Interview with Nancy Willard

Shortly before Harry Roseman’s show, “Inside the Box: A Photographic Portrait of Joseph Cornell,” opened at the Davis and Langdale Company, he brought the fifty photographs over to the house and laid them out on the dining room table. I’ve had conversations with Harry about some of his other work: the luminous weave drawings from his 1989 show in New York, and the forty-foot bronze relief commissioned for the Wall Street Subway Station and installed there in 1990. And we’ve often talked about his other photographs: the body of work that emerged from a trip to China in 1987 and the series of self-portraits taken over a period of thirty-four years.

But our conversation about the Cornell photographs was bound to be different. Twenty-five years ago, Harry was Joseph Cornell’s assistant. The photographs and Harry’s account of the relationship that developed between the sorcerer of dreams and his remarkable apprentice lifted the curtain, for me, on a world as mysterious as anything Cornell ever created.

willard: Harry, tell me how you found the job working as Joseph Cornell’s assistant.

roseman: In the summer of 1969, I came down to New York, because Cathy [the painter Catherine Murphy] had enrolled in Queens’ College for graduate school. We were living in Massachusetts and getting ready to relocate to New York. In the late summer I came down to the city from Massachusetts to look for an apartment and do an errand for Cathy at Queens College. So I went to the office, and I was trying to get this little bit of bureaucratic paperwork done. Helen Schiavo, the acting chair, was the only person who could solve the problem and she wasn’t there. Someone in the office got her on the phone at home, and we got into this conversation. First we did the business part, and we really liked each other. We had this long conversation. How do I say this? Not being overly shy myself, at a certain point I felt comfortable enough to also ask her if she knew of any jobs. She told me she knew Joseph Cornell, and she thought he was looking for an assistant, and she could set up an interview. I was just thrilled. It was a couple of years after that terrific Guggenheim show, which I saw. So I said absolutely, sure. She said she’d set up an interview and get back to me and work it all out. So that’s how the interview happened.

She had organized a show of his at Queens College, sometime before. She told me a little about his mother and about his brother. She also said he’d probably know right away if he was going to hire me the minute I came in. And then she told me one secret. She said, however the interview went, I shouldn’t leave without an answer. This was the key: if I leave and he says he’s going to let me know, he’s going to have to think about it, I’d probably never hear from him again. So the key was, not to leave without a definitive answer.

She also told me about his reticence and his slowness to let you in, in any way whatsoever.

willard: What was the interview like?

roseman: After the interview was set up, I went out to see him. I knocked on the front door, and he said, “Come round.” He brought me round and we sat in the yard and talked for a little while. But there were a lot of planes flying overhead, so it was a bit hard to hear.

Then he said, “We’ll go to the porch.” He told me to walk around to the front of the house, and he went through the house and let me in, almost like starting again. And we sat on the porch, and he took notes while we were talking. We talked for a while and then we went into the house. He said, “OK let’s go inside and I’ll show you around.” I thought that was a big step. Then he showed me around the house and he even took me down to the studio. The interview went on for quite a while. At a certain point he said he’d let me know. That was my cue to say, Well, I need to know right now. What I said was, “I have plans to make and I really do need to know, now.” Which is something I would never have thought of saying. He said “Okay, we’ll give it a try, but don’t think you’re working in my studio on my work. We’re not doing that.” I think that was a way for him to make sure I didn’t want something from him he wasn’t willing to give. And I didn’t at the time think that that something was literally working on the work. He wanted me to care about his work, but he didn’t want me to come as some sort of fan, because even later on he talked about people who kept calling him to come and work for nothing. And he didn’t like that idea so much. Even though I think he probably didn’t pay all his assistants, he still wanted it to be professional. Maybe it was also a way of testing me, to see if I only had one thing in mind about this job: to get into his head, into his psyche through his work. And he said what I’d be doing mostly was correspondence, cataloging. I said fine.

willard: How long did you work for him?

roseman: I started in September 1969, and I worked for him until 1972. He died late in 1972. By the time he died, I was very fond of him. My guess is, all his relationships were complicated.

willard: Do you remember your impressions of the house? I don’t mean just what it looked like but your first impression of it.

roseman: I have a very clear idea about the house. I could probably describe every stick of furniture in it. But my sense of the house is a combination of first impressions and being there over a three-year period.

willard: When you visualize the house at this moment, what specifically do you remember?

roseman: I remember the darkness. It felt dark. Not that it always was. It just felt dark and it felt different than what was outside. There was this darkness and this quality of air, and there was something about spending the whole day in that house that made you feel you were in another time zone.

