Joseph Cornell

American Sculptor

Born: December 24, 1903
Nyack, New York
Died: December 29, 1972
Queens, New York
Life can have significance even if it appears to be a series of failures.

Summary of Joseph Cornell

Using the Surrealist technique of unexpected juxtaposition, Joseph Cornell's best-known works are glass-fronted boxes into which he placed and arranged Victorian bric-a-brac, old photographs, dime-store trinkets, and other found elements. Generally referred to as "shadow boxes," the resulting pieces are dream-like miniature tableaux that inspire the viewer to see each component in a new light. Cornell often used the shadow boxes to address recurrent themes of interest such as childhood, space, and birds, and they represented an escape of sorts for their creator, who was famously reclusive. Among the earliest examples of assemblage, the shadow boxes also helped give rise to a host of other Modern and Contemporary American art forms, from Installation art to Fluxus boxes.


Progression of Art

c. 1935

Untitled (Tilly-Losch)

Tilly-Losch is one of Cornell's many signature shadow boxes: glass-fronted boxes filled with found items carefully arranged in small-scale tableaux. With its dream-like imagery and subject matter that revolves around childhood memory, Tilly-Losch addresses themes that would recur throughout Cornell's oeuvre. It features a cut-out image of a girl suspended by strings against a sky-blue background, hovering above an image of a mountain range as she holds a wooden bead on a string. The piece takes its name from the Viennese actress and dancer Tilly Losch, who lived and worked in the United States, appearing in several Hollywood films of the 1930s and 1940s. As such, it evokes Cornell's interest in filmmaking and movie stars, both of which would figure largely in his work, while the piece's stage-like setting is a nod to Cornell's love of theater.

Wood, glass, paper, box construction - The Robert Lehman Art Trust, Washington DC


Untitled (Soap Bubble Set)

Made for the 1936 Museum of Modern Art exhibition Fantastic Art, Dada, and Surrealism, this work was the first of Cornell's shadow boxes, containing many of the characteristic features of his signature art form. In these works, Cornell used the Surrealist practice of juxtaposing unrelated found objects, in this case, a doll's head, a clay pipe used to make soap bubbles, a bird's egg, a glass, an antique map of the moon, and a print of the leaning tower at Pisa. Some writers have interpreted the piece as a family portrait, with the doll's head "depicting" the artist, the egg symbolizing his mother, the pipe his father, and the four blocks at the top as Cornell and his three siblings. The box was one of numerous works titled Soap Bubble Set, a theme linked by their creator not only with childhood but also with the cosmos.

Wood, glass, plastic, paper, box construction - Wadsworth Atheneum Museum, Hartford


Taglioni's Jewel Casket

In addition to shadow boxes, Cornell created other box works as well, including this piece. Taglioni's Jewel Casket notably lacks the protective glass covering of the shadow boxes and resembles a real jewelry box, with its velvet lining and open lid (from which hangs a rhinestone necklace purchased at a New York Woolworth's dime store) the box seems to beckon to the viewer not only to gaze at but also handle the objects within.

This work, one of dozens of boxes the artist created referencing specific 19th-century ballerinas, reflects Cornell's practice of working in series—appropriate to an artist who liked to collect and categorize. It also reflects Cornell's love of ballet. Among his favorite ballerinas was the acclaimed Italian dancer Marie Taglioni, who according to legend, kept an imitation ice cube in her jewelry box to commemorate dancing in the snow at the behest of a Russian highwayman. The legend is printed on the inside cover of Taglioni's Jewel Casket and referenced in the rows of glass cubes, suggestive of both ice and precious jewels.

Wood box, velvet, glass cubes, glass necklace - The Museum of Modern Art, New York


Untitled (Medici Boy)

In addition to combing disparate objects, Cornell sometimes also juxtaposed far-flung eras and locales. The early-15th century and the 20th century come together in Medici Boy. Part of Cornell's Medici Slot Machine series, Medici Boy features repeated renderings of the early Italian Renaissance painter Bernardino Pinturicchio's Portrait of a Boy, within the context of a modern-day slot machine. An image of the boy appears at center, with smaller-scale renderings repeated along the two sides, alongside numbers and letters. The piece reflects some of the ways in which Cornell's oeuvre was a precursor of future innovative artistic developments. Its early use of a reproduction of an existing artwork heralded postmodern appropriation art, while its serial repetition of imagery and combination of "high" and "low" forms anticipate the work of Andy Warhol and Pop art.

