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He had a thing for blue. Also clay pipes and Victorian postcards, ticket stubs, bits of tulle, starfish and old clock parts. He was drawn to automats and secondhand-book stalls, corresponded with ballerinas, filmed pigeons, liked pie.

These are among the oft-repeated facts about Joseph Cornell. Notice, in even so brief a litany, the transition from art to life and back again. Perhaps more than any other artist’s work, Cornell’s is best appreciated in the context of imagining the life of the man. Put another way: what Cornell lovers love most may be not the objects themselves — the evocative boxes, collages, dossiers and short films — but the story of their making, which is the story of an awkward dreamer walking the city, finding treasure in flotsam, spying magic all around.

Since his death, Joseph Cornell (1903-72) has been the subject of more than 20 books, from scholarly explorations of his art and life to poetry and fiction inspired by him. Yet for all the scrutiny and the mulling, he remains elusive, almost chimerical: a figure embraced by the art world even as he rejected the label “artist,” a voyager who never strayed far from home, an idolater of innocence whose work could be eerily erotic. In photographs he is gaunt and unsmiling, almost invariably looking away from the lens. His face appears drawn and deeply lined, as if scored by loneliness, and his lean frame has a tentative look, as though he has yet to make up his mind whether he is meant for this epoch, this planet.

Perhaps a desire to understand this enigmatic man in terms that would count him as one of us explains the seemingly endless flow of literary responses to his work. Best known for his glass-covered box creations, many of them made in tribute to people he idealized, Cornell has elicited just as many tributes himself. John Ashbery, Octavio Paz, Stanley Kunitz and Robert Pinsky all wrote poems for him. He’s been immortalized in music and plays. And many of the books about him — from Dore Ashton’s “Joseph Cornell Album” to Charles Simic’s improbably beautiful “Dime-Store Alchemy” to Jonathan Safran Foer’s anthology “A Convergence of Birds” — could themselves be described in Cornellian terms: collage-like, experimental, quixotic. Even those that take the form of conventionally linear narratives (like Deborah Solomon’s definitive biography, “Utopia Parkway”) tend to carry echoes of the magical qualities associated with Cornell.

The latest addition, Lynda Roscoe Hartigan’s mammoth catalog “Joseph Cornell: Navigating the Imagination,” accompanies the first retrospective of the artist’s work in 26 years, a deliciously bountiful exhibition curated by Hartigan and recently on view in Washington, San Francisco and Salem, Mass. If you missed it, this book really is the next best thing: thorough, lavish, disturbing, beguiling…

This book stands out, too, for being utterly unfey, devoid of the poetic eruptions Cornell induces…those who linger may be rewarded, for it turns out Hartigan has done something lovely. She, too, has modeled a response to Cornell’s work on his own methods, assembling and inventorying a pastiche of the ideas, innovations, people, philosophies and experiences that most likely influenced the artist. She doesn’t navigate his imagination so much as map the explicit tributaries that fed it. And is her map ever detailed…

Hartigan’s esoteric, even idiosyncratic approach — heavily sprinkled with illustrations of places, people and objects Cornell encountered — provides a vicarious experience of the man who was himself an idiosyncratic “browser,” drawn to “nonlinear exploration.” The slow accretion of varied and seemingly disparate influences, which Cornell wove together in such singular, suggestive fashion, also lends weight to Hartigan’s intriguing speculation that he might have suffered from synesthesia, the neurological phenomenon that causes some people to “smell” colors or “taste” letters of the alphabet…The crowning stroke to this mapping of Cornell’s mind is the inclusion, in the bibliography, of some 150 books that are not about Cornell but that were important to him, that nurtured and informed his perceptions. Taken together, the words and images offer the sense that we are apprehending the world from the artist’s perspective, rather than witnessing yet another admirer’s artful display. There’s no fault in such a display. Hartigan tells us Cornell thought of art as “a spiritual gift to humanity.” But what she has fashioned is a gift, too, which feels, in its faithfulness, like a special kind of homage.

Cornell gives us hope. The notion of a curious, wistful man walking the city and turning up treasure in debris, seeing the transcendent in the forgotten, the discarded, the mundane — such a notion is intrinsically hopeful. By inviting us to fathom how he did it, Hartigan brings us one step closer to the promise of our own longings.

Leah Hager Cohen
New York Times

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