willard: Was it crowded with things?

roseman: Yes, it was crowded. I think of it as organized chaos. It looked kind of messy. I mean, there were piles of books and letters and papers, and plenty of furniture, which I assume was the same furniture that was there when he lived with his mother and his brother. So it was like a very cozy lower-middle-class house but overlaid with clues of something else, with piles of stuff and little special objects and collages leaning against walls and in boxes and a certain amount of messiness. It wasn’t neat anymore; it wasn’t like most people’s mothers would want their house.

willard: Do you remember the kinds of objects that struck you, over time?

roseman: Over time? Well, the whole thing was such a piece to me. Him, the house, the studio, time, it all kind of hung together. Some days I would look at one thing and some days I would look at another thing. But it didn’t separate. I worked a lot for him.

willard: Did you have a schedule?

roseman: Sometimes I worked four days a week. Sometimes three days a week. Sometimes ten till three, sometimes nine till four. Sometimes afternoon through evening.

willard: He’d call so you’d know the hours?

roseman: We’d sort of talk about them ahead of time.

willard: What kind of work did he ask you to do?

roseman: Strangely enough, when I started early in September, all we did for weeks was to work on his work. We went right down to the studio, and at one point I made some sort of reference to the fact that I had thought I’d be doing something else, and he looked at me like I’d made the whole thing up. So we just started in the studio right away. Sometimes he’d have me building boxes or putting background paper on boxes, and then sometimes he’d just come down the stairs and sit four stairs from the bottom and watch me for awhile. We started new boxes, and there were many old boxes around in different states. Out of the blue he’d turn around and say, “Bring that box from the shelf,” which had clearly been sitting there for years. And we’d go into it and then finish it.

Time was fluid, very fluid.

And others never got finished. But it was like he had put it down just yesterday. He worked in all these very tight series. My feeling about it is, it was a way for him to keep working on these series and not have them die to him, a way for him to be fresh about it and find a new way to go into it.

Eventually he’d send me down to the studio by myself.

willard: In the studio, what work would you do?

roseman: At first I kind of stood there while he worked and handed him things. “Oh, could you get me that?”

willard: Like a surgical nurse.

roseman: Yes, like a nurse. And then little by little he had me cut things out, paste things up. Sometimes I would mix these aniline dyes for him, especially this very intense blue that he used a lot. The blue dye came in this fine powder, and we had to mix it up with alcohol to dilute it. It was so potent and so thin that my tongue would be blue, and when I blew my nose it would be blue just from mixing it up, not even putting my face over it. Sometimes it would last for a couple of days. It spooked me. I had a feeling this was not good for me.

Early on, somewhere during those first couple of months, he told me about some assistant who he was furious at and never forgave because she broke one of the wine glasses he was using in a box. He got really angry even talking about it.

One day I was down in the basement by myself. I was working down there, and there was a can of aniline dye spilling on the floor, and I kicked it. There was this worktable that had a slatted bottom, and there were three collages sitting on the floor leaning against it. So when I accidentally kicked the can, it splashed against these collages, and this river ran like lava and started soaking up into the bottoms. I ran around and cleaned it up, and my heart was going boom boom boom boom, and of course that story of the idiotic assistant who broke a glass was looming in my mind.

I got my courage up and went upstairs and said, “I think you should come down and see something. I’ve had an accident.” So he comes down, and I’m standing there like a twelve-year-old boy ready to be admonished. And he looks at the collages, and he looks at me, and he looks at the collages. “I like it,” he says. That was so thrilling. I was so tense.

willard: What else did you do for him?

roseman: I did all kinds of things. I mowed the lawn. I replanted all his grass once. I raked leaves in the fall, and I shoveled the walk a little bit, and I made lunch for him.

willard: This has nothing to do with art, but I can’t help asking. What did Cornell like to eat?

roseman: It’s kind of a myth now, how much he loved sweets. Even the stuff he ate for lunch was closer to sweets than to food. Once in a while I’d make him an egg, but that was rare. Lots of times I’d make him frozen sweet potatoes, and then put tons of brown sugar in it so it almost turned to soup. And sometimes regular instant mashed potatoes—he’d eat that. I’m a person who tends not to instinctively eat well, but I was amazed.

I don’t think he liked eating in front of people. I think he thought it was kind of private, and sometimes when he was eating with me, he’d put his handkerchief up to his mouth when he chewed. He chewed very fast, very fast little chews.

willard: I think there are some cultures in which the act of eating is a considered a very intimate, private act.

roseman: Well, there’s a French bird you eat that way. You eat the whole little bird, and you eat the head, bones and everything, and you have to eat it behind a cover. I forget if you put a bag on your head or something in front of your face, but you eat it in private, while you’re in public. I don’t know the exact cultural history, but maybe the idea of watching someone put a whole animal into their mouths may be a little appalling.

