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Joseph Cornell

Joseph Cornell
Cornell in 1971
Born(1903-12-24)December 24, 1903
DiedDecember 29, 1972(1972-12-29) (aged 69)
New York City, US
Known forAssemblage, experimental film, sculpture

Joseph Cornell (December 24, 1903 – December 29, 1972) was an American visual artist and filmmaker, one of the pioneers and most celebrated exponents of assemblage. Influenced by the Surrealists, he was also an avant-garde experimental filmmaker. He was largely self-taught in his artistic efforts, and improvised his own original style incorporating cast-off and discarded artifacts. He lived most of his life in relative physical isolation, caring for his mother and his disabled brother at home, but remained aware of and in contact with other contemporary artists.


Joseph Cornell was born in Nyack, New York,[1][2] to Joseph Cornell, a textiles industry executive,[3] and Helen Ten Broeck Storms Cornell, who had trained as a nursery teacher.[4] Both parents came from socially prominent families of Dutch ancestry, long-established in New York State.[5] Cornell's father died April 30, 1917, leaving the family in straitened circumstances.[6] Following the elder Cornell's death, his widow and children moved to the borough of Queens in New York City. Cornell attended Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, in the class of 1921. Although he reached the senior year, he did not graduate.[7] Following this, he returned to live with his family.[7]

Except for the three-and-a-half years he spent at Phillips, he lived for most of his life in a small, wood-frame house on Utopia Parkway in a working-class area of Flushing, along with his mother and his brother Robert, whom cerebral palsy had rendered physically disabled.[8][9] Aside from his time at Andover, Cornell never traveled beyond the New York City area.[10]: xiii 

Art practice

Sculpture and collage

Joseph Cornell Untitled (Dieppe) c. 1958, Museum of Modern Art, (New York City).

Cornell's most characteristic art works were boxed assemblages created from found objects. These are simple shadow boxes, usually fronted with a glass pane, in which he arranged eclectic fragments of photographs or Victorian bric-a-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.[11]

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.[12] His boxes relied on the Surrealist use of irrational juxtaposition, and on the evocation of nostalgia, for their appeal.

Cornell often made series of boxed assemblages that reflected his various interests: the Soap Bubble Sets, the Medici Slot Machine series, the Pink Palace series, the Hotel series, the Observatory series, and the Space Object Boxes, among others. Also captivated with birds, Cornell created an Aviary series of boxes, in which colorful images of various birds were mounted on wood, cut out, and set against harsh white backgrounds.[9]

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;[13][citation needed] 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 well-read and was conversant with the New York art scene from the 1940s through to the 1960s.[citation needed]

His methodology is described in a monograph by Charles Simic as:

Somewhere in the city of New York there are four or five still-unknown objects that belong together. Once together they'll make a work of art. That's Cornell's premise, his metaphysics, and his religion. ...[10]: 14  Marcel Duchamp and John Cage use chance operation to get rid of the subjectivity of the artist. For Cornell it's the opposite. To submit to chance is to reveal the self and its obsessions.[10]: 61 

In his later years, Cornell utilized the help of assistants to create his artworks. These assistants included both local art students and practicing artists such as Larry Jordan and Terry Shutté. He greatly enjoyed working with young artists and teaching them his methods and art practices.[14]

Experimental film

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.[15] 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 1936 during the first Surrealist exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York.[16] Salvador Dalí, who was in New York to attend the MoMA opening, was present at its first screening. During the screening, Dalí became outraged at Cornell's movie, claiming he had just had the same idea of applying collage techniques to film. After the screening, Dalí remarked to Cornell that he should stick to making boxes and stop making films. Traumatized by this event,[17] the shy, retiring Cornell showed his films rarely thereafter.

