"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice
Category: Lost NY

Dime-Store Alchemy: The Art of Joseph Cornell


Joseph Cornell is one of my favorite artists and Charles Simic is one of my favorite writers so you can imagine how thrilled I am to present a few excerpts from Simic’s charming—and irresistible—volume, Dime-Store Alchemy: The Art of Joseph Cornell (NY Review of Books). Reprinted with the author’s permission, and illustrated with photographs by fellow Manhattan-wanderer, Bags, along with a few of my own pictures and collages. Enjoy—Alex Belth]

From Dime-Store Alchemy: The Art of Joseph Cornell

By Charles Simic


I have a dream in which Joseph Cornell and I pass each other on the street. This is not beyond the realm of possibility. I walked the same New York neighborhoods that he did between 1958 and 1970. I was either working at lowly office jobs, or I was out of work spending my days in the Public Library on Forty-second Street which Cornell frequented himself. I don’t remember when it was that I first saw his shadow boxes. When I was young, I was interested in surrealism, so it’s likely that I came across his name and the reproduction of his art that way. Cornell made me feel that I should do something like that myself as a poet, but for a long time I continued to admire him without knowing much about him. Only after his death did he become an obsession with me. Of course, much had already been written about him, and most of it was excellent. Cornell’s originality and modesty disarm the critics and make them sympathetic and unusually perceptive. When it comes to his art, our eyes and imagination are the best guides. In writing the pieces for this book, I hoped to emulate his way of working and come to understand him that way. It is worth pointing out that Cornell worked in the absence of any aesthetic theory and previous notion of beauty. He shuffled a few inconsequential found objects inside his boxes until together they composed an image that pleased him with no clue as to what that image will turn out to be in the end. I had hoped to do the same.

Old Man Strut Bags

man in coat bags


He looked the way I imagine Melvilles Bartleby to have looked the day he gave up his work to stare at the blank wall outside the office window.

There are always such men in cities. Solitary wanderers in long-outmoded overcoats, they sit in modest restaurants and side-street cafeterias eating a soft piece of cake. They are deadly pale, have tired eyes, and their lapels are covered with crumbs. Once they were something else, now they work as office messengers. With a large yellow envelope under one arm, they climb the stairs to the tenth floor when the elevator is out of order. They keep their hands in their pockets even in summertime. Any one of them could be Cornell.

He was a descendant of an old New York Dutch family that had grown impoverished after his father’s early death. He lived with his mother and invalid brother in a small frame house on Utopia Parkway in Queens and roamed the streets of Manhattan in seeming idleness. A devout Christian Scientist, he was a recluse and an eccentric who admired the writings of French Romantic and Symbolist poets. His great hero was Gérard de Nerval, famous for promenading the streets of Paris with a live lobster on a leash.



Poe has a story called “The Man of the Crowdin which a recently discharged hospital patient sits in a coffee shop in London, enjoying his freedom, and watching the evening crowd, when he notices a decrepit old man of unusual appearance and behavior whom he decides to follow. The man at first appears to be hurrying with a purpose. He crosses and recrosses the city until the aimlessness of his walking eventually becomes obvious to his pursuer. He walks all night through the now-deserted streets, and is still walking as the day breaks. His pursuer follows him all of the next day and abandons him only as the shades of the second evening come on. Before he does, he confronts the stranger, looks him steadfastly in the eye, but the stranger does not acknowledge him and resumes his walk.

Poe’s is one of the great odes to the mystery of the city. Who among us was not once that pursuer or that stranger? Cornell followed shop girls, waitresses, young students “who had a look of innocence.” I myself remember a tall man of uncommon handsomeness who walked on Madison Avenue with eyes tightly closed as if he were listening to music. He bumped into people, but since he was well dressed, they didn’t seem to mind.

“How wild a history,” says Poes narrator, is written within that bosom.” On a busy street one quickly becomes a voyeur. An air of danger, eroticism, and crushing solitude play hide-and-seek in the crowd. The indeterminate, the unforeseeable, the ethereal, and the fleeting rule there. The city is the place where the most unlikely opposites come together, the place where our separate intuitions momentarily link up. The myth of Theseus, the Minotaur, Ariadne, and her thread continue here. The city is a labyrinth of analogies, the Symbolist forest of correspondences.

Like a comic-book Spider-Man, the solitary voyeur rides the web of occult forces.

Bags Vinyl


Somewhere in the city of New York there are four or five still-unknown objects that belong together. Once together they’ll make a work of art. That’s Cornell’s premise, his metaphysics, and his religion, which I wish to understand.