So it was like that a little bit when he first started eating with me. Sometimes he also felt—one time he sat down with me and said, “I’m not fit to eat with.” And I didn’t know what he meant by that. Maybe he knew he had an odd style of eating.

willard: Cornell seems such a rarefied sensibility—it makes you wonder why he didn’t simply evaporate when he stepped out into the world. In all the photographs I’ve seen of him, he looks so pale.

roseman: Oh, he was very pale. Pale, pale, pale. He was the palest person I’ve ever seen. He was very gaunt and very white. He had no color at all, and he dressed in grays and blacks. He felt like someone in a black and white photograph. Sometimes he’d wear a brown sweater. I have some color photographs of him and some black and white ones, but the black and white ones feel more to me the way he felt in life.

I remember a long time ago there was a joke in The New Yorker that showed Proust at a luncheonette counter, and the whole thing was drawn in one way and Proust was washed in another way and it’s just how Cornell looked when he was out in the world. Like somehow he was made of something else, or the world was in color and he was in black and white. When we would leave the house and go on errands and we would be in the street, sometimes I would think of what we must have looked like, walking together. He wore this big loose overcoat. One time we went to downtown Flushing, and we had to meet in this place called the Hurdy Gurdy, which was like a junky food place. I went out and did some errands and came back, and when I looked up at him, he looked like an apparition.

willard: Apparition does seem the right word for him.

roseman: He was paler than anyone—I mean, it’s hard for me to explain how pale he was. There was something about being in his house with him—he felt one with that place in a certain way so it did not feel strange, but when I was out in the world with him I was struck by the image be must have made. We’d leave the house together and it would be like leaving a compound, leaving the safety of the village for the world.

He always wore his clothes very large. One time he sent me off shopping for him to get a suit. He was very very thin, and I think he asked me to get him 36 inch pants. He probably had a 24 or 26 inch waist. Not only was he apparitional because of his color, he was also kind of lost in his clothes.

willard: He anticipated present fashion.

roseman: And when we went out walking in the street, he would change his pace, just all of a sudden. Sometimes we’d be walking slow, and then we’d speed up for no reason and then slow down and then speed up again. It was like being led by a dance partner. And then sometimes I remember we’d walk to the corner to take the bus to downtown Flushing, for shopping and stuff. (I didn’t have a car at that point.) Sometimes I’d stand and he’d find a lightpost, and he’d lean on that. Then the bus would come and he wouldn’t move and then all of a sudden he’d make a mad dash for it, like he just got there.

willard: What about the times you arrived and he didn’t have any work for you?

roseman: Sometimes there was a lot of vagueness about my duties. He’d send me down to the cellar, and I was supposed to be working or straightening and I’d have to figure out what to do. And other times I’d be sent out to the garage, to the archives. That was fun, because mostly I’d just look through things. There was great stuff out there, and I would open boxes and look through old prints and old French magazines. And the leaves would blow in, and he didn’t want me to rake them out. There were parts of things that never got completed. Things got moved sometimes to take on another life in another place.

There was one corner of the garage where he used to talk about us making a kind of altar for his mother. There were old family photos up on the walls in the house, and there was a picture of him with his father, both of them as adults, which never happened, because his father died when Cornell was fourteen. It was a montage. And I said, “Was your father a nice man?” He looked at me and said, “Oh, no.” He was so firm about it, like it was impossible that his father would have been nice.

Sometimes we’d spend the whole day organizing. I think the main purpose was to turn the compost pile, so that what’s at the bottom comes to the top. It’s what lots of artists do: you revisit your material.

But that’s not what he said. What he said we were doing was organizing. Mostly what we were doing was taking some things that were in two boxes and putting them in one box, or things that were in one box into two boxes. We threw out very little. Every once in a while he’d say, “Oh, I don’t want this,” he’d give me something, but mostly it was kind of review, and it suited me. I liked doing it. I also don’t throw things away. It would probably make some people very edgy to spend day after day picking up things and making decisions about them that never really get acted on, and then putting them back again. It was a combination of liking to look at the stuff and the process itself—it was soothing.

You could make suggestions, but not a lot of them, and you had to flow with the whole thing, just move with him, with the slowness of time, which I liked.

