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.
He lived in New York City for most of his life, in a wooden frame house on Utopia Parkway in a working-class area in Flushing, Queens. He lived there with his mother and his brother, Robert, who was disabled by cerebral palsy. Cornell attended Phillips Academy, Andover, in the Class of 1921.
Sculpture and collage
Cornell's most characteristic art works were boxed assemblages created from found objects. These are simple boxes, usually glass-fronted, in which he arranged surprising collections of photographs or Victorian bric-à-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.
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. His boxes relied on the Surrealist technique 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 USA during the Second World War. Later he was claimed as a herald of pop art and installation art.
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 widely read and was conversant with the New York art scene from the 1940s through to the 1960s.
Cornell was heavily influenced by American Transcendentalists such as Emily Dickinson, Hollywood starlets (to whom he sent boxes he had dedicated to them), the French Symbolists such as Stéphane Mallarmé and Gerard de Nerval, and great dancers of the 19th century ballet such as Marie Taglioni and Fanny Cerrito. (Cornell's Christian Science belief that death, matter, time, and mortal mind are illusions allowed him to maintain friendships with these dancers, and others, regarded by the rest of society as long-dead.) Christian Science belief and practice informed Cornell's art deeply, as art historian Sandra Leonard Starr has shown.
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. 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 of 1936 during the first Surrealist exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Salvador Dalí, who was in New York to attend the MoMA opening, was present at its first screening. During the screening, Dali became outraged at Cornell's movie, claiming he had just had the same idea of applying collage techniques to film. After the screening, Dali remarked to Cornell that he should stick to making boxes and to stop making films. Traumatized by this event, the shy, retiring Cornell never showed his films publicly again.
Joseph Cornell, as noted, was wary of strangers. Although he expressed attraction to unattainable women, like Lauren Bacall, his shyness made romantic relationships almost impossible. In later life his bashfulness verged on the point of being considered reclusiveness, and he rarely left the state of New York.
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 brother who died in 1965. This was another factor in his lack of relationships. At some point in the 1920s, or possibly earlier, he read the works of Mary Baker Eddy. He would consider her work to be the most important book to him outside the Bible and became a lifelong Christian Science adherent. He was also rather poor for most of his life, working during the 1920's 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 1940's, 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 1948 solo show.
Cornell became a highly regarded artist towards the end of his career, yet remained out of the spotlight. Admirers did seek him out, and on occasion he invited them to visit. Upon his death in 1972, it was one of these admirers who saved his collection from going to waste. A young New York City artist named Deanna Mayer had struck up a friendship with Cornell and visited many times. Mayer took it upon herself to contact Cornell's sister Betty Benton and let her know the true value of her brother's work. Cornell's family was largely unaware of his reputation in the art world. Through the combined efforts of Mayer and Benton, much of his work was able to be saved and enjoyed by future generations.