Cornell, Joseph

views updated May 23 2018

Cornell, Joseph


Born December 24, 1903, in Nyack, NY; died of heart failure December 29, 1972, in Flushing, NY; son of Joseph I. (a designer and buyer of textiles) and Helen Ten Broeck (Stornes) Cornell. Education: Attended Phillips Academy (Andover, MA), 1917-21. Religion: Christian Scientist.


Sculptor, collagist, and filmmaker in New York, NY, 1932-72. Early jobs included refrigerator sales, textile designer, and freelance graphic designer for magazines. Contributor of collages and cover art to periodicals, including View, Dance Index, Mademoiselle, Harper's Bazaar, and Juilliard. Creator of collage films, including Rose Hobart, c. 1936, Bookstalls, By Night with Torch and Spear, Cotillion, The Midnight Party, The Children's Party, Jack's Dream, Thimble Theatre, and Carousel. Exhibitions: Julien Levy Gallery, New York, NY, 1932, 1933, 1939, 1940; Hugo Gallery, New York, NY, 1946; Copley Gallery, Hollywood, CA, 1948; Charles Egan Gallery, 1949, 1950; Allan Gallery, Chicago, IL, 1953; Walker Gallery, 1953; The Stable Gallery, 1957; Bennington College, Bennington, VT, 1959; Richard Feigen Gallery (threeman), Chicago, IL, 1960; Ferus Gallery, Los Angeles, 1962; Robert Schoelkopf Gallery, New York, NY, 1966; J. L. Hudson Art Gallery, Detroit, MI, 1966; Brandeis University, 1968; Allan Stone Gallery, 1972; Buffalo/Albright Gallery, 1972; Chicago/Contemporary Gallery, 1973; Castelli, Feigen, Corcoran Gallery, New York, NY, 1978, 1979, 1980, 1982; ACA Gallery, New York, NY, 1975, 1977; Wichita State University, Wichita, KS, 1980; Greenberg Gallery, Clayton, MO, 1976; Rice University, 1977; Baudoin Lebon, Paris, France, 1977; Chicago Art Institute Gallery, 1982; NMAA, 1983; Acme Art, San Francisco, CA, 1985; Fundacion Juan March, Madrid, Spain, 1984; Pace Gallery, New York, NY, 1987, 1988, 1989; Museum of Art, Seibu, Tokyo, Japan, 1987; and Richard Gray Gallery, Chicago, 1990. Work exhibited in retrospectives at institutions, including Guggenheim Museum, 1967, and Museum of Modern Art, 1980. Work included in numerous group shows, including "Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism," Museum of Modern Art, 1936. Work housed in permanent collections of museums in Boston, MA, New York, NY, and Pasadena, CA. Wartime service: Defense plant worker.

Awards, Honors

Copley Foundation grant, 1954; Chicago Art Institute Ada S. Garrett Prize, 1959; Award of Merit, American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, 1968; Brandeis University Creative Arts Award for Fine Arts, 1968, for painting.


A Joseph Cornell Album, edited by Dore Ashton, Viking (New York, NY), 1974.

Joseph Cornell's Theater of the Mind: Selected Diaries, Letters, and Documents, edited by Mary Ann Caws, Thames & Hudson (New York, NY), 1993.

Joseph Cornell: Postcards, Prestel (Munich, Germany), 2003.


(With Stan Brakhage) Rose Hobart, 1939.

(With Stan Brakhage) Gnir Rednow, 1955.

(With Stan Brakhage) Centuries of June, 1955.

(With Rudy Burckhardt) Aviary, 1955.

(With Rudy Burckhardt) What Mozart Saw on Mulberry Street, 1956.

(With Rudy Burckhardt) A Fable for Fountains, 1957.

(With Rudy Burckhardt) Angel, 1957.

Nymphlight, 1959.

(With Larry Jordan) Cotillion, 1969.

(With Larry Jordan) The Children's Party, 1969.

(With Larry Jordan) The Midnight Party, 1969.


Contributor of essays to periodicals, including View. Author of film scenarios Theatre of Hans Christian Andersen, published in Dance Index, and Monsieur Phot (Seen through the Stereoscope). Editor of "Hans Christian Andersen" issue of Dance Index.


An American artist best known for his small collage boxes as well as for his experimental films, Joseph Cornell was called "one of the finest American artists of the [twentieth] century" by Charles Simic in the Times Literary Supplement. "During the 1930s," wrote an essayist in Contemporary Artists, "Cornell began arranging found objects in glass and wooden boxes, creating three-dimensional collage constructions which are the immediate forerunners of Assemblage, an art form highly popularized in America during the 1950s and 1960s. Over a span of about 40 years, Cornell fashioned a magical miniature world by arranging the trivia and memorabilia he retrieved from antique and secondhand shops, on beaches and in backyards."