Sometimes, just because of logistics, we’d all of a sudden be in the kitchen together, and it was very clear that he didn’t have anything for me to do. It would make him edgy, and I knew not to ask him what I should do because he didn’t like that. So I found that if I got quieter and quieter and calmer and calmer he’d start to forget I was there. It was an ability I worked on. It’s one reason that photographs looking out the kitchen window or near the kitchen sink are so particular to me, because that was where I would stand sometimes for hours and literally try to dematerialize myself. I would make my presence lighter and lighter and lighter—

willard: Two apparitions!

roseman: And I wondered, did I look different? I don’t know. It didn’t make me tired standing there. I mean, I’d stand there sometimes for hours, just looking out the window. It was a kind of meditation. And part of what I would do was literally to make my presence not felt. So it was a combination of my mind getting lighter and my mind trying to make my body lighter. I got very good at it. I should revisit it periodically now when I get tense because it’s very freeing.

I wouldn’t have been surprised if he’d bumped into me, though he never did.

willard: Did you ever feel he was taking you for granted?

roseman: He wasn’t easy. Sometimes it went really well. Sometimes I was very happy to be there. Other times he drove me crazy, especially the first year. I don’t think he knew what he wanted our relationship to be. Sometimes he would treat me like a confidante and talk to me, not like someone who worked for him but like someone closer. And other times he was very abrupt, and very dismissive, and it hurt my feelings.

willard: Did he talk a lot?

roseman: Little by little he talked more and more. At first it was very professional. He gave me my work, I had coffee breaks, I had lunch breaks. We never had them together, at least not the first month. It didn’t take too long till he started joining me, and sometimes I would go into the kitchen and have my coffee break and my lunch, and he’d take naps or lie down. For lots of my lunches I ate peanuts and cheese. I think it may have had to do with what was in the house and the fact that there were birds and squirrels outside, so there were always plenty of peanuts around. And I really enjoyed it. I would sometimes eat tons of peanuts and a big chunk of cheese. And that was my lunch.

willard: And you didn’t turn into a squirrel.

roseman: I didn’t turn into a squirrel. And then little by little he started joining me. For breaks and for lunch. And sometimes we’d sit for a couple of hours and he would just talk. Sometimes he would take notes. He took notes all the time, as everyone knows, and he had all these dossiers and envelopes all over the place, with different categories. Sometimes in the envelopes there would be art reproductions or things that started to branch out from the initial impetus. Sometimes I’d say something and he’d write it over five times. I’d see him write it over and over again. He helped me hone my ability to read upside down. But his handwriting was very scribbly and very hard to read.

willard: You said you took notes. But not in front of him.

roseman: I didn’t take a lot of notes. I’m a disorganized person who has a desire to be organized. So my notes are very sporadic.

willard: Obviously he was aware that you were taking photographs. How did he feel about that?

roseman: I’ve been taking photographs pretty regularly since I was thirteen. I got into the habit of carrying my camera all the time. So it wasn’t unusual that I would have my camera with me when I went to his house for work. But at first I didn’t take any pictures. I started by taking a picture of the yard or the house and at some point I showed him some pictures that were kind of relevant to him. And then he got used to me having my camera and periodically he would ask me to take a picture of something.

willard: Something that he might use?

roseman: Yes. And then it evolved. For instance, he had me take pictures of food periodically. People would give him food; there was this really fancy birthday cake like a supermarket birthday cake with roses and white icing and stuff, and he handed it to me and said, “Oh, could you do something with this?” I took it out in the yard and I made some photos. One time he had this piece of sponge cake that was maybe a couple of months old so it had gotten rocklike, dried up and hard, like something petrified. And he said, “Oh, could you do something with this?” So I went out and took some pictures.

He had some flowers someone gave him, in the house, and they died. And he sent me out to do a series of photographs of this vase. It was a very fancy vase, crystal and silver. It was his mother’s.

I did a whole series of photographs of pears. The pears were really intriguing. There was a front door and side back door, and a mudroom. The light in the mudroom was very beautiful. So one day I came in and there were these pears on the window sill. And they were very ordinary, pristine, three perfect pears in a soft light, and I just took a photo of them. If that had been it, it wouldn’t have meant very much to me, because it was a pretty photograph, possibly too pretty. But over the next weeks these pears—sometimes there was one, sometimes there were three, they started to shrivel up. It was like this pear performance. And sometimes they’d be cut in quarters, and they had nails sticking out of them. He was doing this when I wasn’t there.

willard: Good heavens—crucified pears.

roseman: One time they were all shriveled up with the nails sticking up. They were really riveting to me. I took twenty photographs of this pear process. But we never talked about it. I didn’t show him these photos.

