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Winter 1996
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Manhattan’s Greatest Artist
David Gelernter
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Joseph Cornell tells us that his art is inspired by and is about Manhattan; it is “a natural outcome of love for the city.” But on the surface, it rarely has anything to do with New York. An Edward Hopper, Joseph Stella, or Stuart Davis shows us Manhattan plain and up close. Cornell gives us silent, whitewashed hotel rooms looking out on empty blue sky. His Renaissance princes brood behind colored glass and seem to gaze at us direct through the transparent depth of four centuries.

Each of the “shadow boxes” (as he called them) that are his masterpieces is a lyrical private world, a garden court glimpsed through shut gates down secret alleys in Memory City. Juxtapositions that make no rational but complete emotional sense, experience distilled to its high-proof essence, the plain stuff of daily life trapped in tide pools behind glass: the essence of memory and Cornell boxes. Thus Solar Set of 1958: a box full of marbles in small cordial glasses. What for?—and what is a “solar set,” anyway? But the emotional part of your mind charges ahead even as the rational part balks. Solar Set is the size of a jumbo, flattened shoebox in honey-colored wood, roughly a foot by a foot-and-a-half and four inches deep, set upright on its long side; you peer in through a glass pane. A low stage with set-in drawer runs along the bottom. Five elegant, narrow cordial glasses stand onstage, each (like a tree in a puddle) set into its own precise round hole, each cupping a glass marble: two blue ones on the left, a yellow one in the center glass, then green, then yellow. Astronomical charts with lists of numbers and chaste, meticulous nineteenth-century diagrams (planets circling, the sun) paper the box's insides. A metal rod runs across near the top and, hanging like jackets in a closet, are four metal rings and two cylinders, papered with more diagrams.

Gazing through the window into the glasses to the swirls of color trapped inside the marbles gives you a sense of seeing into the heart of things. The rhythm of evenly spaced sternware suggests tides, orbits, the grand orderly ticking of the solar system. The old charts whisper just out of hearing. The perfectly nestled marbles, the feet of the glasses in their cutouts, deliver the lock-in-key perfection of the heavens, with a twinkling of sex. The glasses’ smallness makes you think of distilled essences, and (despite the whispering of the charts) the underlying sense of poignant silence is overpowering. Shelley admired palaces reflected in the sea, "quivering within the waves' intenser day." He might have said the same about these boxes—which, as a matter of fact, sometimes include dream-palace facades. Cornell's art is silent and sublime. Could it really have anything to do with Manhattan?

Biographically speaking, maybe. The artist was born in Nyack, a short train ride from midtown, and lived all his adult life in a small frame house on Utopia Parkway in Queens-with his mother and invalid brother until they died, thereafter alone until his death at 69 in 1972. He was painfully shy but no recluse: he had frequent visitors and, in later years, young helpers to work alongside him. He traveled often into Manhattan by subway.

His father died young; Joseph assumed at age 17 the burden of supporting his family. His two sisters married; he assumed in his twenties the burden of caring for the invalid brother. For brother Robert, there is no hint in Joseph’s diaries of any sentiment other than unqualified love.

He had woman friends, even girlfriends in a way, but he never married.

A person can be radically shy out of insecurity, and Cornell (it seems) did feel insecure at times-though not too insecure to establish himself as a major artist and tell critics to take a walk when they got him wrong (as, in his opinion, they almost always did). Or a person can be radically shy out of sheer sensitivity-because his mind, delicately made, fears damage when it touches other minds, Cornell had that kind of sensitivity, and it separated him from the affection and companionship he craved. I wish I had not been so reserved," he told his sister, the morning of the day he died; but he'd never had a choice. The same sister reports being awakened ages earlier by the schoolboy Joseph, shivering uncontrollably over a nightmare about “the vastness of space as he was becoming aware of it from studying astronomy.” Next decade, his other sister would sit beside the young textile salesman in Madison Square Park (his job required that he canvass lower Manhattan for sales prospects) and listen to him “moaning with anxiety.” He slept badly and had stomach problems his whole life. Exquisite sensitivity: God’s bad joke on artists. And a key not only to the oddness of Cornell's life but to the isolated-by-, protected-by-glass worlds of his boxes.