Cornell was born on December 24, 1903, in Nyack, New York. His forbears were members of wealthy Dutch immigrant families, and he counted among relatives the wealthy and well-known Commodore William Voorhis, his maternal grandfather. After her husband's death in 1917 left the family in financial difficulties, Cornell's mother moved with her two sons and two sisters to Flushing, in Queens, New York. Cornell continued to live at the family's new home in Flushing until his death in 1972, and he spent much of his life caring for his brother Robert, who was confined to a wheelchair. Despite the family's straightened circumstances, Cornell managed to attend a good preparatory school, attending Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. After leaving school he worked at a variety of jobs, including selling refrigerators door-to-door, designing textiles, and working in the garment industry, as a way of supporting his family. A Christian Scientist, he never married and rarely left New York.

Miniature Boxes

Cornell likely made his first toy-like works of art to amuse his brother Robert, who was partially paralyzed and therefore housebound. Because of his lack of formal training in artistic methods and practices, the resourceful Cornell looked for materials in the secondhand bookstores on Fourth Avenue in Manhattan, and he also collected bric-a-brac. Throughout his life, he saved all manner of things—from cuttings from magazines, watch springs, maps, and toys—because he saw a potential use for everything, even the most mundane household object. He also collected more traditional objects, such as old photographs, recordings, movies, opera librettos, souvenirs, and other memorabilia. Despite his sheltered life, Cornell enjoyed the cultural opportunities afforded by the city, including New York's theatre, and remained an avid reader.

According to Diane Waldman in her introduction to Joseph Cornell, the artist's box constructions "were created within the milieu of family life—of commonplace living—not in the isolation of a studio." Waldman described Cornell's nostalgic reminiscence of "Sunday afternoons, after church, listening to Protestant services on the radio, and the great sense of religion within the wonderful warmth of family life." Cornell "speaks of the boxes as having been fashioned of a great love of the city," Waldman noted, "—of a city and a time, with its seemingly endless plethora of books and material, that is gone now. All of this has been captured in his boxes and given to us, in wave after wave of memories, with a pulsating sense of life and as a living presence."

Cornell's boxes, which often contain text elements, are unique, each one centered around a theme that is revealed due to the interrelationships between the included objects. While these connections are sometimes direct, sometimes they are less clear, requiring the viewer to reflect on the collage's ultimate meaning. Cornell's interests in the arts figure prominently, particularly with relation to women actresses and other performers: many of his boxes honor favorite ballet dancers, opera divas, or motion picture stars, and he maintained files of images of many of his favorites. He also occasionally corresponded with performers he admired. As a Contemporary Artists essayist noted: "Maps, balls, butterflies, figurines, springs, printed cards and papers, jars, glass, glasses, photo engravings and reproductions of famous people and art from the historical past, compasses, feathers, marbles, toys, pipes, dried flowers, counters—Cornell juggled so much so tenaciously, to convey his message of time, mortality and the infinite. He was early in using mirrors, movement and sound, and he was also early in using series. He often used astronomical maps and astrological charts, alluding to our fateful destiny in the hands of the sun, moon and planets. He often used images out of the past, making the Medici or dancers, for example, participants in his obsession to create a historical present which sees through the cultural past. Alongside the gentleness there is an element of warning, seducing with no nostalgic sentimentality but always with a sense of intelligent intimacy with the accumulated treasures he collected from nature, from culture and from the industrial world."

Cornell's work draws upon the aesthetics of surrealism, and he sought inspiration in French symbolist poetry, particularly that of Arthur Rimbaud and Charles Baudelaire. Incorporating the surrealist's startling imagery and the symbolist's fascination with the exotic, Cornell worked to achieve meaning within a highly personal and self-contained environment. "The images of Joseph Cornell yield up notions of nostalgia, evocations of historical moments, lyrical flights, romantic daydreams, childlike games, or playful paradoxes," noted John Bernard Myers in Artnews. "Few of the works are easily understood because few lack mystery.... They are a revelation of the whole man, but a man whose mind is hard to pin down."

Influenced by German artist Max Ernst's 1929 novel, La femme des 100 tetes, Cornell began making paper collages, some of which he entered in a surrealist group show at New York's Julien Levy Gallery in 1932. Though he often made use of surrealistinspired iconography, Cornell did not share the movement's detached irony and a desire to shock the general public. Rather, his collages, as well as the boxes he would eventually design, reveal their creator's reverence for birds, children, seashells, and above all, female beauty.