Joseph Cornell continued to experiment with film until his death in 1972. While his earlier films were often collages of found short films, his later ones montaged together footage he expressly commissioned from the professional filmmakers with whom he collaborated. These latter films were often set in some of Cornell's favorite neighborhoods and landmarks in New York City: Mulberry Street, Bryant Park, Union Square Park, and the Third Avenue Elevated Railway, among others.

In 1969 Cornell gave a collection of both his own films and the works of others to Anthology Film Archives in New York City.[citation needed]

Selected filmography

  • Rose Hobart (1936)
  • Children's Party (c. 1940)
  • Cotillion (c. 1940)
  • The Midnight Party (c. 1940)
  • The Aviary (1955)
  • Gnir Rednow (1956) (made with Stan Brakhage)
  • Mulberry Street (1957)
  • Boys' Games (1957)
  • Centuries of June (1955) (made with Stan Brakhage)
  • Nymphlight (1957)
  • Flushing Meadows (c. 1965) (made with Larry Jordan)
  • A Legend for Fountains (1957–1965)
  • Bookstalls (1973)
  • By Night with Torch and Spear (1979)


Cornell’s first major museum retrospective, curated by legendary museum director Walter Hopps, was entitled An Exhibition of Works by Joseph Cornell. It opened at the Pasadena Art Museum (now the Norton Simon Museum) in December 1966, then traveled to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York.[18]


Art market

Sold from the estate of Edwin and Lindy Bergman, Chicago-based collectors and art patrons, Cornell's Untitled (Penny Arcade Portrait of Lauren Bacall) (1946) fetched $5.3 million at Christie's New York, setting an auction record for the artist. The jewel-like box, with images of Bacall on blue background, was inspired by To Have and Have Not, a film starring Bacall and Humphrey Bogart.[37]

Personal life

Cornell was wary of strangers. This led him to isolate himself and become a self-taught artist.[9] Although he expressed attraction to unattainable women like Lauren Bacall, his shyness made romantic relationships almost impossible. In later life his bashfulness verged toward reclusiveness, and he rarely left the state of New York. However, he preferred talking with women, and often made their husbands wait in the next room when he discussed business with them.[38] He also had numerous friendships with ballerinas, who found him unique, but too eccentric to be a romantic partner.[38]

He devoted his life to caring for his younger brother Robert, who was disabled and lived with cerebral palsy, which was another factor in his lack of relationships. At some point in the 1920s, or possibly earlier, he read the writings of Mary Baker Eddy, including Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures. Cornell considered Eddy's works to be among the most important books ever published after the Bible, and he became a lifelong Christian Science adherent.[39] Christian Science belief and practice informed Cornell's art deeply, as art historian Sandra Leonard Starr has shown.[citation needed]

He was also rather poor for most of his life, working during the 1920s 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 1940s, 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 1949 solo show at the Charles Egan Gallery.[citation needed]

Cornell eventually began a passionate, but platonic, relationship with Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama while she was living in New York in the mid-1960s. She was twenty-six years his junior; they would call each other daily, sketch each other, and he would send personalized collages to her. Their lengthy association lasted even after her return to Japan, ending only with his death in 1972.[40]


Cornell's brother Robert died in 1965, and his mother in 1966. Joseph Cornell died of apparent heart failure on December 29, 1972, a few days after his sixty-ninth birthday.[10]: xiv  The executors of his estate were Richard Ader and Wayne Andrews, as represented by the art dealers Leo Castelli, Richard Feigen, and James Corcoran. Later, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation was established, which administers the copyrights of Cornell's works and represents the interests of his heirs. Currently, the Foundation is administered by Trustees, Richard Ader, and Joseph Erdman.

