of the heavens. The way they can carry us someplace else and move us through space in our minds.
NARRATOR: Deborah Solomon is an American art critic and journalist. Cornell, she points out, led a life which from the outside must have seemed quiet, even boring.
DEBORAHSOLOMON: For most of his life he lived with his mother and his handicapped brother in their small framed house on Utopia Parkway in Queens. Cornell was no bohemian, just a gaunt man in drab clothes whose days were spent mainly in his basement workshop.
NARRATOR: Yet Cornell traveled great distances—in his imagination.
DEBORAHSOLOMON: On countless nights, Cornell stood in his backyard looking up at the heavens and felt transported by that experience. He could walk into his backyard and identify the individual constellations, but, of course, that is not the feeling we take away from his work. It’s not a science lesson. The works really are about the experience of daydreaming. And that was pretty much how Cornell spent his life.
He would wander Manhattan with a big brown paper bag, filling it up with all sorts of things that he found in old bookstores and curio shops. And he collected old photographs and old objects and also, of course, much of his material, even though it looks old, was actually new because most of his material probably came from Woolworth’s, where he bought the marbles and cordial glasses that he used in his boxes, as well as the cork balls. So even though the objects in his boxes look jewel-like and very previous, most of them were purchased for under a dollar.