Tries Hand at Film

In 1937 Cornell spliced and rearranged the adventure film East of Borneo, renaming it Rose Hobart, after the film's star. Spanish painters Salvador Dali, himself a pioneer in avant-garde film, was present at the screening and is reported to have been visibly jealous of Cornell's achievement. Cornell went on to created numerous other "collage" films, although some remained unfinished at his death. As P. Adams Sitney pointed out in an essay included in the Museum of Modern Art's exhibit catalog Joseph Cornell, the artist's "cinema remains the central enigma of his work. His films have a roughness and insidiousness that the constructions and collages never exhibit. A convenient attitude to take toward them would be to undervalue them, as many have done, including the artist himself." In his films Cornell experimented with connecting images in unique ways that, unlike traditional film, present the viewer with harsh, abrupt transitions. This effect has been described as similar to a collage, where diverse objects share a common space, and several film critics have argued that Cornell's experimental cinema foreshadows some of the techniques eventually adopted by filmmakers.

A shy, somewhat idiosyncratic individual, Cornell continued to focus on familiar themes and images throughout his work, seemingly detached from then-current trends and fashions. He remained modest about his creative accomplishments, and doubted that his works would be considered legitimate art following his death. However, time proved him wrong; his films and collage artwork have continued to draw critical interest and respect, and his influence on other artists has been cited by several critics, particularly in discussions of the works of artists Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol. Dawn Ades commented in the museum catalogue Joseph Cornell that "without it being a pessimistic vision, Cornell seems to have perceived an enormous cultural shipwreck, out of which he could salvage things—fragments, ideas, a scrap of text. All his boxes are perhaps sailor's chests, containing his souvenirs of an imaginary voyage."

If you enjoy the works of Joseph Cornell

If you enjoy the works of Joseph Cornell, you might want to check out the following:

The works of Polly Apfelbaum, who creates "fallen paintings" using objects laid on the floor.

The work of French futurist painter Marcel Duchamp, who used found objects to create abstract images and sparked questions about the nature of art.

German painter and sculptor Max Ernst, whose collages created from Victorian engravings were an early inspiration to Cornell.

Collected Writings

Cornell maintained a large, complex system of files and dossiers on the people and subjects that interested him, as well as compiling notebooks detailing creative and personal events in his life. These notebooks, which contain somewhat unconventional prose that many have found borders on prose poetry, have, together with his diaries, correspondence, and criticism, been collected in A Joseph Cornell Album, edited by Dore Ashton, and Joseph Cornell's Theater of the Mind: Selected Diaries, Letters, and Documents, edited by Mary Ann Caws. Joseph Cornell's Theater of the Mind draws together the artist's jottings on moods, experiences, and ideas, and also includes selections from his letters to various artists and writers, including Robert Motherwell and Marianne Moore. Library Journal reviewer David Bryant praised Cornell's writings and found the book "lovingly designed," but expressed disappointment at the book's "limited use of visuals." Albert Mobilio, in a favorable review for the Voice Literary Supplement, observed that in Joseph Cornell's Theatre of theMind the author/artist's "jagged, stop-start prose mixes the mundane and the momentous." In one example, on July 15, 1941, Cornell wrote: "Pleasantly warm and clear. A suggestion of that wonderful feeling of detachment that comes over me every so often—a leisurely kind of feeling that seems to impart to the routine events of the day a certain sense of 'festivity.'" Irving Malin, writing in the Review of Contemporary Fiction assessed Cornell's writing style as "playful, metaphoric," and "theatrical." Simic called the collection Cornell's "final magic box," and Nancy Grove, who interviewed the artist shortly before his death in 1972, hailed the volume in Art Journal as "a most welcome addition to the Cornell literature." According to Grove, "throughout these writings, it is as if every sensation, every experience, every piece of information or phenomenon [Cornell] encountered had to be considered a potentially numinous clue to a mystery of unknown magnitude that it was his job to try to solve, even though he often despaired of the task."

"What was most remarkable about Cornell, according to those who knew him best," summed up Caws, "was the special aura that surrounded him. Everything was highly charged around him, with some unnameable feeling of heightened awareness. An intensely poetic person, he exuded a special presence akin to magic. It is that presence that all his friends comment upon." According to Adam Gopnik, writing in the New Yorker, in the years since the artist's death, "it is not so much that Cornell's fame has grown, . . . as that his work has become part of the living body of art."

Biographical and Critical Sources


Blair, Linda, Joseph Cornell's Vision of Spiritual Order, Reaktion Books, 1998.

