Art: The Last Symbolist Poet

FOR SALE. Old château—cozy rooms—observatory turrets—bird's-eye view of countryside—moss-lined alcoves containing sparkling gems looted from best jewel caskets of European nobility—occupants ready to leave at moment's notice—agent on premises.

So runs a sticker, barely legible in tiny print, fixed below an owl's nest in one of Joseph Cornell's boxes. Who could doubt that the white owl staring from its cave of bark is the artist himself, or that the mock prospectus is a kind of manifesto?

Right up to his death at the age of 69 in 1972, Cornell was the most reclusive, subtle...

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