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Joseph Cornell

Joseph Cornell
Cornell in 1971
Born (1903-12-24)December 24, 1903
Nyack, New York
Died December 29, 1972(1972-12-29) (aged 69)
New York City, New York
Nationality American
Known for assemblage, experimental film, sculpture

Joseph Cornell (December 24, 1903 – December 29, 1972) was an American artist and sculptor, one of the pioneers and most celebrated exponents of assemblage. Influenced by the Surrealists, he was also an avant-garde experimental filmmaker.


  • Life 1
  • Sculpture and collage 2
  • Experimental film 3
    • Selected filmography 3.1
  • Cultural references 4
  • Art market 5
  • See also 6
  • Notes 7
  • Further reading 8
  • External links 9


Joseph Cornell was born in Nyack, New York, to Joseph Cornell, a well-to-do designer and merchant of textiles, and Helen TenBroeck Storms Cornell, who had trained as a kindergarten teacher. The Cornells had four children: Joseph, Elizabeth (b. 1905), Helen (b. 1906), and Robert (b. 1910). Both parents came from socially prominent families of Dutch ancestry, long-established in New York State. Cornell's father died in 1917, leaving the family in strained circumstances. Following the elder Cornell's death, his wife and children moved to the borough of Queens in New York City. Cornell attended Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, in the class of 1921, although he did not graduate.

Except for the three and a half years he spent at Phillips, he lived for most of his life in a small, wooden-frame house on Utopia Parkway in a working-class area of Flushing, along with his mother and his brother Robert, whom cerebral palsy had rendered physically challenged.[1][2] Aside from the period he spent at the academy in Andover, Cornell never traveled beyond the New York City area.[3]:xiii

Cornell was wary of strangers. This led him to isolate himself and become a self-taught artist.[2] Although he expressed attraction to unattainable women like Lauren Bacall, his shyness made romantic relationships almost impossible. In later life his bashfulness verged toward reclusiveness, and he rarely left the state of New York. However, he preferred talking with women, and often made their husbands wait in the next room when he discussed business with them.[4] He also had numerous friendships with ballerinas, who found him unique, but too eccentric to be a romantic partner.[4]

His last major exhibition was a show he arranged especially for children, with the boxes displayed at child height and with the opening party serving soft drinks and cake.

He devoted his life to caring for his younger brother Robert, who was disabled and lived with cerebral palsy, which was another factor in his lack of relationships. At some point in the 1920s, or possibly earlier, he read the writings of Mary Baker Eddy, including Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures. Cornell considered Eddy's works to be among the most important books ever published after the Bible, and he became a lifelong Christian Science adherent.[5]

He was also rather poor for most of his life, working during the 1920s as a wholesale fabric salesman to support his family. As a result of the American Great Depression, Cornell lost his textile industry job in 1931, and worked for a short time thereafter as a door-to-door appliance salesman. During this time, through her friendship with Ethel Traphagen, Cornell's mother secured him a part-time position designing textiles. In the 1940s, Cornell also worked in a plant nursery (which would figure in his famous dossier "GC44") and briefly in a defense plant, and designed covers and feature layouts for Harper's Bazaar, View, Dance Index, and other magazines. He only really began to sell his boxes for significant sums after his 1949 solo show at the Charles Egan Gallery.[6]

Cornell ended his career as a highly regarded artist but remained out of the spotlight. He produced fewer box assemblages in the 1950s and 1960s, as his family responsibilities increased and claimed more of his time. He hired a series of young assistants, including both students and established artists, to help him organize material, make artwork, and run errands. At this time, Cornell concentrated on making collages, and collaborated with filmmakers like Rudy Burckhardt, Stan Brakhage, and Larry Jordan to make films that were evocative of moving collages.

