The Museum hosts an unusual blog post about an unusual and supreme object artist. Less about the objects than the neurology, Sonia Boué attempts to explore a like mind.

Joseph Cornell: Untitled (Multiple Cubes), constructed in 1946-48

Before taking a break away from work and blogging I took in five major London exhibitions over two days and I am still digesting it all three weeks later, on my return from the Americas.

What astonished me was the incidence of neurodivergence I found in my art going foray. For example, I’m certain that two of the three major exhibitions featured artists who demonstrated both in their output and biographies evidence of neurodivergent minds. Perhaps all I am really noticing is the high degree of intersection between artists and neurodivergence. Just to clarify, in using this term I refer to biological differences which alter perception and have been generally considered deficits but which we are merely variations in the human genome bestowing many advantageous qualities, particularly in the arts and sciences where original thought is at a premium.

For a good definition of these terms check this link:

So this blog post will focus on Joseph Cornell, but I have written about Agnes Martin and the autistic spectrum on my blog, The Other Side, which deals with matters neurodiverse.

My inability to keep art out of my neurodivergent blog and vice versa seem to say much about me but also to make my point for me. The intersection is there – I would say it is unavoidable. I would go further – it should rather be approached head on, as we know that neurodivergence has not been recognised, and our contributions to general society and culture remain unacknowledged.

It’s incredibly important to begin to unpick the net worth of this hidden talent in our world. Neurodivergent people have lacked role models and been undervalued for ever. This has to change and the change most logically is being driven from within our community. It is easy for neurodivergent minds to recognise one another at work and this makes it vital for us to write about what we see and know.

In the case of Joseph Cornell I found it astonishing that a quick Google search revealed no hits for autism or Asperger’s – his biography alone allows those familiar with the spectrum of human variation we know as autistic, to recognise many such signs. But then Cornell’s life span did not coincide with advances in the true dissemination of knowledge about autism, it’s range and incidence, which are counter to older and quite inaccurate definitions and stereotypes.

There is also a view that it is wrong to offer retrospective “diagnosis”, which could account for the omissions and lack of investigation that I could find. Honestly – I don’t buy this reticence. As we move further away from medical model views of neurodivergence and understand this as more common biologically driven variations in human experience and perception, the more imperative it becomes to recognise it. Further this ceases to be a case of “diagnosis” and more one of cultural recovery in my view. It seems to me that neurodivergent communities should be welcome to explore this territory. Recognition (as I shall call it rather than diagnosis) only becomes taboo if neurodivergence is viewed as negatively as it has been, but as both our knowledge base and the civil rights movement grows this becomes unviable.

It is also true that neurodivergent perspectives on the life of an artist can bring fresh interpretations to the work. Neurotypical assumptions could be holding back knowledge and understanding in the case of neurodivergent artists.

So my contribution will focus on what I saw and recognised from the perspective of a neurodivergent artist who also works with objects. Aside from the “it takes one to know one” – that is to say the felt response to a strikingly familiar vision – what can I offer in terms of “evidence” for neurodivergence on viewing Joseph Cornell at the Royal Academy?

Well, the heat of recognition felt in the region of the heart can’t be discounted. It’s power and the soaring joy accompanying it were immediate. This is how it often is, and forms the beginning of what then becomes more analytical. You have to describe, even to yourself, why you feel you know you have encountered a like mind. A recent comment by a family member, who is also an art historian by training, comes to mind. She described neurodivergent individuals as “mind dancers”. I’ll hold that thought in my pocket as I try to unpick what I’m getting at.

Much of what I could say about Cornell is not exclusive to the neurodivergent creative so this is not just about the consistently meticulous attention to detail or the extraordinary focus and variation within the forms he employs, nor the rich and quirky language this builds and builds on throughout his career. But the embers of recognition are there in the subjects of journey and relationship – more specifically their sideways approach and otherness when compared to mainstream narratives of travel and romance. They are also present in the creation of a most particular world through his oeuvre, so complete and comprehensive as to be entirely convincing and immersive. I hesitate to say it is hermetic but it does stand alone and apart. Bewitching or enchanting are words I would be happy to use, and I sensed the gently tapping rhythms of a mind dancer at work in casting the spell.