He sets out from his home on Utopia Parkway without knowing what he is looking for or what he will find. Today it could be something as ordinary and interesting as an old thimble. Years may pass before it has company. In the meantime, Cornell walks and looks. The city has an infinite number of interesting objects in an infinite number of unlikely places.



What Cornell sought in his walks in the city, the fortune-tellers already practiced in their parlors. Faces bent over cards, coffee dregs, crystals; divination by contemplation of surfaces which stimulate inner visions and poetic faculties.

De Chirico says: “One can deduce and conclude that every object has two aspects: one current one, which we see nearly always and which is seen by men in general; and the other, which is spectral and metaphysical and seen only by rare individuals in moments of clairvoyance

He’s right. Here comes the bruja, dressed in black, her lips and fingernails painted blood-red. She saw into the murderer’s lovesick heart, and now it’s your turn, mister.

bags laundry


Around the boxes I can still hear Cornell mumble to himself. In the basement of the quiet house on Utopia Parkway he’s passing the hours by changing the positions of a few items, setting them in new positions relative to one another in a box. At times the move is no more than a tenth of an inch. At other times, he picks the object, as one would a chess figure, and remains long motionless, lost in complicated deliberation.

Many of the boxes make me think of those chess problems in which no more than six to seven figures are left on the board. The caption says: White mates in two moves,” but the solution escapes the closest scrutiny. As anyone who attempts to solve these problems knows, the first move is the key, and it’s bound to be an unlikely appearing move.

I have often cut a chess problem from a newspaper and taped it to the wall by my bed so that I may think about it first thing in the morning and before turning off the lights at night. I have especially been attracted to problems with minimum numbers of figures, the ones that resemble the ending of some long, complicated, and evenly fought game. It’s the subtlety of two minds scheming that one aims to recover.

At times, it may take months to reach the solution, and in a few instances I was never able to solve the problem. The board and its figures remained as mysterious as ever. Unless there was an error in instructions or position, or a misprint, there was no way in hell the white could mate in two moves. And yet…

At some point my need for a solution was replaced by the poetry of my continuous failure. The white queen remained where it was on the black square, and so did the other figures in the original places, eternally, whenever I closed my eyes.



If you love watching movies from the middle on, Cornell is your director. Its those first moments of some already-started, unknown movie with its totally mysterious images and snatches of dialogue before the setting and even the vaguest hint of a plot became apparent that he captures.

Cornell spliced images and sections from preexisting Hollywood films he found in junk stores. He made cinema collages guided only by the poetry of images. Everything in them has to do with ellipses. Actors speak but we don’t know to whom. Scenes are interrupted. What one remembers are images.

He also made a movie from the point of view of a bust of Mozart in a store window. Here, too, chance is employed. People pass on the street and some of them stop to look in the window. Marcel Duchamp and John Cage use chance operation to get rid of the subjectivity of the artist. For Cornell its the opposite. To submit to chance is to reveal the self and its obsessions. In that sense Cornell is not a dadaist or a surrealist. He believes in charms and good luck.



People who look for symbolic meaning fail to grasp the inherent poetry and mystery of the images,” writes René Magritte, and I could not agree more. Nevertheless, this requires some clarification. There are really three kinds of images. First, there are those seen with eyes open in the manner of realists in both art and literature. Then there are images we see with eyes closed. Romantic poets, surrealists, expressionists, and everyday dreamers know them. The images Cornell has in his boxes are, however, of the third kind. They partake of both dream and reality, and of something else that doesnt have a name. They tempt the viewer in two opposite directions. One is to look and admire the elegance and other visual properties of the composition, and the other is to make up stories about what one sees. In Cornell’s art, the eye and the tongue are at cross purposes. Neither one by itself is sufficient. It’s that mingling of the two that makes up the third image.



It’s raining on Utopia Parkway. The invalid brother is playing with his toy trains. Cornell is reading the sermons of John Donne, and the box of the Hôtel Beau-Séjour is baking in the oven like one of his mother’s pies.

In order to make them appear aged, Cornell would give his boxes eighteen to twenty coats of paint, varnish them, polish them, and leave them in the sun and rain. He also baked them to make them crack and look old.

Forgers of antiquities, lovers of times past, employ the same method.

Bags Shadow


It ought to be clear that Cornell is a religious artist. Vision is his subject. He makes holy icons. He proves that one needs to believe in angels and demons even in a modern world in order to make sense of it.