In 1967 the artist was reported in possession of two or three original drawings from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's The Little Prince. The exiled Saint-Exupéry's wife, Consuelo, was similarly an artist and sculptor.[7]

Cornell's brother Robert died in 1965, and his mother in 1966. Joseph Cornell died of apparent heart failure on 29 December 1972, a few days after his sixty-ninth birthday.[3]:xiv The executors of his estate were Richard Ader and Wayne Andrews, as represented by the art dealers Leo Castelli, Richard Feigen, and James Corcoran. Later, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation was established, which administers the copyrights of Cornell's works and represents the interests of his heirs. Currently, the Foundation is administered by Trustees, Richard Ader, and Joseph Erdman.

Sculpture and collage

Joseph Cornell Untitled (Dieppe) c. 1958, Museum of Modern Art, (New York City).

Cornell's most characteristic art works were boxed assemblages created from found objects. These are simple shadow boxes, usually fronted with a glass pane, in which he arranged eclectic fragments of photographs or Victorian bric a brac, in a way that combines the formal austerity of Constructivism with the lively fantasy of Surrealism. Many of his boxes, such as the famous Medici Slot Machine boxes, are interactive and are meant to be handled.[8]

Like Kurt Schwitters, Cornell could create poetry from the commonplace. Unlike Schwitters, however, he was fascinated not by refuse, garbage, and the discarded, but by fragments of once beautiful and precious objects he found on his frequent trips to the bookshops and thrift stores of New York.[9] His boxes relied on the Surrealist use of irrational juxtaposition, and on the evocation of nostalgia, for their appeal.

Cornell never regarded himself as a Surrealist; although he admired the work and technique of Surrealists like Max Ernst and René Magritte, he disavowed the Surrealists' "black magic", claiming that he only wished to make white magic with his art. Cornell's fame as the leading American "Surrealist" allowed him to befriend several members of the Surrealist movement when they settled in the United States during the Second World War. Later he was claimed as a herald of pop art and installation art.

Cornell often made series of boxed assemblages that reflected his various interests: the Soap Bubble Sets, the Medici Slot Machine series, the Pink Palace series, the Hotel series, the Observatory series, and the Space Object Boxes, among others. Also captivated with birds, Cornell created an Aviary series of boxes, in which colorful images of various birds were mounted on wood, cut out, and set against harsh white backgrounds.[2]

In addition to creating boxes and flat collages and making short art films, Cornell also kept a filing system of over 160 visual-documentary "dossiers" on themes that interested him; the dossiers served as repositories from which Cornell drew material and inspiration for boxes like his "penny arcade" portrait of Lauren Bacall. He had no formal training in art, although he was extremely well-read and was conversant with the New York art scene from the 1940s through to the 1960s.

His methodology is described in a monograph by Charles Simic as:

Somewhere in the city of New York there are four or five still-unknown objects that belong together. Once together they'll make a work of art. That's Cornell's premise, his metaphysics, and his religion....[3]:14 Marcel Duchamp and John Cage use chance operation to get rid of the subjectivity of the artist. For Cornell it's the opposite. To submit to chance is to reveal the self and its obsessions.[3]:61

Cornell was heavily influenced by the American Transcendentalists, Hollywood starlets (to whom he sent boxes he had dedicated to them), the French Symbolists such as Stéphane Mallarmé and Gérard de Nerval, and 19th-century ballet dancers such as Marie Taglioni and Fanny Cerrito.

Christian Science belief and practice informed Cornell's art deeply, as art historian Sandra Leonard Starr has shown.

Experimental film

Joseph Cornell's 1936 found-film montage Rose Hobart was made entirely from splicing together existing film stock that Cornell had found in New Jersey warehouses, mostly derived from a 1931 "B" film entitled East of Borneo.[10] Cornell would play Nestor Amaral's record, Holiday in Brazil during its rare screenings, as well as projecting the film through a deep blue glass or filter, giving the film a dreamlike effect. Focusing mainly on the gestures and expressions made by Rose Hobart (the original film's starlet), this dreamscape of Cornell's seems to exist in a kind of suspension until the film's most arresting sequence toward the end, when footage of a solar eclipse is juxtaposed with a white ball falling into a pool of water in slow motion.