But these are general observations. How about a particular example? When I write about the shows I see I generally do so straight off the bat when my memory for detail is good. Here I’m working with a gap – wider than the three weeks due to all the input from the Americas – so I’m going to go with what now stands out and remains. We know that for neurodivergent people relationship can be different and we are coming to know that this is not lesser, just other. Relationship is often not direct, it may also be not primarily human in focus. Both objects and animals can provide rich sources of contact and emotional mediation and modulation. Human relationship may be to a small group (immediate family and a handful of close friends) and can often be transacted sideways rather than head on, or what we call through side by side approaches or activities.

Of all the myriad exhibits on view, my mind flies to the latter stages of the show where touchingly Cornell pays tribute to Mondrian. Cornell still uses the box form but strips it down to a minimalistic grid – the example shown above is not precisely the one I had in mind but demonstrates adaption and adoption – the moulding and mimicry that can form the basis for neurodivergent interaction. But more significantly Cornell I feel attains an intimacy with Mondrian through these pieces. Rather than reflecting a mere admiration for Mondrian’s Theosophy and a penchant for collecting crates at the time (as Dore Ashton in, A Joseph Cornell Album, Da Capo Press, 2009, suggests) these Mondrian homages speak of a deeper empathic and intuitive experience it seems to me.

It would be easy to dismiss the playfulness of Cornell’s pieces and miss the invitation to the viewer I discerned in so many of his works. These works it seems to me form a basis for interaction, the very font of relationship. We are invited to explore and engage through the exquisite objects Cornell has created. I feel he always has the viewer in mind as his playmate albeit perhaps an imaginary one, the relationship invited feels vibrant and direct. This has to do with the many game and toy references in the works as much as with their placing – just so the viewer’s hand is welcomed in. Again the mind dancer finds joy in infinite variation and association and I sense his rhythm. It cannot be beyond the realms of possibility that the works and objects he employs are about this primary relationship (through which other relationships could be mediated), rather than the other way about.

The Royal Academy arrived at a great hook line in dubbing Cornell an armchair traveller and it is true that this extensive body of works was created in his New York basement. Reference is also often made to his limited or thwarted relationship to women. I don’t really want to comment too much on this apart from to say that these observations too come from a neurotypical perspective.

As a neurodivergent artist it feels important to begin a conversation in which alternative perspectives can be recognised and the interpretation of such an artist as Joseph Cornell can be deepened and amplified.

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Joseph Cornell was the subject of the last blog post, and it’s very fitting indeed for The Museum of Object Research to run another post dedicated to this remarkable object artist. It’s a particular pleasure to provide a link to Fisun Güner’s thoughtful review – I always enjoy Fisun’s perspective as she seems to me to be a critic and writer of great perception and sensitivity. Fisun is also bold and therefore thought provoking in her responses to artists, while providing an immediacy in her writing, which can make you  feel you’ve shared the viewing experience.

I was drawn to her interest in Cornell’s emotional isolation, and a certain adolescent sensibility in his work, which can also read as innocence or guileless authenticity. I would bet good money from reading about Cornell’s life that he was not neurotypical and fell somewhere on the autistic spectrum. This could also reflect in his high level affinity with objects as containers of experience and memory, as vehicles for expression and thus as language. This is a particular interest of mine.

Fisun also prompts me to think about the pitfalls of sentimentality when working with objects. Not that she concludes Cornell falls foul of such a fault, and nor do I, although others such as Robert Hughes have explored this idea. But  I do often question my own practice with regard to the dangers of over sentimentality and wonder if other object artists do this too?  Recently I had a Tracey Emin beano and watched a heap of her YouTube appearances. I actually think there is a huge difference between emotional authenticity, connecting with the self quite directly through one’s practice, and the opposite – sentimentality. I love the way Tracey talks about this engagement with the self  – especially in a recent programme What Do Artists Do All Day. I found this affirming and recognisable.