In popular culture

  • Anne Tyler's Celestial Navigation (1974) is a fictional riff on being Joseph Cornell.
  • The cyberpunk novelist William Gibson uses the finding of mysterious boxes similar to those by Joseph Cornell as a narrative element in his novel Count Zero (1984).[41]
  • The Dutch pop band The Nits released a song, "Soap Bubble Box", on their 1992 album Ting, about seeing some of Cornell's boxes in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. The song was a minor hit in the Netherlands.
  • Scholarship on Joseph Cornell’s art and life led to Michael Brayndick’s dissertation Joseph Cornell and the Dialectics of Human Time;[42] and inspired Brayndick's 1999 play, How to Make a Rainbow with workshop performances in: New York (1998), Connecticut (2000), and the UK (2003), and the world premiere production by On the Spot Theatre at the Greenhouse Theater Center in Chicago (2013).[43]
  • In 1992, poet Charles Simic published a prose collection inspired by and with images of the work of Joseph Cornell: Dime-Store Alchemy: The Art of Joseph Cornell (published by New York Review Books, originally published by Hopewell, N.J.: Ecco Press).[44]
  • Singer-songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter imagines Cornell going about his creative life in the song "Ideas Are Like Stars", on her 1996 album A Place in the World.
  • The English band The Clientele has a song titled "Joseph Cornell" on the group's 2001 album Suburban Light.
  • Jonathan Safran Foer's anthology A Convergence of Birds (2001) is a collection of fiction and poetry inspired by Cornell's work. Foer, then an undergraduate, solicited all of his favorite authors to contribute to the collection by sending each of them a print of one of Cornell's bird boxes, and an explanation of the project. He was surprised when well-known authors such as Joyce Carol Oates, Rick Moody and Barry Lopez responded to his prompts with Cornell-inspired works.[citation needed]
  • The American novelist and short story writer Robert Coover published a series of stories entitled The Grand Hotels (of Joseph Cornell) in 2002. Akin to short fables, the stories refer to various themes and images in Cornell's Hotel series of boxes.
  • Charles L. Mee's play Hotel Cassiopeia (2006) is based on the life of Joseph Cornell.
  • Singer/songwriter Thomas Comerford released the album Archive + Spiral in 2011 which contains the song titled "Joseph Cornell". The song is described as less of an homage and more of a meditation on the mood the artist invokes.[45]