Wood, paper, wire, glass, box construction - Estate of Joseph Cornell


Untitled (Penny Arcade Portrait of Lauren Bacall)

Evoking a pinball machine, Penny Arcade Portrait of Lauren Bacall combines Cornell's fascination with Bacall, then at the peak of her stardom, with his childhood memories of New York's penny arcades. Directly inspired by Cornell's dossier on the noted film actress, this piece is essentially a shrine to the movie star, who here appears as an object to be worshipped but never touched, thanks to the protective glass covering. As in Medici Boy, a central photograph of Bacall is flanked by smaller images of her, including scenes of city skyscrapers, perhaps included to refer to Bacall's time living in New York. This top row of images also suggests a filmstrip—further homage to the artist's love of cinema. Some writers have related the piece to the artist's similarly montage-like 1936 film Rose Hobart, named after the film star with whom Cornell was also obsessed, made by snippets from the actress' film East of Borneo in combination with shots from a documentary film of an eclipse.

Wood, paper, glass, box construction - Collection Mr. and Mrs. E. A. Bergman, Chicago


Cassiopeia 1

Cassiopeia 1 is dedicated to another of Cornell's primary interests: outer space. Darker in mood than many of Cornell's other works, the box focuses on the eponymous constellation placed beside an image of Taurus on the right side and, to the upper left, Orion. A white moon-like ball rests on two thin metal bars that are positioned vertically within the walls of the box. The central cosmic image suggests considerable depth, and makes the viewer feel as if she is looking through a window to another world. Created when the health of the artist's mother and brother began to worsen, the piece may be seen in poignant personal terms as a meditation on what lies beyond this world, as well as perhaps an image of the sense of alienation the reclusive artist experienced throughout his life.

Wood, metal, paper, glass, box construction - Estate of Joseph Cornell


Untitled (Oriental Painting of Bird with Cherry Blossoms)

With his mother and brother's worsening health in the 1960s, Cornell's family responsibilities increased and his time for his artwork correspondingly lessened. He returned to collage, which was less physically demanding than the shadow boxes. Most of the present piece is devoted to a bird pursuing an insect; along the bottom are three smaller images, including an outdoor garden structure and an insect stamp. The collage reflects the artist's knowledge of art history, acquired through his trips to New York City art museums. In particular, it evokes the genre of Chinese bird-and-flower painting. The work also reflects the artist's love of nature, particularly birds. Cornell, who created a series of boxes on the aviary theme, reportedly used to leave his windows open and spread birdseed out on his kitchen table to try and lure them into his home.

Paper collage - Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington DC

Biography of Joseph Cornell


Joseph Cornell was born in Nyack, New York, on Christmas Eve of 1903. He was the oldest child of four including two sisters, Elizabeth and Helen, and a brother, Robert, who suffered from cerebral palsy. When Cornell was thirteen, his father died of leukemia after battling the disease for several years. After his father's death, the family moved to Douglastown, Long Island where his mother took on several odd jobs to support her children. With the help of his father's former employer, Joseph Cornell was able to attend Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, for a few years. While at Phillips, the headmaster took notice of Cornell's extreme shyness and insecurity and expressed his concern to Cornell's mother. Cornell seemed to be overly fearful of many things, and he once confided in his sister Elizabeth how frightened he was at the concept of infinity. When he was in his twenties, he learned about Christian Science and became a devout follower of the religion, as he believed it had cured him of recurring stomach ailments.

Early Training

Cornell received no formal art training and did not attend college. In 1929, his family moved to Utopia Parkway in Queens, where he lived for the remainder of his life. Cornell worked as a salesman at Whitman's wool shop on Madison Avenue, a job which he lost in the Depression; however, he was eventually hired as a textile designer at the Traphagen Studio. By 1932, he was also bringing home a small income from sales of his artwork.