Cornell premiered the film at the Julien Levy Gallery in December 1936 during the first Surrealist exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York.[11] Salvador Dalí, who was in New York to attend the MoMA opening, was present at its first screening. During the screening, Dalí became outraged at Cornell's movie, claiming he had just had the same idea of applying collage techniques to film. After the screening, Dalí remarked to Cornell that he should stick to making boxes and stop making films. Traumatized by this event, the shy, retiring Cornell showed his films rarely thereafter.

Joseph Cornell continued to experiment with film until his death in 1972. While his earlier films were often collages of found short films, his later ones montaged together footage he expressly commissioned from the professional filmmakers with whom he collaborated. These latter films were often set in some of Cornell's favorite neighborhoods and landmarks in New York City: Mulberry Street, Bryant Park, Union Square Park, and the Third Avenue Elevated Railway, among others.

In 1969 Cornell gave a collection of both his own films and the works of others to Anthology Film Archives in New York City.

Selected filmography

Cultural references

  • The cyberpunk novelist William Gibson uses the finding of mysterious boxes similar to those by Joseph Cornell as a narrative element in his novel Count Zero (1984).
  • Scholarship on Joseph Cornell’s art and life leads to Michael Brayndick’s dissertation Joseph Cornell and the Dialectics of Human Time (ProQuest document ID: 751523701, University of Iowa, July 1987); and inspires Brayndick's 1999 play, How to Make a Rainbow with workshop performances in: New York (1998), Connecticut (2000), and the UK (2003), and the world premiere production by On the Spot Theatre in Chicago (2013).
  • In 1992, poet Charles Simic publishes a prose collection inspired by and with images of the work of Joseph Cornell: Dime-Store Alchemy, The Art of Joseph Cornel (published by New York Review Books, originally published by Hopewell, N.J.: Ecco Press).
  • Jonathan Safran Foer's anthology A Convergence of Birds (2001) is a collection of fiction and poetry inspired by Cornell's work. Foer, then an undergraduate, solicits all of his favorite authors to the contribute to the collection by sending them a print of one of Cornell's bird boxes, and an explanation of the project. He is surprised when well-known authors such as Joyce Carol Oates, Rick Moody and Barry Lopez respond to his prompts with Cornell inspired works.
  • The Canadian poet and playwright Michael Redhill's first novel Martin Sloane (2001) concerns a fictional collage artist whose works resemble those of Joseph Cornell.
  • The American novelist and short story writer Robert Coover publishes a series of stories entitled The Grand Hotels (of Joseph Cornell) in 2002. Akin to short fables, the stories refer to various themes and images in Cornell's Hotel series of boxes.
  • Charles L. Mee's play Hotel Cassiopeia (2006) is based on the life of Joseph Cornell.
  • Singer/songwriter Thomas Comerford releases the album Archive + Spiral in 2011 which contains the song titled "Joseph Cornell". The song is described as less of an homage and more of a meditation on the mood the artist invokes.[14]

Art market

Sold from the estate of Edwin and Lindy Bergman, Chicago-based collectors and art patrons, Cornell’s Untitled (Penny Arcade Portrait of Lauren Bacall) (1946) fetched $5.3 million at Christie's New York, setting an auction record for the artist. The jewel-like box, with images of Bacall on blue background, was inspired by To Have and Have Not, a film starring Bacall and Humphrey Bogart.[15]