The disorder of the city is sacred. All things are interrelated. As above, so below. We are fragments of an unutterable whole. Meaning is always in search of itself. Unsuspected revelations await us around the next corner.

The blind preacher and his old dog are crossing the street against the oncoming traffic of honking cabs and trucks. He carries his guitar in a beat-up case taped with white tape so it looks like it’s bandaged.

Making art in America is about saving one’s soul.



New York Minute


New York, New York. 

New York Minute


From my pal Kevin Baker:

That is, our past. Not only the refusal of white people to live with people of colour, but their conviction, running back through the history of the US, that any black space is not legitimate – that whatever black people own can and should be expropriated by whites, if they so desire it. During the second world war, this idea of white primacy sparked one of the worst race riots in American history, after white people insisted not only that Detroit’s federal housing built for war workers be segregated, but that all of it be turned over to white residents.

The riot was no anomaly. During the first world war, in 1917, another white-on-black race riot all but annihilated the black community of East St Louis, Illinois. A few years later, armed white mobs (backed by local law officers) razed to the ground the all-black Florida towns of Ocoee and Rosewood, and the prosperous black Greenwood section of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Scores of black people were killed in these onslaughts. Greenwood was burned to the ground as airplanes dropped incendiaries on the neighbourhood. Some 10,000 African Americans were left homeless.

These flourishing black communities were erased not only from physical existence, but also from living memory. Bodies were hidden, accounts censored and the survivors scattered or intimidated into silence. To this day, we don’t know exactly what happened, or how many people died.

One of the most vibrant communities in black America vanished just across the street from where I lived almost all of my adult life. Until a few years ago, I had no idea it had ever been there. Soon after I graduated from college in 1980 – at almost the exact time the federal government joined a lawsuit by the National Association of Coloured People (NAACP) against the city of Yonkers – three friends and I moved into an apartment on West 99th Street on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

[Photo Credit: Damon Winter/The New York Times]

New York Minute


Come out and plaay-yay. 

New York Minute


Found over at Kottke, this is most cool. 

New York Minute


Night Visions by Martin Lewis, found at the always-stellar This Isn’t Happiness.


New York Minute


Class is in session. From the most excellent Notes on New York. 


Where & When: Game 69

Welcome back for yet another challenge from Where & When! This one was a challnge in itself to find, which I will explain in a little bit (and I have to wonder if it’s worth the trouble to find it for what I intended to set up with it…) Well, for now:

Where & When Game 69 Okay, so here we are in one of our favorite places to look for vintage architecture and associated stories.  There is another picture floating around that faces the front side of these buildings and contains the subject of our two-part bonus.  For now, let’s you and me figure out where we are and when this took place.  Plenty of clues to help you here, so I don’t need to add anything, you’ll figure it out relatively quickly if I know you folks >;)

Now for the bonuses…

The first bonus relates to a particular business and resource that happens to be one of the best friends of this feature.  Sure, they’re not around anymore, but they have provided an enormous wealth of records about this city’s past as well as other cities; all of which officially reside in a very important place (very important if you’re into copyright law, in fact).

The second, which is the cause of my angst for the past few days (you can say I was trying to be cunning), relates to the title of this post. There is a place that exists off-screen at this location today. If you know the location, then you know exactly what I’m talking about.  The timing is perfect, and with what Fearless Leader has been sharing with us of late on the Banter, it can’t be more appropriate.  What’s on you’re mind, sir? >;)  (Feel free to roll your eyes when you find the answer, I just couldn’t pass up the opportunity for such an elaborate reference, even if it is sophomoric.)

You know the drill, find the answers, explain your math, root beer float  or hot chocolate depending on the weather for the winner, cream soda or tea for the rest of us, slice of Motorino Pizza or a great cupcake for the bonuses (I just threw those last two in there since I’m in such a “giving” mood).  Gotta go to work (you might spy me under an aerial lift near Grammercy Park this evening); I hope this was worth the effort.  Enjoy!

And no peeking at this: Photo Credit: Skycraper City

Where & When: Season 2 Game 13

Welcome back for another intermittent game of Where & When.  We hope that the winter hasn’t gotten you too bogged down in slush and cold; if it has, we can try to warm you up with this little challenge:

Where & When S2 Game 13

What I like about this picture is that it’s taken in front of a significant building and a significant landmark, yet we see what surrounds those features, giving a full sense of character to the neighborhood as it was at the time.  I believe you’ll be surprised by the location, especially compared to what exists today (clue).  I’m not going to give too much on this because those with good wit will be able to find this almost immediately, but again you’ll have to put on your work gloves and your thinking cap for this one (which is always my goal, thus he long intermission between games >;)

So have at it; A large mug of cocoa for the winner (location/date) and rum chocolate candy for the rest.  Bonus for identifying the two significant landmarks I mentioned earlier (as they were at the time the picture was taken), double bonus for those whom can identify what buildings are standing in place of the ones pictured here.  Hope it doesn’t take you too long to figure out, but also hope you enjoy the journey.  Talk with you later, have fun and no peeking at the credit!