willard: It’s a story. They’re looking at each other, talking to each other.

roseman: They are narrative, but they’re so elusive. And it’s certainly about deterioration and time, but then there’s this strange intervention. The nails are what really threw me. The first day I got there and the nails started to appear I went wow.

willard: So you had already started the series when the nails appeared.

roseman: There must be at least four or five photographs before the nails.

willard: You must have wondered each day what new chapter would reveal.

roseman: Yes, and I think it’s one reason that I took so many photographs. Because in another situation I probably wouldn’t have photographed certain things. But because everything had this imbued quality everything started to look wonderful.

willard: Did he know you were taking them?

roseman: No. I’d get there in the morning and take my coat off in the mudroom. I’d take my pear picture. And then I’d come in and we’d go about our business. We never talked about it. I never knew what was up exactly, and I think he didn’t know I was documenting this pear thing, although other people theorize that he knew we were having this dance. Eventually it stopped.

willard: How do you think Cornell was using those pears?

roseman: I don’t really know. It seems to me it doesn’t have to have an explicable purpose beyond the act itself. Sometimes things would happen that were played out as a kind of story or dance, none of it self-contained, because everything meant something to him, and everything was about his work, and everything was special. I mean, he was someone who used things in his work that were sometimes esoteric and sometimes ordinary, but in either case once his glance hit it, it was special. In the kitchen, other things would start to take on an evolving still-life quality. He collected stamps. Sometimes I’d come in and there’d be different stamps stuck on the window in the kitchen. And then they’d come down, and other stamps would go up.

One thing about being there and knowing him and being with him is this: in how we respond to things we have a choice as to whether to keep our self-conscious coolness and our analytical ability or to go with something. To suspend disbelief. It’s a kind of faith, in a sense. I wonder if I’m as capable of it now as I was then, but there was something about loving his work, being so thrilled to be there, and maybe being young, I gave myself up to this in a big way. Maybe that’s another reason it worked so well.

So, for instance, a nail was not just a nail. Everything would take on this aura. And he would talk about things in a certain way, and his world—everything around him that he put his glance on that he incorporated into this fantasy or whatever you want to call it—took on a kind of specialness. And so I really got into it.

For example, outside in the yard there was a stone squirrel and a ceramic frog and these plaster rabbits, a big rabbit and baby rabbits. Then there’s the whole history of his brother Robert’s rabbit drawings. He told me once that James Thurber came over and really liked Robert’s drawings. So I started to internalize some of that. These plaster rabbits, which are just junky plaster rabbits that come from some nursery, were the only plaster rabbits like these in the whole world. When I photographed those rabbits, I felt like I was photographing something rather extraordinary. I wonder what happened to those bunnies. I wonder if anybody saved them.

willard: Can you tell me what it was like to work alongside Cornell in that basement studio?

roseman: One thing that always struck me, when we were down in the cellar, for instance, and we would be making these boxes, almost everything was kind of fraught with scarcity and not being obtainable any more. Even nails sometimes. We’d pick up nails and he’d say, “Oh, you can’t get nails like this.” And of course you could. He liked to make everything so—well, he seemed to be saying, I’m so lucky to have this particular nail. Everything became particularized. Sometimes he would pick something up and say, “This will have to do. Not that I’m compromising. But this will have to do.”

And a lot of things were like that. Everything was scarce. The electric saw broke. So we talked about getting it fixed, and he talked about his brother-in-law fixing it. He would say, “Oh, manpower is very scarce.” His brother-in-law lived on Long Island, and it would take a long time for him to get to it.

I’d say, “Well, do you want me to look into it and find someone to fix it?” This suggestion would not please him.

Other times I’d go out and buy frames for collages at the local frame store. The most ordinary frames. I’d just go out and get twenty of them. He’d stain them a little bit, he’d change them a little bit. The framing for the boxes—I think it was harder for him to go out and gather old wood to cut up for frames. Originally I think some of the forms for the boxes were found stuff, and then eventually he built them or had them made.

When I first started working for him, we worked on boxes that were around the studio. And then he sent me to the lumber yard with a box so they could copy it, because he figured he’d order a bunch. Sometimes I made new ones. On these new boxes he’d have old wood he had scavenged from demolition sites, and I’d cut them and miter them and make them into frames to go over these new boxes.