Though of course it is perhaps for the viewer and critic to truly judge this, and I am aware that my own work through it’s engagement with highly emotive and personal material might at times be seen to cross the line. I hope not and tell myself it is honest engagement with the subject that most comes to our aid in this struggle. I wonder what others think.

I recommend this review highly and please do leave some comments as I would love to hear your views!

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The Slazenger Jupiter – an object in transition, is a glorious new guest blog post by Neil Armstrong. The Museum is very proud to host this post along with all the  fabulous images provided by Neil. In answer to your question Neil – there aren’t too many photos AND I would have happily uploaded more! Thank you so much for this hugely satisfying read around the life of an object within the life of a man – so much to mull over and enjoy. I’m off for a re-read!  


The Slazenger Jupiter was my first ‘proper’ tennis racket. Nylon fibre strung, it would take me another two barter- exchanges before I got my hands on a more expensive, catgut powered, upgrade. In these early years the Jupiter was to loom large in my world; a Thunderbirds generation space child. Tennis racket as monolith in orbit around the ringed planet. I acquired mine in the same year Kubrick’s 2001 was released. Smash, dash, forehand volley; the future was now –  and all this well before Star Wars hit the screen.

This one is mostly painted wood, giving it a functional, minimalist appeal. Ultimately I had my sights set on the visually richer, woody looking Dunlop Maxply – the choice of champions – a real piece of furniture. But this lesser model was my starting point, encompassing all the aspirations that subsequent purchases promised to deliver on.

There is something special about the first of anything you own or do, but it’s often the case that these things get lost, destroyed or discarded long before their status becomes apparent. After all, you aren’t necessarily aware of the significance of functional objects in the present. It takes time and the attachment of a personal history to establish that.

So it’s not just a tennis racket. It represents much more, and when I put it into timeline context it’s a signifier of how my overall attitude to life has evolved. It is also an object itself in transition. It sheds its skin a little later.

Why the Slazenger Jupiter? Obviously it had a cool name, but it was in fact second hand. It certainly wouldn’t have been worth my parents paying full price for a new one if it turned out that I didn’t take to the game. I had friends who had already moved on to classier models so this re-cycling was a low risk bargain purchase at the time.

The boy who first introduced me to his private tennis club had one of these rackets but managed to snap it at the neck. His resourceful dad made two metal plates to bolt the thing together again and he proudly brandished the resultant lethal weapon with scant concern for the fact that the racket was now totally unbalanced and potentially quite dangerous. My friend wasn’t talented or tenacious enough to develop a compensatory technique and I don’t remember him ever progressing to another model.

If you want to check out the inner landscape of a person’s character you should put them on the other side of a tennis court. Any competitive game will do, but tennis is particularly adept at testing someone’s resolve. It’s something to do with the points system. You are never far away from disaster. There is always a chance that the player ahead on points will lose their nerve at the crucial moment and reveal a psychological flaw that lets their opponent in. Then there is the question of honesty, nay, integrity – “did you really call that out… I mean REALLY??” People reveal their interior selves on a tennis court.

As I got good at the game I found I was the only one at my school who could beat the teachers at anything (tennis wasn’t taught so not many pupils knew how to play… and for that matter not many teachers did either). I worked out that I don’t like to lose. How one deals with that is fundamental to most things. However You will lose, so you need to deal with that too. I worked out there are countless strategies to be employed once you understand the game is more than the sum of its parts. Know your own strengths. Assess your opponent, then adapt your strategy to exploit their flaws. All very erm… aggressive. Like something out of a hard sell handbook.