Photo Credit: Ephemeral New York

Where & When: Season 2 Game 11

Happy New Year! Welcome back to another round of Where & When; where distinction knows no clock or calendar.  Nevertheless, I know some of you have been waiting patiently for the next game to pop up randomly; to that end you can thank Mr. Alex Belth for his fervent support for the game by referring a new source to me to pick from.  Already I can tell I can find some worthy places to highlight; to wit, here is the latest post for the newest year:

Where & When S2 Game 11 When I was a temp, I worked “up the block” from this address. There is a lot of history not only to this particular region, but the address in general; especially within my current career field.  What can I add to this particular post? How about a hint: no bull.

So you know the deal, figure out where this is and when the picture was taken, and bonus brownies if you can give us any particular information about the building featured as to why it is a standout feature among other buildings in the region.  First person with correct or nearly correct (as the case may be) will get a large and steamy mug of hot chocolate with whipped cream, and the rest of us who play will share a piece of rum-infused chocolate to keep us warm.  Have fun, folks, no peeking at the link (but if you come across it during your research, it’s okay).  See you again at or after the HoF announcement!

Photo Credit: Once Upon A Town

Where & When: S2 Game 5

Well now, how about another round of Where & When? We’ve had a pretty good week with some interesting challenges, and I certainly would like to keep that run going.  So everyone grab their root beer mugs and their cream soda flutes and follow me:

Where & When S2 Game 5Plenty of clues in this one and definitely a set year this photo was taken.  So what I’d like for you to find out are the names and locations of the low building in the foreground and the tall building in the background as well as the name of the general area, plus the evident year this photo was taken.  As usual, a cold mug of root beer to the first person to give us all the answers and how they determined them, and a tall glass of cream for the rest of us.  I’ll be checking in throughout.  I think this is a pretty easy one, so no bonus today unless you come up with something really interesting about something in the pic or some event that occurred in the general region at that time.

Have fun and don’t peek at the credits!

Photo credit: Wired New York

New York Minute

Bronx Boys book - University of Texas Press, 2014

Stephen Shames’ Bronx Boys. 

New York Minute


Droppin’ some NYC. 

New York Minute


Here’s some goodness from our chum Kevin Baker:

Many consider the destruction of New York’s original Pennsylvania Station in 1963 to have been the architectural crime of the twentieth century. But few know how close we came to also losing its counterpart, Grand Central Terminal, a hub every bit as irreplaceable. Grand Central’s salvation has generally been told as a tale of aroused civic virtue, which it was. Yet it was, as well, an affirming episode for those of us convinced that our political culture has become an endless clown-car act with the same fools always leaping out.

“In New York then, I learn to appreciate the Italian Renaissance,” said Le Corbusier of Grand Central. “It is so well done that you could believe it to be genuine. It even has a strange, new firmness which is not Italian, but American.” It was not seen as such by its owner, New York Central Railroad, which viewed it mostly as a cash cow. As early as 1954, the Central proposed replacing the terminal with something called The Hyberboloid — an I. M. Pei monstrosity that, at 108 stories and 1,600 feet, would have become the world’s tallest building at the time. There was enough public outcry that a scaled-down Hyberboloid was built instead just north of Grand Central, where it was retitled the Pan Am (later the Met Life) Building. Even at a lesser height, it proved every bit as grotesque as promised.

Still unsatisfied, New York Central proposed in 1961 to build a three-level bowling alley over Grand Central’s Main Concourse, which would have required lowering the ceiling from sixty feet to fifteen and cutting off from view its glorious blue mural of the zodiac. This, too, was stopped. Foiled again, New York Central resorted to plastering the terminal with ads and bombarding travelers with canned Muzak, complete with commercials, over the public address system.

