Joseph Cornell

Joseph Cornell (1903-1972) was an American artist best known for his small collage boxes as well as for his experimental films.

Joseph Cornell was born on December 24, 1903, in Nyack, New York, to parents descended from old Dutch families, his maternal grandfather being the wealthy and prominent Commodore William Voorhis. After his father's death in 1917 Cornell, along with his mother, two sisters, and an invalid brother, was faced with a financial set-back that forced them to leave Nyack and move to Flushing, Queens, where he lived until his death in 1972. Educated at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, Cornell worked at a variety of jobs such as selling refrigerators door-to-door, designing textiles, and working in the garment industry to help support his family. He never married or travelled, living most of his life in a white frame house on Utopia Parkway in Queens. Cornell was an active Christian Scientist all of his adult life.

It is speculated that Cornell first made his toy-like artworks to amuse his brother who was confined to a wheelchair and cared for by Cornell. He filled them with all sorts of ephemera, of which he was an avid collector. Cornell was known to haunt old book and print shops and junk stores during his daily trips to Manhattan, and he had extensive collections of old photographs, recordings, movies, opera librettos, souvenirs, and other memorabilia. He was enamoured of all forms of theater and was well read in literature and poetry.

A very private man, it is thought that he first began making boxes in which he collaged images and objects from his various collections in the early 1930s. The boxes, often containing words, were each based on themes developed by the relationships between collage elements. These connections were sometimes direct but more often allusive, giving the boxes a poetic quality. Cornell did many boxes that were homages to ballerinas, opera singers, and film stars he revered and sometimes corresponded with. The boxes were nostalgic worlds filled with people and places that Cornell admired from a distance. One such box entitled A Pantry Ballet for Jacques Offenbach contains a ballet corps of red plastic fish set against a background of shelf-paper which turns the box into a stage with paper doily curtains and menacing stagesets of toy silverware. The scale and nature of Cornell's boxes did not change much, but in the 1950s he began to make two-dimensional collages without the framework of the boxcontainer.

While considered something of a recluse, Cornell did make contacts with the small art circles in New York in the 1930s. He visited Alfred Stieglitz's pioneering gallery "291," and he became friendly with the dealer Julian Levy where he first showed his collages in 1932. Through Levy, Cornell met many of the European Surrealists who were in New York during the war, and he often showed with them. His work had superficial similarities to theirs, especially in his use of association between seemingly unrelated elements, but in general he criticized them as a group and was not one of their inner circle. His closest friends were the photographer Lee Miller, the artist Marcel Duchamp, and the painter Pavel Tchelitchew.

Cornell also made short, experimental films from the 1930s into the 1950s, an interest that sprung no doubt from his love for the cinema and from the film showings he frequently organized from his collection. In his films Cornell experimented with sequencing where he cut and juxtaposed images to depict a narrative in ways that had never been tried before. He used a collage effect similar to his boxes which film critics contend foreshadowed effects later adapted by commercial cinema. The most noted of these films was Rose Hobart, made in 1936. Cornell wrote scenarios and directed his films, allowing others to photograph them. Photographer Rudy Burckhardt and filmmaker Stan Brakhage worked with Cornell when they were young. Cornell also wrote and edited for the Surrealist magazine View and for Dance Index.

Cornell is often associated with the Surrealists and is footnoted in every history of the movement. But his work is essentially different. Less based on psychoanalytic theories, Cornell's boxes evoke conscious memories rather than unconscious ones. His admiration for the "ineffable beauty and pathos of the commonplace," gleaned from one of his diaries, is at odds with the Surrealist fascination with the bizarre, the shocking, and the inexplicable. Cornell's sensibility was of gentle nostalgia, a difference in temperament from the exaggerated drama of Salvador Dali, Max Ernst, or Andre Breton. At one point Cornell remarked that he thought Surrealizm as an idea had "healthier possibilities" than he saw expressed by the Surrealist artists.

As an artist, Cornell was a loner with only peripheral attachments to larger art currents of his time. Within the sophistication that overtook New York during World War II when many European artists were in exile, Cornell was something of a Yankee anomaly, connected yet separate, interested but skeptical. Like many American artists he chose isolation rather than the cafe society camaraderie to which most European artists were accustomed. Yet his spiritual ties were with their sense of history and memory. When a new American-based abstraction grew in part out of these war-time contacts, Cornell was not a part of it, continuing to refine the obsessions of his early work.


Further Reading on Joseph Cornell

Since his death a great deal has been written about Joseph Cornell, and there have been numerous exhibitions of his work. A retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1980 was accompanied by an extensive catalogue, Joseph Cornell (1980) edited by Kynaston McShine with many illustrations and a good biographical section. Diane Waldman, curator at the Guggenheim Museum, also wrote a book Joseph Cornell (1977). A less historical study by critic Dore Ashton, a friend of Cornell's, entitled A Joseph Cornell Album (1974), is a homage to the artist in something of his own collage style. It includes anecdotes about him, photos of his family and house, an essay by Mexican poet Octavio Paz, and reprints of Cornell's writing and editing.


Additional Biography Sources

Cornell, Joseph, Joseph Cornell, Tokyo: Gatodo Gallery, 1987.

Cornell, Joseph, Joseph Cornell portfolio, New York: Leo Castelli Gallery, 1976.

Cornell, Joseph, Joseph Cornell's theater of the mind: selected diaries, letters, and files, New York: Thames and Hudson, 1993.

Joseph Cornell, New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1980.