Though Cornell was not formally educated, he was extremely well read and sought out culture independently, regularly attending the theater and the ballet, listening to classical music, and frequently visiting museums and art galleries. He perused small Asian shops in Manhattan to see Japanese prints, and it was at one of these shops that Cornell discovered the first boxes he would use for his art, which eventually became his signature shadow boxes.

During his early years, Cornell made collages, and would often buy books just so he could cut out the images inside. He also photocopied from books and magazines at the library and used them in his collages as well.

Mature Period

In the 1930s, the New York art scene centered on a few small galleries, one being the Julien Levy Gallery where Cornell spent much of his time and encountered many Surrealist poets and painters. Cornell designed the catalogue cover for the gallery's 1932 Surrealist show—the show that launched the Surrealism movement in America—and also had a piece in the exhibition.

During the 1930s, Cornell often used glass bells to cover found objects and in the fall of 1932 he had his first solo exhibit at The Julien Levy Gallery, entitled Minutiae, Glass Bells, Coups d'Oeil, Jouet Surrealistes. In 1936 Cornell was included in The Museum of Modern Art's seminal exhibition Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism; Cornell was represented in the show by one of his earliest boxes, Untitled (Soap Bubble Set) (1936), a work later acquired by the Wadsworth Atheneum. From this point on, Cornell regularly exhibited and sold his work, in addition to doing freelance design work for magazines such as Vogue and House & Garden.

Cornell was also interested in filmmaking. He cut and re-edited a Hollywood film East of Borneo(1931) and collaged it into a short, experimental, avant-garde film that he named after the star of the original, Rose Hobart. He also wrote film scenarios such as Monsieur Phot, which was featured in Julien Levy's landmark 1936 volume, Surrealism. Cornell, who was entranced by the technical side of filmmaking and had several books on the subject in his vast library, never lost his interest in the medium, and in the 1950s he made another film composed of edited outtakes of the movie The Wonder Ring. His love of film was evident in his art, and he often included images of movie stars in his boxes, as in his famous piece Untitled (Penny Arcade Portrait of Lauren Bacall)(1945-46).

Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, Cornell continued to show his work, mainly in New York but occasionally in other locations in the U.S. By the 1940s, he was known for his boxes, each of which featured mixed media and collage in a shadow box fronted with glass. His work always maintained a Surrealist quality in its removal of objects from their usual context and paired with other surprising objects, although he ultimately rejected the Surrealist label. His circle of friends included many well-known artists, such as Marcel Duchamp, Robert Motherwell, and Carolee Schneemann.

Cornell did all of his work in the basement of his home, which became increasingly crowded with found objects that he intended to use in his boxes. He assembled more than one hundred and sixty "dossiers," or files containing his scribbled notes and found photographic images on a variety of themes, among them space, birds, ballet, specific actresses, dancers, and films, all organized according to subject. During the later 1950s and 1960s, he produced less as he spent more time caring for his family.

Later Years

Cornell's brother died in 1965, and his mother passed away the following year, leaving him alone. He continued working for the next several years, although he was in poor health by that time. Cornell began making collages again and did not produce any new boxes, although he did tear apart and restructure some of his existing boxes. He kept extensively detailed diaries in which he wrote about his work, the look of certain sunsets, and what he ate for dinner. He continued to write letters to his mother and buy gifts for his brother even after their deaths. Cornell died of heart failure at his home just a few days after his sixty-ninth birthday.

The Legacy of Joseph Cornell

Cornell's influence on postwar American art was immense and varied. His shadow boxes constituted some of the earliest examples of assemblage and later helped inspire both Installation art and the box assemblage works of the Fluxus movement. Cornell's use of preexisting artworks and the visual imagery of popular culture made his work an important forerunner of appropriation art and Pop art, inspiring such as artists as Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg. Cornell also made a major contribution to the development of cinema; he was described by the film critic J. Hoberman as a "progenitor of American avant-garde film."

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