Sometimes he’d age them and sometimes he’d find them layered and aged enough. He had this one piece where he had three sides and he needed a fourth one, and my job was to replicate it. It was a lot of fun. I took this piece of wood and I just layered it and layered it and used different kinds of paint and filled in the cracks, and when I put it together, even I couldn’t tell which was the piece I’d made. So I was very pleased with that little dance.

willard: Can you look at a box of his and say, Yes, this is a box I worked on?

roseman: I’m not sure. They were made in such close series—a bunch of moon boxes, a bunch of constellation boxes. For some reason I didn’t photograph the boxes I worked on. I don’t even know which one I made the piece of wood on and probably will never know, and also partly because his dating was very vague. He didn’t like this hierarchy of a certain period of work being thought better than others, and I know that there has to be a lot of guesswork in dating his work.

So I don’t know. Which is strange. I remember some of the forms we worked on. I built a box within a box once for him. But there was a series of those. And this was twenty-five years ago.

One time he missed one of his boxes a great deal and he showed me a reproduction of it and said, “Please make this for me.” He’d sold it for a very small amount of money. He used to bemoan that a lot. “Oh, I shouldn’t have sold that.” He sold them for fifty bucks, a hundred bucks—this was a long time ago. This one box he wanted to have around. It was fun. I built this box from scratch. And then he signed it.

willard: So he got very attached to some of the boxes.

roseman: Oh, he did. And by the time I worked for him, he had as much money as he needed which was not a lot. He didn’t want a lot of money, so he sold just as much as he felt like. He didn’t have any regular dealer at that point. A woman named Jane Wade would sell work for him; she worked out of her house and she took very low commissions.

Once in a while he would let people come over to buy some boxes, either because he had a history with them or through someone. But usually he’d like people to come over when I wasn’t working, so in getting ready for someone coming over the next day when I wasn’t going to be there we went around and hid things. “Let’s hide these, let’s hide these, let’s hide these. Okay, we can show them these.”

Every once in a while there’d be a lot of activity. There would be a whole bunch of people coming over. Once there was a really spiffy-looking French couple. They looked like movie stars, and they bought a box, and he had them make out a check to some children’s charity. Sometimes he would sell things to give the money away, and sometimes he would sell things to live off the money, but he didn’t like to sell them a whole lot.

He was very frugal. He kept tea bags and used them over and over again. He’d use a paper towel and then stick it up on a nail and use it again. Because he was so frugal he hardly put the heat on all winter. It was a very cold fall that first fall I worked for him, and I was cold all the time. He walked around a lot with this big heavy terrycloth blue bathrobe on, and sometimes he’d put it over his clothes, and then he’d put the gas burners on and stand in front of the stove to warm up.

Every once in a while his bathrobe would catch on fire. One time we were in the kitchen and the bathrobe caught on fire, and I had to put it out. And one time I came in, and the belt to his bathrobe was on the floor, looking like a partly burned cigarette. I didn’t see the fire, but I saw the results of it.

And sometimes I took to standing in front of the stove for a little bit because I was cold. Eventually he’d say, “Are you cold?” I would say, “Yes,” and he’d turn the heat up. I felt that was a turning point in our relationship.

willard: Did you take many pictures of his studio?

roseman: I have a series of these studio pictures.

willard: Good heavens, the place looks like organized chaos.

roseman: Oh, yes, there were all these boxes of materials, and then these partly done works. These are the shelves with frame and dowels and pieces of wood. The stuff he put in his boxes—shells, fancy little things—were over there.

willard: How did he find the things he put in his boxes?

roseman: He mostly gathered them up. He’d go on expeditions. By the time I worked for him, a lot of the stuff was there already in the studio. In his work there is a dialogue between those kinds of things.

willard: The shelves look so narrow—and all those old pipes—

roseman: It’s just a cellar, very sparsely lit with hanging bulbs. This trunk was full of glorious boxes, just beautiful boxes, which were mostly hoarded. Sometimes I’d sit down there and look at those boxes.

willard: So many books, and so many records. Did he listen to music when he was working?

roseman: He listened to music a lot. Sometimes when we were down there he’d put records on. Classical records, a lot of Chopin, Debussy. He liked the French composers. He liked Satie a lot. Some of the records were never unwrapped.

willard: What’s this picture with the sheets covering up the furniture?

roseman: That’s what we did sometimes when company was coming and we wanted to make things neat. Things got draped, like in a house that is not being occupied. It was fun.

willard: I notice that a lot of your photographs were taken in the kitchen.

roseman: I know from things I’ve read that when he was younger and his mother was around, he always worked in the kitchen, until he got his studio in the basement. But even when I was working for him, I have a feeling he worked a lot in the kitchen during the night, because sometimes I’d get there in the morning and there would be this whole worktable set up on the kitchen table. He was doing a series of Rorschach collage drawings. The kitchen was also a work area.