Luckily, his textile-selling career was fairly short. He’d left Andover in 1921 (he’d been a scholarship student) for the William Whitman textiles company, and was fired in 1931 at the depth of the Depression. Clearly he had made a go of it or he wouldn’t have lasted that long-a testimony to his courage and sense of duty. Next he sold refrigerators door-to-door, was incapacitated by an eye infection, and eventually found work as a textile designer with the Traphagen Studio. He worked there from 1934 until 1940.

Meanwhile, his artistic career was heating up. He was part of the New York art scene starting in 1931, when, at age 28, he showed art dealer Julien Lévy some collages. Lévy was a champion of surrealism, and Cornell came often to his gallery on East 57th Street to admire the merchandise. Lévy describes their first meeting: “‘Closing time,’ I suggested. But he had already fumbled out of his overcoat pocket two or three cardboards on which were pasted cutouts of steel engravings.” Surrealist collages were Cornell’s first works, old images juxtaposed in odd, funny, or ironic ways. “Was it not a blessing I hadn’t thrown the man out?” Lévy muses.

When Cornell turned shortly afterward to shadow boxes—three-dimensional collages—he found admirers throughout the Manhattan art community. His list of one-man shows at major New York galleries is formidable. Collages and shadow boxes at Lévy’s gallery in 1939 and again in 1940, “Portraits of Women” at the Hugo Gallery in 1946, “Aviary Boxes” at the Egan in 1949.... After 1940 he worked at odd non-art jobs occasionally, but got by mainly on freelance magazine layout work and art sales. By 1950 he was a star; by 1960, a big star. Two of the most influential shows in the Museum of Modern Art’s history included Cornell work: “Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism” in 1936 and “The Art of Assemblage” in 1961. The Guggenheim gave him a retrospective in 1967, and dozens of other galleries and museums across the country exhibited his work. Of the 43 artists on view in the Metropolitan Museum’s epochal “New York Painting and Sculpture” in 1970, only Jasper Johns and (bizarrely) Ellsworth Kelly are represented by more pieces than Cornell.

(Of the many shows since his death, I remember particularly the one at Leo Castelli's gallery in 1976. 1 was 21. 1 visited several times and, on one occasion, Castelli himself was seated smugly erect in a dark suit at his desk to the side, giving off fame and power like a steam locomotive drawn up in a billowing mist at the platform. He didn’t seem to me at all the way I imagine Lévy must have looked to Cornell in 1931.)

Cornell’s whole life centered on New York; if he wanted to make explicit New York art, he had ample occasion. Yet images of the city appear directly (so far as I know) in only a single box, the Penny Arcade Portrait of Lauren Bacall. Imagine a small medicine cabinet of brown wood with a blue-glass front. A mirrored compartment with a small red ball runs the length of the bottom. Mounted above that and filling most of the interior, a panel with rhythmic cutout holes: a row of seven portholes near the top, five squares side by side below that, five more portholes, then a large central rectangle, and three more squares. The box is a sort of toy: tip it side to side and upside down, and the ball rolls through hidden runways to the top and back down again; it can be made to leave entirely through a small hinged door at the bottom. The square cutouts in the second row hold postcard images of white Manhattan towers. They seem small and distant, and they are dominated by the black-and-white photo of Bacall peering enigmatically through the rectangular cutout at dead center, like Athena spying on her own temple.

Her photo is mounted an inch or two behind the plane, and the face is so close that its top and side are clipped off—and as a result, the goddess Bacall seems to lurk as a physical presence just inches away, and it feels as if you and she have run into each other in a compromising location where neither of you is supposed to be. The effect is startling. But as for those images of Manhattan, they reach you as if through the wrong end of a telescope, diminished and disembodied: an almost inaudible voice on the telephone, calling in from the opposite end of the universe.

