Joseph Cornell's Pharmacy presents a strange assortment of shards, seeds, fragments and powders, arranged in vials in what appears to be a medicine chest. This rare and historic cabinet sculpture, which was formerly in the collection of Teeny, Marcel Duchamp's second wife, and which featured in the artist's celebrated 1967 retrospective, perfectly captures the elusive, ephemeral, poetic and the mysterious qualities that suffuses Cornell's greatest works. It is a Wunderkammer of crystallised dreams, of the impossible and the ineffable.
Pharmacy contains fragments and figments of thought, fantasy and nostalgia. Cornell has placed shells, seeds, butterfly wings and powders alongside swizzle sticks, marbles and printed images. The timeless and the magical vy for attention with the flotsam of contemporary existence in the automats and bars of New York. Each vial has been imbued with significance, arranged according to some mysterious and alien sense of order. These appear to be the tools of someone's trade, some form of healing materials, a notion the title emphasises. And yet what doctor could prescribe such impossibilities as these? These objects, these slivers of some ungraspable reality, have each been imbued with a talismanic significance by their presence within the Pharmacy, yet their meanings, their powers and their properties remain unknowable. Looking into Cornell's Pharmacy, we look into a world of associations, yearnings, elusive meanings. It is telling that Cornell himself said that his idea of complete happiness was, "quickly being plunged into a world in which every triviality becomes imbued with significance" (J. Cornell, quoted in D. Solomon, Utopia Parkway: The Life and Work of Joseph Cornell, London, 1997, p. 92). Pharmacy is a neatly ordered case of samples from just such a magical world, but crucially it also suggests that our own world is steeped in such magic, visible if only we are willing to look.
By the time that Cornell created Pharmacy, he was able to devote more and more time to art and had even recently gained a studio space of his own at his family's home on Utopia Parkway, in Flushing, Queens. There, he was able to work on a larger scale, with better materials, and was also able to store the assorted odds and ends that would find their way into his assemblages. Formerly, he had worked at the kitchen table, often watched over by his brother Robert, who had long suffered from cerebral palsy. It has been occasionally postulated that some of Cornell's works derived from toys and playthings created to entertain Robert. While this may not be particularly true, the concept of healing so inherent to Pharmacy had profound personal ramifications for the artist. This magical medicine box with its impossible ointments, potions and treasures, reflects Cornell's devotion to Christian Science, a doctrine which shuns traditional medicine, because the universe is considered entirely spiritual and the world is, in a sense, illusion.
This deeply personal content tellingly indicates the underlying seriousness of Cornell's works which, while clearly ephemeral and ethereal, often have far more serious foundations. It was for this reason that Cornell was so often aligned and associated with the Surrealists, whose works he had known for well over a decade by the time he created Pharmacy. Not merely whimsical, instead it searches to condense and convey the magical forms and possibilities of the universe that inform Cornell's work, and it is almost always filled with an atmosphere of longing, of nostalgia, even of loss. These strange qualities intriguingly counterpoint the intially more appearant capriciousness. The way the tokens and experiences in Pharmacy have been arranged shows a strangely adult means of attempting to categorise and analyse and turn to practical use the infinite poetry of imagination. Cornell has assembled and arranged these items, in a sense, to perform cures, to help heal the world and, more specifically, himself and his brother. And this darker foundation fills his work with timeless relevance, all the more so considering the fact he executed Pharmacy against a backdrop of the global turmoil, the Second World War. When, at the end of 1943, the gallery dealer of Julien Levy showed his works in a group exhibition alongside those of Marcel Duchamp and Yves Tanguy, Cornell was horrified to read a review by Edward Alden Jewell:
"Cornell's art I shall have to leave altogether... Somehow, while looking with curiosity at his neat little bottles filled with this and that, his pretty shells and devious gadgets and the doll enmeshed in silver twigs, I remembered that there is a war, and after that, try as I might, I couldn't find my way back into Mr. Cornell's world" (E.A. Jewell, quoted in D. Solomon, Utopia Parkway: The Life and Work of Joseph Cornell, London, 1997, p. 156).
This slight deeply wounded Cornell, all the more so as his works provide not only an escape from the harsh realities of everyday existence, but also, crucially, an elusive cure.
Working in his new studio, Cornell was able to conceive works on a greater scale and with greater and more complex craftsmanship than he had been able to use when working in the kitchen of his home. Over the years, Cornell had learnt some rudimentary carpentry, and this allowed him to create his works bit by bit, although he also used found materials, clearly the case here. While this had long been his modus operandi, demonstrated even in the collages with which he first meekly approached dealer Julien Levy over a decade earlier, it gained more significance following his renewed acquaintance with his greatest artistic heroes, Marcel Duchamp. At the end of 1942, the year before Pharmacy was created, Duchamp gave Cornell a readymade which he made on the spot. This consisted of a Lepage's glue box which read "strength" and which Duchamp amended by adding the word "gimme" above it. Cornell would treasure this work, as he would treasure so many of the other objects, letters, scraps and documents that would result from their friendship and collaboration (Cornell helped assemble some of Duchamp's own boxes). Duchamp was impressed with Cornell's first Pharmacy work, executed only a little earlier than the present work. Cornell was so enraptured in this admiration that he apparently produced another for Duchamp. Intriguingly, the present Pharmacy was bought by the dealer Pierre Matisse, son of Henri; it subsequently remained in the collection of his wife Teeny following their divorce. In a strangely cyclical stroke of fate that appears perfectly harmonious with the world of Joseph Cornell, Teeny married Duchamp in 1954, bringing the present work under the roof of its creator's great mentor; it was lent by Teeny, alongside several other works in her collection, to the important retrospective held in 1967 to such critical acclaim.