The kitchen was painted this wonderful blue. He was a young adult when it got painted. He had to go to the store, and he wanted the kitchen to be Giotto blue. He told me he was embarrassed to tell this to the paint store man—he thought it was kind of affected—so he said to the clerk, “My mother told me to ask for Giotto blue.”

willard: Looking at your photographs of the interior of the house, I never once wondered about the color.

roseman: The house was so dark inside that it did seem black and white. Here’s another way of describing it. When I was in junior high school, sometimes my mother would stay up late and when I’d come home for lunch, she’d still be sleeping. So when I’d walk in the door with my key, the house had a kind of sleepy, dark, out-of-time-sequence feeling.

And that’s what his house felt like. Eventually he gave me a key, and I’d let myself in during the morning. Sometimes he’d still be sleeping.

willard: Did he use those glasses on the windowsill for boxes or medicine?

roseman: Those are for the little trinkets he would put in, a feather, or a stamp, or something. To keep it in view. This jar holds mucilage, that kid glue.

Then he had a calendar and a notepad and sometimes he’d make these diagrams which he’d set up, and they were kind of like schedules but not schedules; they were reminders for him. Then there’d be titles of boxes he wanted to think about like “Penny Arcade”and “Hotel du Nord.” In the middle of all these other lists, there are shopping lists.

A photograph like this is about light, and it’s about his place, and it’s about surface, and it’s about a certain time, but for me it’s mostly about what it felt like to be in that kitchen on a certain day, and the way time and light are there. When I look at this photograph it brings back the place but even more, it brings back the way it felt. The way it felt to be there.

willard: What’s the story behind that sign? “Attention family and helpers, all valuables have been removed to storage vaults.”

roseman: That’s the alarm system. It was supposed to throw the robbers off. He couldn’t just say, “Attention, robbers.” That would give it away.

He had a bedroom upstairs, which I have a photo of, but lots of times he’d be sleeping on the downstairs daybed, and I’d come in, and sometimes I’d just tiptoe around for an hour or so till he woke up. Other times he’d be clearly bustling around. I think he probably had sporadic hours, so sometimes he’d get up and work in the middle of the night. And then he took naps during the day. Sometimes when we were working, he would say, “Keep yourself busy. I’m going to go take a nap.”

Here’s the photo of his bedroom. It’s very monk-like, cell-like.

willard: I can imagine him making up his bed in that minimal room.

roseman: And you have this towel, and this sheet, and the curtains. You know how I go crazy for drapery.

willard: What a traditional dresser.

roseman: That’s partly because this house was not furnished by him. So there are all these vestiges of an older family style. Very little was changed. For instance, one time we were standing in one of the rooms, and he looked at the wall and up toward the ceiling. Everything needed to be painted. He saw a crack in the paint and said, “Oh, my God.” Like he’d never seen it before. And then he snapped out of it.

willard: What did the outside of the house look like? And the yard?

roseman: It was a very regular sort of Dutch gambrel 1920s rowhouse. His house and the one on the left were unaltered. But they all had these little square backyards. The backyard was very contained. I was there for only three Christmases, I think, and he would not throw the Christmas trees away for a long time. At one point we had two or three Christmas trees in the yard in different states of decay with a little bit of glitter and foil on them. And when the wreath came off the door, it went out to the backyard and lived there for awhile. A lot of things became characters, an extension of a world you can know and affect.

Behind the yard was a garden apartment complex. Everyone talks about this, but certainly there was something about the heightened specialness of him and the house in this absolutely regular environment which is unavoidable. The person who owns and lives in the house now organizes children’s birthday parties for a living.

willard: How did Cornell get on with the neighbors?

roseman: He talked to the neighbors on both sides, and they seemed to know he was an artist. I know he gave some work to the neighbor on one side.

willard: Though I’ve never set foot in the house or the yard, I do get a feeling for the place. I think the artist in his own setting is one of the subjects you’re dealing with.

roseman: I think it’s the major subject.

willard: Which is why your photographs give me a portrait of Cornell that’s unlike any I’ve ever seen. I still don’t know how you managed to take any candid pictures of him.

roseman: The pictures I usually took are interactive. When he was posing for me, sometimes it was my idea and sometimes it was his idea. I was very well aware, though we were comfortable with each other, that he didn’t like to be photographed all that much. He was reticent, and sometimes I knew if I made one wrong move he’d bolt, because his moods would go up and down very quickly.

They were nice moments, relaxed and intimate in a certain way, and the whole time I’m trying not to blow it, by just feeling what the parameters were, what I could ask him to do, how long it could go on, how calm to be. How invisible I could be.