The few Cornell boxes that are on public view in the city have no obvious Manhattan in them at all. Taglioni’s Jewel Casket of 1940 is the Museum of Modern Art’s most remarkable Cornell—a small brown chest lined with blue velvet, to be set on a table and peered into like a cigar box. Taglioni was a famous nineteenth-century ballerina. (Cornell was obsessed with nineteenth-century ballerinas, and the Romantic era in general.) Neat rows of glass ice cubes rest in cutouts like strange musical instruments in a plush case. Inside the lid, a necklace of glass stones; within the arc of the necklace, this inscription in delicate white type: “On a moonlit night in the winter of 1835, the carriage of MARIE TAGLIONI was halted by a Russian highway man, and that enchanting creature commanded to dance for the audience of one upon a panther’s skin spread over the snow beneath the stars. From this actuality arose the legend that to keep alive the memory of this adventure so precious to her, TAGLIONI formed the habit of placing a piece of artificial ice in her jewel casket or dressing table where, melting among the sparkling stones, there was evoked a hint of the atmosphere of the starlit heavens over the ice-covered landscape.” There is more to the box than I have described (and, like most of Cornell, it is indescribable anyway), but its aura is quintessential Cornell: a dazzling wistfulness and intense melting beauty that recall the slow movements of late Schubert piano sonatas and perhaps nothing else.

His masterpieces don’t seem to have anything to do with New York. But they have everything to do with it.

To see why, ponder Cornell’s Toward the Blue Peninsula: Emily Dickinson. He loved Dickinson, and this box is her portrait. Another upright medicine cabinet-like box, but this one with a rough whitewashed interior holding an empty bird perch. A coarse wire mesh separates the viewer from the box's back wall; the mesh is slit to allow access to a small window. Through this window in the back panel, you see a blue sky streaked with distant, wispy clouds. Dickinson and Cornell were armchair travelers, terribly attached to home, vividly aware of the world beyond; lookers-out-of-windows. What the box does not contain is Emily Dickinson. No trace of a likeness.

The reason is, of course, that for Cornell it is not the object that counts but its emanations, not the people but the silences around them. He made art not by confronting but by turning his back, studying the play of reflected light on the opposite wall. (His friends describe him, as a matter of fact, conversing for hours on end with eyes averted. A diary entry tells how, in his basement studio one July evening, the glass front of a box catches a “flame-like texture of sunlight,” creating “a beautiful holy effect”; “a superb moment of pure, lovely beauty.”) To a sensibility as acute as Cornell’s, the direct view is too bright and blaring. But the art he made out of the city’s shimmering reflections is one of the loveliest, truest tributes Manhattan ever got.

Kynaston McShine noted that three spots along 42nd Street were Cornell’s favorite exit points when he traveled by subway into Manhattan: Grand Central Terminal, the New York Public Library, and Times Square. Each is reflected in his art. He writes in his diaries (first published in 1993, beautifully edited by Mary Ann Caws) of his “elation at looking up at the celestial blue heavens and golden constellations on the ceiling” in Grand Central’s waiting room; many of his boxes include stars, star charts, or astronomical images. He studied and photocopied old texts and pictures at the library, and his work is full of historical references and fragments of old pictures. Shooting galleries and penny arcades once clustered round Times Square; he made a series of “penny arcade” boxes (including Lauren Bacall's) and a series of “shooting galleries.”

He frequented the city’s big museums and captured their auras. His Medici Slot Machine, Medici Prince, Princess, and Boy series borrow atmosphere from the Met’s European painting galleries.... In each one, a Renaissance face gazes coolly through blue or amber glass, surrounded by smaller photos, cubes, watch springs, architectural diagrams, and mysterious trinkets. The figures themselves are reproductions of Bronzino, Parmigianino, and Pinturicchio portraits. These boxes are “slot machines” because the razzle-dazzle of Times Square penny arcades is blended subtly into each one. Cubes scattered casually on the box floors suggest dice. Columns of small squares flank the central portraits; some are emblazoned with numbers and recall pinball scores, others repeat the main portrait in miniature and suggest the whirl of images in a slot machine. Large marbles evoke pinballs or skee balls, crosshairs focused on the portrait recall shooting galleries, clock springs suggest the complex mechanisms of gallery games. So Times Square is part of each box, but its pulse slows to a crawl in the gravity field of the picture gallery’s sage hush and, like a flower bud unfolding in time-lapse photography, takes on impossible vividness. He often seems to create what a physicist would call “relativistic effects” in his boxes: time slows, time barely moves, time stops. (Strangely, he once wrote to an acquaintance of Einstein's, asking whether the professor might be persuaded to have a look at some of his work and offer an aesthetic judgment. Evidently, it never happened.)