See also


  1. ^ Blair, Lindsay (June 1, 2013). Joseph Cornell's Vision of Spiritual Order. Reaktion Books. ISBN 9781780231600 – via Google Books.
  2. ^ "Nyack Sketch Log: A House Haunted by Art". Nyack News and Views. 26 August 2014.
  3. ^ Cohan, James H.; Greenberg, Arthur M. (April 19, 1982). Exploring Joseph Cornell's Visual Poetry: Washington University Gallery of Art, St. Louis, Missouri, April 9-May 9, 1982. WU Gallery of Art. ISBN 9780936316031 – via Google Books.
  4. ^ Charyn, Jerome (February 22, 2016). A Loaded Gun: Emily Dickinson for the 21st Century. Bellevue Literary Press. ISBN 9781934137994 – via Google Books.
  5. ^ Sharp, Jasper; Lea, Sarah (2015). Joseph Cornell: Fernweh (PDF). Vienna, Austria: Kunsthistorisches Museum. ISBN 9783990200964. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2023-04-17. Retrieved 2023-12-26.
  6. ^ Leppanen-Guerra, Analisa (July 5, 2017). Children's Stories and 'Child-Time' in the Works of Joseph Cornell and the Transatlantic Avant-Garde. Routledge. ISBN 9781351572057 – via Google Books.
  7. ^ a b Leppanen-Guerra, Analisa (July 5, 2017). Children's Stories and 'Child-Time' in the Works of Joseph Cornell and the Transatlantic Avant-Garde. Routledge. ISBN 9781351572057 – via Google Books.
  8. ^ Cotter, Holland (July 13, 2007). "Poetic Theaters, Romantic Fevers". New York Times. Archived from the original on November 5, 2012. Retrieved 2007-10-08. But they meant the world to this intensely shy artist, who lived on sweets, worshiped forgotten divas and made portable shrines to them – his version of spiritual art – in the basement of the small house he shared with his mother and disabled brother in Flushing, Queens.
  9. ^ a b c O'Steen, Danielle (February 14, 2007). "Artist Dossier: Joseph Cornell". Art+Auction. Archived from the original on February 3, 2009. Retrieved 2008-04-22.
  10. ^ a b c d Simic, Charles (1992). Dime-Store Alchemy. New York Review. ISBN 1590174860.
  11. ^ Solomon, Deborah (1997). Utopia Parkway: The Life and Work of Joseph Cornell. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux. ISBN 0-374-52571-4.
  12. ^ Pioch, Nicolas, ed. (August 4, 2002). "Cornell, Joseph". WebMuseum. Archived from the original on June 1, 2017. Retrieved 2017-07-02.
  13. ^ "An 'overflowing, a richness & poetry': Joseph Cornell's Planet Set and Giuditta Pasta". Archived from the original on 2018-04-11. Retrieved 2018-04-10.
  14. ^ Hartigan, Lynda Roscoe (1980). "Joseph Cornell: A Biography". In McShine, Kynaston (ed.). Joseph Cornell. New York: The Museum of Modern Art. p. 113. ISBN 978-0870702723.
  15. ^ Corman, Catherine (November 4, 2010). "Surrealist Astronomy in the South Pacific: Joseph Cornell and the Collaged Eclipse". East of Borneo. Archived from the original on September 13, 2011. Retrieved 2011-12-15.
  16. ^ Frye, Brian (November 2001). "Joseph Cornell". Film & Video. UbuWeb. Archived from the original on 2017-07-08. Retrieved 2017-07-02.
  17. ^ Borrowed Dreams: Joseph Cornell and the Archive as Psychic Imprint - Art & Trash on Vimeo
  18. ^ a b c d Joseph Cornell, Wanderlust, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2015, archived from the original on 2017-07-17, retrieved 2017-07-02
  19. ^ Joseph Cornell, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1980
  20. ^ Joseph Cornell Navigating the Imagination, The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, 2007
  21. ^ "Joseph Cornell | MoMA". The Museum of Modern Art.
  22. ^ "Unidentified Animal Drawings". Guggenheim. March 25, 2013.
  23. ^ "Joseph Cornell | Smithsonian American Art Museum".
  24. ^ "Joseph Cornell, American, 1903 - 1972 - Museum - The Menil Collection". The Menil Collection.
  25. ^ "Joseph Cornell". The Art Institute of Chicago. 1903.
  26. ^ "Joseph Cornell · SFMOMA".
  27. ^ "Joseph Cornell".
  28. ^ "Joseph Cornell 1903–1972". Tate.
  29. ^ "Philadelphia Museum of Art - Collections : Search Collections".
  30. ^ "Joseph Cornell - Untitled (To Marguerite Blachas)".
  31. ^ "Joseph Cornell".
  32. ^ "The Spirit of Joseph Cornell: A Curator's View of Works on Paper from the Permanent Collection | Albright-Knox".
  33. ^ "Joseph Cornell, LACMA Collections". August 7, 2022. Retrieved August 7, 2022.
  34. ^ "Joseph Cornell". August 7, 2022.
  35. ^ Solomon, Deborah, "National Gallery of Art Receives Major Gift of Joseph Cornell Boxes", New York Times, January 15, 2024. Robert and Aimee Lehrman gift of "some 20 boxes and seven collages from throughout [Cornell's] career." Retrieved 2024-01-15.
  36. ^ "DMA Collection Online". Retrieved 2022-09-12.
  37. ^ Kazakina, Katya (May 14, 2014). "Billionaires Help Christie's to Record $745 Million Sale". Bloomberg. Archived from the original on May 14, 2014. Retrieved March 8, 2017.
  38. ^ a b Waldman, Diane (2002). Joseph Cornell: Master of Dreams. New York: Harry N. Abrams. ISBN 0-8109-1227-9.
  39. ^ Andreae, Christopher (March 23, 2004). "Joseph Cornell's Alluring Boxes". Christian Science Monitor. Archived from the original on February 11, 2005. Retrieved 2017-07-02.
  40. ^ Taylor, Rachel (May 22, 2012). "Kusama's relationship with Joseph Cornell". Tate. Archived from the original on August 3, 2017. Retrieved 2017-07-02.
  41. ^ Garreau, Joel (September 6, 2007). "Through the Looking Glass". The Washington Post. Archived from the original on November 3, 2012. Retrieved 2007-10-30.
  42. ^ Brayndick, Michael (1987). Joseph Cornell and the dialectics of human time (Thesis). OCLC 26696670. OCLC Number: 26696670, University of Iowa
  43. ^ "How to Make a Rainbow". On the Spot Theatre Company.
  44. ^ Simic, Charles; Cornell, Joseph (1993). Dime-store alchemy: the art of Joseph Cornell. Hopewell, NJ: Ecco Press. ISBN 978-0-88001-348-2. OCLC 52052866.
  45. ^ Williams, Kent (January 16, 2012). "Album Review: Thomas Comerford – Archive + Spiral". Little Village. Archived from the original on November 16, 2016. Retrieved 2017-07-02.