In some of these sessions he was extremely relaxed and cooperative. It would be for me as much of a communing or being close as anything else we did, because I felt he was giving over to me something that he didn’t easily give.

willard: He doesn’t look as if he’s posing.

roseman: He never quite looked at you very often anyway, so in all the pictures he’s slightly looking down. His eyes were very inset in his head, and in shadow sometimes. Very rarely did he look at the camera, which felt like a kind of shyness. Someone did ask me if he was shy and I couldn’t answer, because “shy” doesn’t seem like the right word. I’m not sure if “shy” explains it.

Sometimes he became almost unaware that I was photographing him in the middle of photographing him, which was very nice.

willard: Did he like the ones you took of him?

roseman: The most he did was not mind some. He would never go so far as to say he liked it. He liked other photos that I took, and sometimes he used them in collages. But pictures of himself he wouldn’t respond to in the same way. Either he was horrified or he didn’t have much of a reaction.

willard: How long had you been working with him when you took these photographs?

roseman: 1971 seems to me the most active period of photographing him. I have none of him from 1969, the first year, which isn’t surprising. One of my favorite set of photos he hated—he shuddered when he saw them.

willard: With the mirrors and corners and reflections in your pictures of him, he becomes a figure in his own work. You found the right title for your show: “Inside the Box: A Photographic Portrait of Joseph Cornell.” You’ve really created a picture of him from inside the box.

roseman: Actually Cathy thought of the title. The show is about being inside the box, inside his head, inside my head.

willard: That makes the pictures different from other photographs of Cornell I’ve seen.

roseman: One of the differences might be this: taking those pictures was part of my everyday life at that moment, as well as part of his. It’s not like I had an appointment with him and had to arrive at his house at three o’clock and take a series of photos. They were done in the fabric of going about our business.

willard: Did Cornell ever do any teaching?

roseman: He visited a couple of classes at Queens College. He didn’t really teach. But he had all these ideas and schemes. Some of them were about a kind of floating classroom for making Cornell boxes. Sometimes we’d do a box or part of a box, and he’d say, “Oh, good, we can use that for an example for schools.” And so we’d put it aside. Sometimes the idea was about having people come in and run a school, sometimes it was about going out to a school. But it was always vague, and it always seemed to be about making Cornell boxes.

One time he said to me, “Make me a box [in one of his forms] that is not one of my boxes but your response to it, and we could use that for teaching.” So I made a box. I went home and built this whole box with fish and glitter and mirrors and stuff—it was a lot of fun—and then I brought it to him, and he said, “Okay, good.” And he put it aside.

willard: What happened to that box?

roseman: I’ve no idea. I’ve never seen it again. Unlike some of the others I worked on, I would recognize that box, because I made it. It was in a sense commissioned, a commission for some vague client. He was the client but the real client was this idea of a kind of teaching apparatus. My box was a way to show how someone might make a Cornell box who wasn’t Cornell but could bring their own thing into it. It would go in and out of our conversation over the years. Sometimes he’d ask me for ideas so we could push forward.

But he didn’t really want them. The few times I would broach anything like that, it wouldn’t make him happy at all. It was just a kind of thinking out loud, which I had to get used to: the difference between what was really being asked of me and what was being asked but not wanted at all.

There was a lot of that. Sometimes he wouldn’t be talking to me particularly, he would just be musing out loud. It might have gotten triggered because I was there, and then we’d disconnect and reconnect. Sometimes he would talk directly to me about some of these projects, and at a certain point it all became very abstract. Then it was like music, just something washing over me that was very pleasant.

willard: It doesn’t sound like conversation as most people know it. And yet it’s what I would imagine happening in this house. Getting ready for the show, going through the photographs, do you feel you’ve stepped back into that time and place?

roseman: It’s a compression of time for me. This is an old body of work and now it’s become a new body of work, because I’ve had to revisit it and reassess the images. There’s the connection between my present and that part of my life twenty-five years ago, and there’s the connection with him. He really dates back to the early part of the century, so I feel like it’s made my arm longer, reaching in and out of time. You look at people’s biographies, their birth and death dates, and you think about people who were born in the middle of a century and then died in the middle of the next century, or people who were born at the end of one century and lived through most of the next century, or people who were born and lived only twenty years. You think about that and all the ripples that go flowing back from that. Something about this project has woven those ripples together for me.

Recently I found a letter from him. I was away in Massachusetts, and he said how he missed my eye and my camera. You remember some things, you forget some things. It was almost like he’d said it today.