He writes in his diaries about the planetarium: the show there is a “moving experience,” with the theater’s “blue dome, silhouetted city sky-line fringing it, and the gradual appearance of all the stars in the night sky to music.” His relationship to the natural history museum is richest of all. He loves “the breath-taking collection of birds’ nests in their original condition complete and replete with eggs.” (A breathtaking bird’s nest? His sensitivity is, recall, abnormal.) “The sweetness and ingenuity of some of the smaller ones!! Into the bookshop. Couldn’t resist a mottled blue and green coiled shell, also a shiny white and pink one, for an ONDINE box for Fanny Cerrito.” (Among nineteenth-century ballerinas, she was his favorite; Ondine was the ballet in which she triumphed.) The very idea of this museum was important to him. It was a treasury of delicate, beautiful objects neatly arranged in endless, glass-enclosed compartments.

You could wander for hours and lose yourself in there. Several of his pieces are named Museum, and his Pharmacy boxes are dream museums: rows of glass jars on glass shelves before mirrors, holding glitter, sand, feathers, folded pages of French text, shells floating in clear liquid, steel engravings of palace facades, butterfly wings.

In the city he finds wonderful objects for his boxes; wonderful people, too. Ballerinas fascinate him—including moderns like Tamara Tournanova, to whom he dedicates boxes. She sends him a ticket for her performance in Swan Lake and invites him to her dressing room afterward; he is duly thrilled. Unknown pretty girls pass before him; he gives them names by which to call them in his fantasies. The “fée aux lapins” is a counter clerk who sells toy rabbits. He spies a certain “apricot angel” dressed in orange. Advertises for an assistant: “Girl over 16 Fine Scissors Work on Pictorial Clippings Assisting Artist—limited Part Time.”

But the city’s essence is luxurious anonymity. “Felt like stopping in Grand Central Waiting Room—parapet watching crowds below—absorbed in coming and going of endless flow.” Peering through windows is what Joseph Cornell’s Manhattan is all about. The windows protect you from the world on the other side-it can’t touch you, and vice versa. The safety, the quasi-divine anonymity, and the sense of being above the fray that they confer are precious to Cornell and his art. New York is life under glass, and he studies it with wonder and wistful love. He is the boy in a pet shop who is forbidden a creature of his own but visits anyway,  every day. The very idea of his boxes emerges out of a mental joining together of two window displays he spots while roaming the city—one featuring a variety of empty boxes; the other, compasses. (Many of his pieces incorporate compasses and compass dials.) He loves eating at Automats, where you peer through glass at sandwiches and pie wedges in little compartments. At Penn Station he studies the “Savarin Restaurant seen through glass windows in waiting room.” At an Automat near Grand Central, “a glass of weak tea and liverwurst sandwich on the balcony about 4 o’clock overlooking 42 and 3rd Ave., with its typical stream of motley N.Y. humanity this sunny afternoon”; he has placed himself “right against the window.” Cornell’s Manhattan and his boxes are silent wonderlands behind glass, lovely and uncanny, rich and strange.

“On any person who desires such queer prizes,” writes E. B. White, “New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy.” It may not be the world’s best place to live, but it is the best place to live vicariously. And vicarious living is never, for Cornell, mere timorous Peeping Tomism. It leads to transcendence.

For religious people—and Cornell was deeply religious—the goal is to divine what is out there over and above your own boundaries, what is absolute, what is true always and for everyone. And you can make a guess about the universal only if you enter more lives than your own. Gazing quietly through the windows of Manhattan, that is exactly what Cornell tries to do—and gazing through the windows of Cornell’s art, we experience vicariously the richness of the artist’s vicarious window gazing. He reproduces for us not the mere objects of his experience but the experience itself. And notice how perfectly his means suit his intentions: out of vicarious experience he makes vicarious art, glued together out of other people's paintings and the physical stuff of other lives. In his last decade, his box-making tailed off-in part, he said, because things were turning to plastic, with no past; to make boxes he needed old things (charts and brass rings, compasses, and cordial glasses) impregnated with history.

His art is a profound, beautiful commentary on New York City. It tells us that if we will detach ourselves from personal connections, withdraw behind glass, and ponder the city like thoughtful gods, we will see remarkable things. The city defocuses and turns to magic: rail station waiting room becomes gorgeous starlit night; counter girl becomes angelic fairy; Times Square marries Fifth Avenue, and they bring forth Renaissance princesses.

