The current exhibit at the Met, Birds of a Feather, is one of those small idiosyncratic shows, usually limited to a single gallery, that the museum stages from time to time. A visitor wanders in from a larger exhibit only to find himself or herself immersed in a self-contained and offbeat universe that offers unexpected delights. In spite of the exhibit's subtitle, this is not so much a homage to Gris as it is an obsession on the part of Cornell, an artist who never managed to show restraint in his enthusiasms.
The backstory to the exhibit, as noted on the museum's website, is as follows:
"...on one of his frequent trips to the gallery district in midtown Manhattan, Cornell visited the Sidney Janis Gallery on East 57th Street. Among a presentation of approximately 30 works by modern artists, one alone captivated Cornell—Juan Gris's celebrated collage The Man at the Café (1914)... This shadowy profile of a fedora-topped man immediately inspired Cornell to begin a new series: some 18 boxes, two collages, and one sand tray created in homage to Juan Gris, whom he called a 'warm fraternal spirit.'"
That pretty well sums up the essence of the show. On one wall hangs The Man at the Café itself, and it's immediately apparent why any viewer would feel a strong attraction to it. This is one of the masterpieces of synthetic cubism and a key component of Leonard Lauder's seminal collection. Although I had known of the work's link to the fictional arch-criminal Fantômas, a recurrent character in Gris's pasted paper collages including the 1915 Pipe and Newspaper, I had been unaware of the hidden reference in the present painting to the work of Alphonse Bertillon. No matter that Bertillon, who died just about the time the painting was completed, had invented the photographic mugshot and the modern technique of fingerprinting, his spurious testimony at the two Dreyfus trials in the late nineteenth century had long made him a figure of scorn and ridicule among French intellecturals. The idea of Fantômas outwitting Bertillon would have delighted Gris.
Then we come to Cornell's series of boxes dedicated to the artist. They are neatly arranged side by side on several tables placed at right angles to the Gris painting. Prominently displayed in each is a representation of a white cockatoo. The birds are backed by black silhouettes intended as their shadows (although in at least one of the boxes the silhouette has been laid on the bottom of the box) and pieces of newsprint. While the presence of the newsprint is a clear reference to the copy of Le Matin displayed so prominently in the painting, I failed to understand what the cockatoo had to do with Gris, let alone Fantômas and Bertillon. Rather surprisingly, the connection is nowhere explained in the documentation accompanying the exhibit, unless in the 1.5 hour video on the museum's website that I admit I hadn't had the patience to watch.
As it turns out, it's unlikely that Cornell was aware of the references contained in Gris's paintings. According to Deborah Solomon's excellent biography, Utopia Parkway:
"From the evidence of notes he [Cornell] made in his diary, we know that he associated the Gris boxes with the nineteenth-century diva Maria Malibran. This link has confounded art historians intent on decoding Cornell's symbolism. Yet if we accept that the white cockatoos - like so many of Cornell's birds - are literally stand-ins for Malibran, a 'bird of song,' the intended meaning of the Gris boxes becomes clear. They are mute arias all, bringing the sublime pleasures of music into Gris's studio. Malibran and Gris were both Spaniards who died young; Cornell sought to unite them."
This at least provides an explanation, even if it does not appear entirely rational on Cornell's part, for the cockatoo's presence in the boxes.
The exhibit continues through April 15, 2018.