And then there is the pursuit of status. Status in a world where to win at something so visible to the rest of the school took you well beyond the constraints of academic success. Opportunities present themselves in the social pecking order.  I suspect this played a considerable part in forming the full grown man.

I, like many others no doubt , saw the racket itself as an object of desire. It is something akin to a sword. Both beautiful as a ‘thing’ in your hand to be swept through the air and brandished, and supremely satisfying when, on hitting the sweet spot, you become a master of destiny and leave your opponent (only metaphorically hopefully) decapitated. On a good day this feeling can be experienced over and over again. It’s a bit of a drug… oh and also the basis of capitalism.

Over time this object evolved. Lots of us have stood in front of the mirror with a racket and laid it down with some heavy duty riffing or arm flailing kerranging. Mine was ‘Born to be wild’ and ‘Sunshine of your love’ with a bit of Dylanesque strumming thrown in. The tennis racket transitioning into a new object of aspiration and promise. The guitar becoming the mime made real.

Fortunately I still have my first guitar, well my first proper acoustic guitar. One that I acquired from a shop brand new, duly purchased in 52 weekly instalments. I played it regularly for years despite an exotic selection of wonderfully shaped electric monstrosities also passing through my hands.  These, in turn, were inevitably traded for yet more second hand discoveries on the road to nowhere.

It was at about this point that my tennis playing ambition waned and my guitar playing ambition grew. Objects in metamorphosis. I played tennis with my (natural) left hand – but something told me that this guitar idea was a keeper and that it would be sensible to learn right handed so you could pick up other guitars more readily. I am still in awe of my foresight at this juncture.

The guitar went with me to art college. The guitar has taken me to lots of places that I would never have otherwise been, and given me a glimpse of a whole other world. I’m thinking it fulfilled some of what I imagined a tennis racket might. But, in reality, making art has taken me to many more places than both of them.

Part of me thought to make art like I played tennis…to win. Except there is the rub. You can’t win at art. In fact you pretty much always fail; there is always a better, more alluring idea just around the corner and an issue that won’t resolve. That is both annoying and stimulating.

A few years after I left art college I found myself regularly playing tennis in a network which included a previous tutor of mine. Purely recreational – except it never really is once you get locked into combat. One particular game of singles stands out in my memory. I could tell he soooo wanted to beat me, and I was already down a set. This was to be his ‘moment’… and my task was to deny him that. A bit mean really.

We had such a struggle and eventually I won. Strangely though the winning, once achieved, was of little consequence. I remember it was such a well fought game, and that it marked a moment of mutual respect. The battle was more important than the victory. Well to me at least. In hindsight, to be more sure of the reciprocity of that sentiment, I should really have lost I suppose. But let’s not be silly.

Not long after that game the ‘big serve’ began taking its toll on my back, so I made the sensible decision to give up playing for good. To forgo my gladiatorial fix. I let it slip away surprisingly easily.

It made me think about what drives ambition, and how it gets re-aligned over time. Continuing my art practice; to hopefully make something that is more substantial than just ‘me’ – and offering that to others – well that’s about the sum of my vision now. Importantly though, what sets this particular artistic ambition apart from playing a ‘game’ is that, unlike tennis, I can’t imagine giving it up. It is a process without resolution,  ultimately beyond ‘winning’ or ‘recognition’, where in fact there is no actual goal at all; rather continuation.

My Slazenger Jupiter may be past its best and no match for the equivalent carbon fibre powerhouses of today, but as an evocative object it has become the embodiment of an evolved understanding of competition, and a reminder to be sceptical of ambition in most, if not all, of its forms.

Neil Armstrong 2015


The Museum for Object Research is once again grateful to object artist Kate Murdoch for sourcing this extraordinary project by Phil Toledano – When I Was Six.

A most poignant and powerful example of how objects open up into lost or buried memory, and can both document and contain aspects of our past lives or ‘former selves’.

I’m most moved by the careful conserving of objects by Phil’s parents. The work speaks for itself. Highly, highly recommended reading and viewing.