Cohan, James H., and Arthur M. Greenberg, Exploring Joseph Cornell's Visual Poetry, Washington University Gallery of Art, 1982.

Contemporary Artists, 4th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.

Davidson, Susan, Joseph Cornell/Marcel Duchamp: In Resonance, Hatje Cantz Publishers, 1999.

Foer, Jonathan Safran, editor, A Convergence of Birds: Original Fiction and Poetry Inspired by Joseph Cornell, Distributed Art Publishers, 2001.

Joseph Cornell: Shadowplay . . . Eterniday, Thames & Hudson, 2003.

Keller, Marjorie, The Untutored Eye: Childhood in the Films of Cocteau, Cornell, and Brakhage, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press (Teaneck, NJ), 1986.

Kozloff, Max, Renderings: Critical Essays on a Century of Modern Art, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1969, pp. 153-158.

McShine, Kynaston, editor, Joseph Cornell (museum catalog), Museum of Modern Art (New York, NY), 1967.

Schaffner, Ingrid, The Essential Joseph Cornell, H. Abrams (New York, NY), 2003.

Simic, Charles, Dime-Store Alchemy: The Art of Joseph Cornell, Ecco Press (New York, NY), 1993.

Solomon, Deborah, Utopia Parkway: The Life and Work of Joseph Cornell, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1996.

Starr, Sandra Leonard, Joseph Cornell: Art and Metaphysics, Castelli, Feigen, Corcoran (New York, NY), 1982.

Starr, Sandra Leonard, Joseph Cornell and the Ballet, Castelli, Feigen, Corcoran (New York, NY), 1983.

Tashjian, Dickran, Joseph Cornell: Gifts of Desire, Grassfield Press, 1992.

Waldman, Diane, Joseph Cornell, Braziller (New York, NY), 1977.

Wynne, Christopher, Secrets in a Box, Prestel (Munich, Germany), 2003.


American Art Journal, Volume 23, number 3, 1983, pp. 13-20.

American Film, January-February, 1980, pp. 18-19.

Art and Antiques, November, 1984, pp. 65-69.

Art and Artists, July, 1973, pp. 28-33.

Art and Literature, spring, 1966, pp. 120-130.

Artforum, February, 1963, pp. 27-29; April, 1966, pp. 27-31; June, 1973, pp. 47-57.

Art in America, March, 1981, pp. 74-80.

Art International, Volume III, number 10, 1959, pp. 37-40; March 20, 1964, pp. 38-42.

Art Journal, winter, 1994, pp. 94, 96.

Artnews, December, 1957, pp. 24-27, 63-65; March, 1965, pp. 42-45, 49-50; summer, 1967, pp. 56-59, 63-64; February, 1971, pp. 50-52, 72-73; February, 1973, pp. 56-57; May, 1975, pp. 33-36; March, 1981, pp. 96-99.

Arts, September-October, 1965, pp. 35-37; May, 1967; October, 1976, pp. 118-121; March, 1981, pp. 102-108; February, 1986, pp. 30-32.

Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art, November, 1964, pp. 219-221.

Bulletin of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, June, 1978, pp. 2-17.

Library Journal, March 15, 1994, p. 70.

Michigan Quarterly Review, winter, 1999, "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," p. 36.

Newsweek, June 5, 1967.

New York, June, 1978, pp. 91-93.

New Yorker, June 3, 1967, pp. 112, 114-118; February 17, 2003, Adam Gopnik, "Sparkings," p. 184.

New York Times, January 23, 1966, p. 15; January 15, 1967, p. 29; May 6, 1967, p. 27; December 20, 1970, p. 27; March 21, 1973, p. 52; March 18, 1975, p. 35; March 14, 1976, pp. 29-30; March 9, 1980, pp. D27-D28; September 27, 1996, Carol Vogel, "Fighting over a Legacy," p. C19.

October, winter, 1980, pp. 49-60.

Portfolio, November/December, 1980, pp. 68-71.

Prose, fall, 1974, pp. 73-85.

Review of Contemporary Fiction, fall, 1994, pp. 235-236.

Saturday Review, September 6, 1975, pp. 37-39.

Scholastic Art, December, 2000, "Cornell's Legacy," p. 10.

Smithsonian, January, 1981, pp. 45-51.

Time, July 8, 1966, pp. 56-57; March 8, 1976, p. 66.

Times Literary Supplement, April 8, 1994, p. 11.

Voice Literary Supplement, March, 1994, p. 8.*

Joseph Cornell

views updated May 29 2018

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

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 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. □

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