See also


  1. ^ Cotter, Holland. "Poetic Theaters, Romantic Fevers", Flushing, Queens."
  2. ^ a b c Danielle O'Steen (February 14, 2007). "Artist Dossier: Joseph Cornell". ART+AUCTION. Retrieved 2008-04-22. 
  3. ^ a b c d Simic, Charles (1992). Dime-Store Alchemy. New York, NY: New York Review.  
  4. ^ a b Waldman, Diane. Joseph Cornell: Master of Dreams 2002.
  5. ^ [2] Andreae, Christopher. "Joseph Cornell's Alluring Boxes", Christian Science Monitor, March 23, 2004.
  6. ^
  7. ^ Bourdon, David (1967) "The Enigmatic Collector of Utopia Parkway", Life Magazine, 15 December 1967, pg. 63.
  8. ^ Deborah Solomon, Utopia Parkway: The Life and Work of Joseph Cornell, New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux (1997).
  9. ^ "Joseph Cornell" at Web Museum, Paris.
  10. ^ Caqtherine Corman (4 November 2010). "Surrealist Astronomy in the South Pacific: Joseph Cornell and the Collaged Eclipse". East of Borneo. Retrieved 15 December 2011. 
  11. ^ Frye, Brian "Film and & Video: Joseph Cornell", November 2001
  12. ^ Crawford, Ashley. "Hoax most perfect," Melbourne Age, October 11, 2003. Retrieved October 27, 2014.
  13. ^ "Best of the fest," Melbourne Age, October 5, 2003. Retrieved September 3, 2014.
  14. ^ Williams, Kent. "Album Review: Thomas Comerford – Archive + Spiral". little village, Iowa City's News & Culture Magazine. 
  15. ^ Katya Kazakina (May 14, 2014), Billionaires Help Christie’s to Record $745 Million Sale Bloomberg.

Further reading

  • Ashton, Dore. A Joseph Cornell Album. New York: Viking Press, 1974. ISBN 0-306-80372-0
  • Blair, Lindsay. The Working Method of Joseph Cornell. Reaktion Books; Illustrated edition, April 1, 1998. ISBN 0-948462-49-3
  • Bonk, Ecke; Davidson, Susan; d'Harnoncourt, Anne; Hartigan, Lydia Roscoe; Hopps, Walter; Temkin, Ann. Joseph Cornell/Marcel Duchamp... in resonance. Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Cantz, 1998. ISBN 3-89322-431-9
  • Caws, Mary Ann. Joseph Cornell's Theater of the Mind: Selected Diaries, Letters, and Files. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2000. ISBN 0-500-28243-9
  • Corman, Catherine. .Joseph Cornell's Dreams Cambridge: Exact Change, 2007. ISBN 1-878972-41-3
  • Foer, Jonathan Safran (ed.). A Convergence of Birds: Original Fiction and Poetry Inspired by the Work of Joseph Cornell. New York: Distributed Art Publishers, 2001. ISBN 1-891024-30-2
  • Hartigan, Lydia Roscoe. Joseph Cornell: Navigating the Imagination. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007. ISBN 978-0-300-11162-0
  • Hartigan, Lydia Roscoe; Vine, Richard; Lehrman, Robert; Hopps, Walter. Joseph Cornell: Shadowplay Eterniday. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2003. ISBN 0-500-97628-7
  • Leppanen-Guerra, Analisa; Tashjian, Dickran. Joseph Cornell's Manual of Marvels. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2012. ISBN 978-0-500-51649-2
  • McShine, Kynaston (ed.). Joseph Cornell. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1980. ISBN 3-7913-1063-1
  • Schaffner, Ingrid. The Essential Joseph Cornell. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2003. ISBN 0-8109-5833-3
  • Solomon, Deborah. Utopia Parkway: The Life and Work of Joseph Cornell. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1997. ISBN 0-374-52571-4
  • Starr, Sandra Leonard. Joseph Cornell: Art and Metaphysics. New York: Castelli Corcoran Feigen, 1982. LC Catalogue Card Number 82-71787
  • Tashjian, Dickran. Joseph Cornell: Gifts of Desire. Miami Beach: Grassfield Press, 1992. ISBN 0-9628514-3-4
  • Waldman, Diane. Joseph Cornell: Master of Dreams. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2002. ISBN 0-8109-1227-9

External links

  • at The Peabody Essex MuseumJoseph Cornell: Navigating The Imagination
  • Joseph Cornell at WebMuseum
  • Joseph Cornell at Artchive
  • Joseph Cornell at Artcyclopedia
  • NPR article on Joseph Cornell
  • Salon article at the Wayback Machine (archived August 18, 2000)
  • Joseph Cornell Biography and Images: Hollis Taggart Galleries
  • Smithsonian Retrospective
  • Joseph Cornell at the Internet Movie Database
  • Joseph Cornell papers online at the Smithsonian Archives of American Art
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