Cornell’s life itself is a sort of commentary, too, on the art life of modern New York. In some ways, he and his work are at home on the modern art scene and validate it. He is an artist who can’t draw—or if he can, he never shows us, and it doesn’t matter. In fact, he commits the strikingly odd act of asking another artist to make a picture for him, so he can incorporate it into a box: would the Russian-American painter Pavel Tchelitchew be so kind as “to work out a little croquis in silverpoint, wash, what have you, of Cerrito as ‘Ondine’?” Together with the dadaists and surrealists, he is a progenitor of artists who create by assembling other people’s images: many pop artists, for example, and computer artists. Artists whose images include words have been hot stuff for some time: Edward Ruscha, Richard Giglio, Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger, Larry Johnson, many others. But no artist ever used phrases (often in French) and whole paragraphs (in English) more tellingly than Cornell. His brilliance legitimizes artists who can’t draw, who rely on words to help create their effects—but challenges them also. If you insist on being that sort of artist, it is a good thing to be an incandescent genius.

In other ways, he is so deeply at odds with the modern scene that he brings us to a startled halt. A man like Marcel Duchamp (whom Cornell greatly admired) breaks rules on purpose—struggles his whole life to find fresh rules to break. Cornell broke rules sweetly and effortlessly. He couldn’t help it; he was the Mozart of perversity.

The very idea of his boxes is a piece of perversity: they are an art form he invented, and they are still sui generis. In the 1970 catalog of the Met’s New York Art exhibit, every other artist stands among fellow thinkers: abstract expressionists, pop painters, pop sculptors, abstract sculptors—and then the shadow box artists, of whom there is exactly one. Or consider the occasion on which he asks Tchelitchew to provide him with a sketch. It is a gesture that brings other, showier ones to mind: Duchamp making art by drawing a mustache on the Mona Lisa and adding an obscene French pun at the bottom; Rauschenberg methodically erasing a de Kooning drawing and then signing it: “Erased de Kooning Drawing / Robert Rauschenberg / 1953.” Cornell also made art directly out of other people’s art, but his intentions were to build rather than deface.

Or read the soul of today’s art (and much of this century’s) on the cover of a Charette mail-order catalog. Charette is an art-supply company, and this particular cover shows bespattered jumbo jars of acrylic paint, a huge dropcloth, and big, meaty brushes. Giant paintings are nothing new, but in recent decades bigness hasn’t been one mode of painting; it has often seemed like the only mode if your work is to stand any chance of registering on the public mind. But Cornell invariably worked small.

Or consider the way his artistic personality refuses to align with official categories. I have mentioned his boxes and collages, but he also made experimental documentary films and published essays that are the literary equivalent of collages—excerpts from nineteenth-century sources strung evocatively together. We expect creative people to choose a gate and, like well-behaved airliners, park carefully outside—you are United or TWA but not both, a scientist or a poet, a painter or a novelist, a historian or filmmaker or sculptor or essayist. But if you happen to be piloting an airliner that needs (alas) to dock at several gates at once, most people will assume that one represents your real occupation and the rest are just for fun; and if you knuckle under to that line, you throw away some portion of both your personality and your intellectual integrity. Cornell was not a professional box-maker and amateur essayist; his personality was an integrated whole.

He was religious; not only that, but pious. He was a practicing Christian Scientist and attended services regularly. “My most precious possession,” he writes, “is my at-one-ment with God.” His initial attachment to Christian Science as a young man seems to have been related to hopes of a cure for his stricken brother. He was never orthodox to the extent of refusing medical help when he needed it, but the daily ritual of prayer and Bible study deeply appealed to him. And his religiosity was broader than just Christian Science.

“He would recall Sunday afternoons after church,” according to confidante Diane Waldman, “listening to Protestant services on the radio, and the great sense of religion that infused the wonderful warmth of his family life.” Tune in a church service, and today’s typical New York artist will, of course, run screaming in the other direction.

Most perverse of all, his defiant celibacy....