Further reading

  • Ashton, Dore. A Joseph Cornell Album. New York: Viking Press, 1974. ISBN 0-306-80372-0
  • Blair, Lindsay. The Working Method of Joseph Cornell. Reaktion Books; Illustrated edition, April 1, 1998. ISBN 0-948462-49-3
  • Bonk, Ecke; Davidson, Susan; d'Harnoncourt, Anne; Hartigan, Lydia Roscoe; Hopps, Walter; Temkin, Ann. Joseph Cornell/Marcel Duchamp ... in resonance. Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Cantz, 1998. ISBN 3-89322-431-9
  • Caws, Mary Ann. Joseph Cornell's Theater of the Mind: Selected Diaries, Letters, and Files. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2000. ISBN 0-500-28243-9
  • Corman, Catherine. Joseph Cornell's Dreams. Cambridge: Exact Change, 2007. ISBN 1-878972-41-3
  • Edwards, Jason; Taylor, Stephanie, eds. (2007). Joseph Cornell: Opening the Box. Bern, Switzerland: Peter Lang. ISBN 9783039110582. OCLC 86069441.
  • Foer, Jonathan Safran (ed.). A Convergence of Birds: Original Fiction and Poetry Inspired by the Work of Joseph Cornell. New York: Distributed Art Publishers, 2001. ISBN 1-891024-30-2
  • Hartigan, Lydia Roscoe. Joseph Cornell: Navigating the Imagination. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007. ISBN 978-0-300-11162-0
  • Hartigan, Lydia Roscoe; Vine, Richard; Lehrman, Robert; Hopps, Walter. Joseph Cornell: Shadowplay Eterniday. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2003. ISBN 0-500-97628-7
  • Leppanen-Guerra, Analisa; Tashjian, Dickran. Joseph Cornell's Manual of Marvels. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2012. ISBN 978-0-500-51649-2
  • McShine, Kynaston (ed.). Joseph Cornell. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1980. ISBN 3-7913-1063-1
  • Rogers, Holly and Jeremy Barham (ed.). The Music and Sound of Experimental Film. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. ISBN 9780190469900
  • Schaffner, Ingrid. The Essential Joseph Cornell. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2003. ISBN 0-8109-5833-3
  • Starr, Sandra Leonard. Joseph Cornell: Art and Metaphysics. New York: Castelli Corcoran Feigen, 1982. LC Catalogue Card Number 82-71787
  • Tashjian, Dickran. Joseph Cornell: Gifts of Desire. Miami Beach: Grassfield Press, 1992. ISBN 0-9628514-3-4
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Joseph Cornell
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