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Joseph Cornell - Biography and Legacy

American Sculptor

Born: December 24, 1903 - Nyack, New York
Died: December 29, 1972 - Queens, New York
Movements and Styles:

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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Content compiled and written by Tracy DiTolla

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Joseph Cornell Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Tracy DiTolla
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 21 Jan 2012. Updated and modified regularly
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