His life is molded around the absence of women. Molded closely: he walks right up to the boundary of celibacy again and again, peers beyond, and walks back. With Leila Hadley, New York editor and long-time confidante, he takes a bath. From Carolee Schneeman, artist and another confidante, he receives a nude self-portrait. In an updated variant of the old artist-and-model game, they make plans to draw each other naked. Schneeman is “not sure” whether they ever did. Dorothea Tanning sits on his lap in a taxi. Women sit beside him on the edge of his bed; others undress for him. He might have turned these encounters into conquests but chose not to. “Balzac’s reflection upon each sexual involvement as the loss of a masterpiece,” writes Mary Ann Caws, “was on Cornell’s mind.”

It may sound like arrested childhood, but there are two mitigating factors.

To a man of Cornell’s emotional acuteness, these encounters could have meant far more than mere sex to the average specimen of masculinity. He was a fine, trim sailboat, and the force that moved him smartly forward was adoration of the feminine—was unconsummated (lest the sails tatter) passion. A diary entry reads in its entirety “Girls on bicycles!” He was in love with Leila Hadley; an entry the year before his death reads “impact of Leila’s letter—DARLING!”

Then too, everyone is entitled to a pair of lives, one in the real world plus one imaginary; sometimes, to the extent you stifle your above-ground, real-world life, your underground roots grow stronger and wider-reaching. Cornell in many ways chose to stay behind in the cognitive world of childhood, transcribing it with brilliant adult power. By making the real world unsatisfying, his chastity would have helped make the imaginary world Cornell’s dwelling place of choice. (He loved children, by the way, and was perfectly at home with them. In the winter of 1972, he attended at Cooper Union the last exhibition of his work during his lifetime. It was called “For Children Only.” Boxes hung low to the ground; brownies were served, with cherry Coke—a favorite Cornell snack.)

An early box is a perfect metaphor for his life. In L'Egypte de Mlle. CIéo de Mérode, he furnishes a tomb for (yet another) beautiful nineteenth-century dancer in the style of ancient Egypt, with essentials for the deceased’s use in the afterlife. Labeled jars and compartments are full of yellow sand, green balls, pearl beads, crumpled tulle, shells, rhinestones wrapped in pale blue paper, bits of yellow string dipped in gold dust. “The objects offer clues,” writes Diane Waldman, “to the essence and mystery of Woman, whether C1éo de Mérode or Cleopatra.” On another level, they embody for us the world of Joseph Cornell’s imagination, as rich, real, and enchanted as Miss Cléo’s afterlife.

New Yorkers owe MOMA gratitude for being the only museum in the city to keep Cornell boxes on permanent display. But they are quartered in a too-big, too-bright, too-noisy gallery, where they struggle to breathe and are painful to look at. As for the rest of New York’s museums—they have little attention to spare for major master and native son, who put New York at the center of his universe.

Museums aside, Cornell’s art might easily be brought to a bigger audience. Imagine crisp, life-sized, color photos of a Cornell box—front, sides, and back (he often decorated the backs)—laid out in a strip on a large white poster. Or imagine the same band of photographs mounted between two bands of midnight-blue cloth—or two mirror strips, and the entire mirror-plus-photos assemblage behind Cornell blue or amber glass. If they cost a few hundred or even a few thousand dollars each, such poster assemblages would find big audiences anyway: Cornell boxes (like Matisse cutouts or Hopper oils) stop people dead in their tracks, including people who know and care little about art. And those pieces would make perfect Cornellian sense. They’d be third-generation artworks, one logical step beyond Cornell’s own second-generation boxes. (Not only did he incorporate photos of earlier artworks in his own; he liked to include a series of photos of one object.) A lovely project from many angles.

Yet for all the difficulty of finding and grasping these remarkable works (you can find some in museums such as Minneapolis's Walker Art Gallery and Hartford's Wadsworth Abbereum, and a couple of books have good illustrations), they are worth the effort, and Cornell has the last laugh. He is a great artist—meaning that, once you have come to grips with him, the world looks different.

Should you chance upon a bird’s nest, or a “Motel: Vacancies” sign on the highway, or a pile of yellowing newspapers in a forgotten corner of an old garage, they will be transformed. Manhattan’s towers and shop windows, great spaces, and middle-aged men sipping coffee as the girls go by will be changed utterly. These boxes, with their clutter of salvaged gimcracks and recycled pictures, are one of the oddest chapters in the canon, and have the desperate beauty of purest art.

 

 


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