[Photo Credit: Boris Yale Klapwald/Brain-Ink]

Where & When: Game 54

Well I guess it’s about time for another Where & When.  The last couple of games have been pretty interesting if I do say so myself, here’s hoping I can keep that ball rolling (as opposed to what the Yanks defense did last night) with his, as it turns out, rather dour entry to the canon.  I dedicate this one to our rather illustrious Gloomy Guses of the Banter:

Where & When Game 54I’m going to spare you a whole lot of drama on this one, because unless you’ve got a real eye for details you’re likely not going to get a clue within this picture of where this can be.  It’s in New York, in a place that would become very well known and lit up with activity starting a few years after this picture was taken (in fact, it was sort of already lit up at this point, but not nearly as much as it would be in the ensuing years).  In the direct center of this picture, a person who would become world renown and whose works would become synonymous with the neighborhood was born in a room in the building to the left of the lamp post. The picture was taken about nine years after his birth. Also, relative to what yesterday’s game ultimately was, the region would change it’s name in a few years and in time begin a tradition that endures to this day.

I’m tasking you with naming this region and the year this picture was taken.  I know it’s a long shot, but if you consider the clues I’ve given you, you won’t suffer as much.  Bonuses to whomever determines (my logic for one) the name of the person I refer to being born in the building I pointed out, the name of that building in particular and how this is relative to the people I dedicated the game to today (in jest, naturally).  It’s a long season as we fairly predicted it would be, so we gotta keep each other up until reinforcements arrive (and hopefully not by postponing the future yet again).  Root beers, cream sodas, floats and brownies, all that.  You know the routine, let’s do this like Leeroy Jenkins.

PEACE!!! >;)

[photo credit: MCNY Blog]

Where & When: Game 53

Here we are again with another Where & When! (That dumb rhyme was unintentional; it happens.) Speaking of happens, it just so happens you might get this without looking too hard, but I was inspired by the old and almost equally lost neighborhood play:Where & When Game 53

An interesting, if far from glorious picture, but I will link to some of the glory from this location after you figure out where this location actually is.  I don’t have an actually reference date for this photo, so for the when let’s go with what you know about the location.  For the bonus question, tell us two prominent features near the location that still exist today (you’re either gonna laugh or tsk me this one).

So you know the rules; show your work and complete answers, first one to he finish line gets the frosty mug of root beer and the bonus gets you a scoop of ice cream; all others get a cold mug of cream soda for the effort.  Stick around for a little history lesson (feel free to enlighten us and you might get a brownie) and we’ll see each other on the game thre… wait, are the Yanks playing tonight? No? Oh… well, stick around and chat!

[photo credit: Dyre Avenue Line Memories]




Where & When: Game 51

Welcome back to what has become perhaps a needed distraction, Where & When.  Hopefully the team won’t fall underneath .500 tonight, and if they do let’s hope they can float long enough until reinforcements arrive.  In the meantime, let’s ponder the past yet again and find out what this is all about:

Where & When Game 51There is an important distinction about this building, so tell us what building this is, where it’s located, when it was built and as a bonus, how long it lasted and what the distinction actually is. Show your math as well. A frosty mug of your favorite root beer if you have the where and when practical answers with notes, and I’ll upgrade it to a root beer float if you get the bonus question.  The rest of us will get cold cream sodas in a can. So you know the drill; have fun and I’ll see you in the game thread (maybe)!

[photo credit: Detroit Photographic Company (Wikipedia)]

Where & When: Game 50

Lo and Behold, we are back with another Where & When. I’ve missed doing these for a while, so let me take advantage of a little time I have to present to you another little challenge with a little history attached to it: Where & When Game 50

This one has a bit of irony attached to it, considering what it is.  If you can tell us what this building is and when this building existed, you will win a box of Thin Mints (because the Girl Scout cookies we ordered months ago have arrived and I feel inordinately generous in my imagination).  You will get a quart of milk to wash them down if you can tell us the ironic stories with this structure as well. A bonus box will be thrown in if you can tell us the name of the building beside it in the background.

Most of you know the rules of this game, but for those who don’t or need a refresher: to win, you should be the first person to answer all of the questions above in one post, plus you must show your process of finding the answer.  You can utilize any methods you find feasible to find the answer, but you must not peek at the photo credit link because that’s cheating.  If, however, you happen to find the link on your own in the course of research, then you will be excused. Everyone else who answers after the winner will receive a cold cream soda of choice.  Usually we award a cold root beer for the winner unless there’s a special or seasonal occasion for something more apropos to the occasion.

You are encouraged also to share your research or memories about the site in the picture, in the spirit of cooperation and fostering education.  Above all, have a good time and I hope you learn something new.

Have fun and we’ll discuss later!

[Photo credit: Wiki Commons]

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver