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Joseph Cornell

 (1903 - 1972)
Joseph Cornell was active/lived in New York.  Joseph Cornell is known for assemblage-boxes, collage.

Joseph Cornell

    kor-NEL  speaker-click to hear pronunciation  click to hear

Biography from the Archives of askART

Biography photo for Joseph Cornell
Known as the reclusive surrealist of Utopia Parkway, Queens, Joseph Cornell did collages and box constructions in which images and objects convey an aura of mysterious innocence.  In his will, he left a foundation for making charitable grants from the sales of his art and returns on investments.

Cornell was born in Nyack, New York and attended Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts.  He lived primarily in New York City from 1929.  A collage album made by surrealist Max Ernst inspired Cornell to make his signature boxes, something he began in the early 1930s.  He had no training for these objects that were filled with items such as thimbles, bells, sequins, theatre mementoes, and other everyday objects, some of them from the 19th century.  The combinations challenged the viewers' imaginations because they had unusual juxtapositions and played visual tricks.  Titles include Multiple Cubes, Soapbubble Set and Night Skies.

A close collaborator and major influence early in his career was Marcel Duchamp whom he met in 1933 at Constantin Brancusi sculpture exhibition, organized by Duchamp at Brummer gallery in New York.  Their acquaintance was renewed when Duchamp moved to New York in 1942, and Duchamp hired Cornell to assist him in making editions of his "portable museums," or boxes in a valise. 

As Cornell's career grew, his boxes became increasingly abstract, perhaps influenced by Duchamp and also by Piet Mondrian whose work he admired.

Later Cornell did a number of assemblages in homage to his friend Duchamp, and they were discovered after Cornell's death in 1972.

In the 60's, Cornell was given major retrospectives at the Pasadena Art Museum and at the Guggenheim in New York, attention that earned him a 12-page spread in the December 15, 1967 issue of Life magazine.  The culminating exhibition of his career, perhaps, was the huge 1969 show ''New York Painting and Sculpture: 1940-1970,'' mounted by Henry Geldzahler at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  It included 22 of his constructions, virtually all of them important -- a mini-retrospective of its own.

Sources include:
Matthew Baigell, Dictionary of American Art (David Bourban, Life magazine, 12/15/1967)

Biography from Hollis Taggart Galleries
Known for his inventive box constructions, experimental films, and collages, Joseph Cornell occupies a singular place in the history of twentieth-century American art. Comprising found objects culled from souvenir shops, penny arcades, dime stores, and discarded materials, Cornell's works bring incongruous items together in richly allusive assemblages that deny fixed narratives or a single meaning.  Describing his process, Cornell once stated "Everything can be used, but of course one doesn't know it at the time.  How does one know what a certain object will tell another?" Objects including seashells, marbles, toys, and illustrations reference Cornell's many personal obsessions ranging from childhood pursuits and memories to his adult passion for astronomy, ballet, film, and nineteenth-century French literature,

As a result of his dreamlike scenarios and poetic juxtapositions, Cornell was often associated with the French Surrealists.  He exhibited at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York, a gallery that was instrumental in introducing American audiences to Surrealism.  The connection between Cornell and Surrealism was reinforced by his inclusion in the celebrated 1936 exhibition "Fantastic Art, Dada, and Surrealism" held at the Museum of Modern Art.  Much later, in 1972, he would be included in the "Dada, Surrealism and Their Heritage" exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art.

Yet Cornell's relationship to the Surrealists was more complicated than these points of connection imply.  While he admired many of the works made by the Surrealists and was friendly with artists associated with the group—particularly Marcel Duchamp—he objected to being labeled a member of the group.  A central difference between Cornell and the Surrealists was Cornell's disinterest in dream theories or in exploring the subconscious—the foundation of Surrealism.  Cornell instead preferred to use his work to concentrate on what he termed "healthier possibilities."

Cornell began exploring collage around 1931 after viewing Max Ernst's collage-novel entitled La Femme 100 têtes of 1929.  By the mid-1930s, Cornell started creating his signature shadow box constructions, which he described as "poetic theatres or settings wherein are metamorphosed the elements of a childhood pastime."  The shadow boxes continued to be his primary focus through the 1940s. During this period, he also created collages intended for publication in the avant-garde journal View.  He returned almost exclusively to collage in the mid-1950s and would continue to work in this medium until his death in 1972.  In his collages of the 1960s, Cornell resurrected many of his earlier themes such as birds, objects from penny arcades, and actresses, who ranged from movie stars to local unknowns whom he had met and befriended.

Beginning in the 1930s, Cornell's works were consistently well received by those in the artistic and literary communities.  During the 1960s a new generation of artists, writers, and thinkers, including Andy Warhol, John Ashbery, James Rosenquist, and Susan Sontag (immortalized in Cornell's collage The Ellipsian c. 1966), embraced his work.  Cornell was included in the 1961 exhibition "The Art of Assemblage" at the Museum of Modern Art, where he had an entire room devoted to his art. I n 1967, the Solomon R. Guggenheim mounted an exhibition of his works, as did the Museum of Modern Art in 1980.

Biography from The Columbus Museum of Art, Georgia
Joseph Cornell (1903-1972) was known for his originality.  He was a very shy, curious and creative person, and as a young adult, looked for an outlet for his unusual ideas and strong emotions.  Instead of drawing or painting, he started to collect scraps of metal, old maps, magazine illustrations, marbles, glass jars and other assorted objects that caught his eye during trips to penny arcades, flea markets and other favorite stops near his home in Flushing, New York.

He chose things because they reminded him of something that was important to him or just because they were beautiful.  Using techniques such as assemblage and collage, Cornell made small, lovingly-crafted "boxes" that were inspired by his dreams and ideas about the shortness of life (vanitas), the beauty of nature, the wonders of childhood, the attraction of far-away places and the mysteries of the universe.

When Cornell's boxes came to the attention of artists and collectors in New York in the 1940s, they were surprised by his talent for using everyday objects to make magical worlds filled with symbolic meaning.  Because of the dream-like quality of his compositions, Cornell is linked to an art movement known as Surrealism. 

Submitted by the Staff, Columbus Museum

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About  Joseph Cornell

Born:  1903 - Nyack, New York
Died:   1972 - Flushing, New York
Known for:  assemblage-boxes, collage

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Joseph Cornell