A letter from JOSEPH CORNELL to DOROTHEA TANNING

The sculptor Claire Woolner, in a letter to me from California, quoted from a letter that Dorothea Tanning had written to Joseph Cornell on March 3, 1948. In the letter, she spoke of feelings of revulsion towards most things, wondering how Cornell avoided such. I don’t know how Cornell answered at the time, and I had never asked Dorothea Tanning about her feelings back then when, years later, she and I briefly corresponded. I felt something missing in the record here that I had to supply. So 64 years later I composed this response for him, content to be the amanuensis of so grand and thingly an artist.     RK.

Dear Dorothea,

Revulsion, a terrible word, and I grieve that you find it for things around you, and you ask me (do you ask me?) how I live away from revulsion. I have had the grace to live at some distance from my feelings, though always acutely aware of them—how could I not be, living in this world? But I long ago reasoned that a feeling is just something I feel. At an earlier time I felt some other way. Later I will feel some other way. Why should I privilege this feeling I feel now? I examine it, sometimes I use it to choose or change things around me. Real things. Objects and shapes. Things are my salvation in a way, and I suspect they help you too, the marvelous objects that crowd the people world in your paintings. But feelings are not much help. Things are. I have been called a fetishist, I know, by some of our Freudian friends (can a Freudian be a real friend? Just a thought.). I admit it, I am a fetishist, and my fetish is matter.

People say that I live with my mother. True enough, because a mother is a quiet world, a mother is someone always to be traveling from; from her my body and all its going, so I go, but I keep looking back over my shoulder to see her there, in the quiet Sunday afternoon light of Queens. People say that I live with my mother, but the truth of the matter is I live with matter.

The body is a sheen of glory with nothing inside it. The skin is our panoply and declaration. We artists are so fortunate, because we are the servants and masters of the visual world, the world of shape and color, form and geometry, tension and release, we are the lords and ladies of blank space! And all that happens to fill it! We know that what we see when we look with our artist loving judging smart tender broken eyes, when we look at someone standing there, we see the utter and absolute truth of him. We say: I see you. And that is exactly right. When I look at him, I see him. I see all there is. Poets and psychiatrists and philosophers and other types who do not have the grace of seeing, they talk about personality and character and inner motivation and neurosis and meaning and drives and complexes and memory and desire, they rave on and on about those things and think that such things somehow live inside the person they have before them—the person they don’t know how to see. All that stuff, all that cognitive crap (forgive the coarse word, my dear, mama isn’t looking), is lies. Personality is a lie. Psychology is a lie. People say I make my little boxes (focused environments?) to represent the tumult of repressed images and confusions in me. Not at all. My boxes express nothing but themselves. Don’t people understand that artists aren’t spewing out their guts, they’re adding things to the world. We are increasing the intensity and beauty of matter. And one day matter itself will be perfect and complete, and this will be heaven. Our heaven, because we made it so, and knew it true.

When you look at a man or a woman, there is just this glorious shimmer in front of you, a shimmer that you also are, shimmer looks at shimmer, shimmer shimmers shimmer onto the canvas or into marble (sculpture is an ancient joke, I love it, turning light into stone). That is our work. We can see everything. Sometimes we can even touch what we see, and that is wonderful, because beauty is skin deep. Reality is skin deep. Did you know (who told me this?) that the word skin is the same as the words shine, and sheen, they just came into the language at different times? What we see is the skin of things, and all there is is skin. Go through the skin and you come into a howling nightmare where surgeons and demons torture flesh they imagine into being. But there is nothing there but what we see. God bless you for seeing so much of what is there and so little of what isn’t. Please always be with me in seeing the world and speaking or shaping or singing or limning it into new embodiments. This is what I know, and this is what keeps me happy, happy as I hope you will always be.

Your loving brother,

Joseph

P.S. Give my best wishes to Max—I’m not sure if you should show him this letter—he’s a German, and they believe things have insides. It might shock or disturb him. And there is no virtue in disturbing an artist. Let him follow his nightingale, even if it leads into the imaginary forest inside!

Annandale-on-Hudson, 18 March 2012

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Robert Kelly

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