|December 24, 1903
Nyack, New York, US
|December 29, 1972 (aged 69)
New York City, US
|Assemblage, experimental film, sculpture
Joseph Cornell (December 24, 1903 – December 29, 1972) was an American visual artist and film-maker, 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, to Joseph Cornell, a textiles industry executive, and Helen Ten Broeck Storms Cornell, who had trained as a nursery teacher. Both parents came from socially prominent families of Dutch ancestry, long-established in New York State. Cornell's father died April 30, 1917, leaving the family in straitened circumstances. 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. Following this, he returned to live with his family.
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. Aside from his time at Andover, Cornell never traveled beyond the New York City area.: xiii
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.
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 use 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 United States during the Second World War. Later he was claimed as a herald of pop art and installation art.
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.
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 well-read and was conversant with the New York art scene from the 1940s through to the 1960s.
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. ...: 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.: 61
Cornell was heavily influenced by the American Transcendentalists, Hollywood starlets (to whom he sent boxes he had dedicated to them), the French Symbolists such as Stéphane Mallarmé and Gérard de Nerval, and 19th-century ballet dancers such as Marie Taglioni and Fanny Cerrito.
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.
Main article: Joseph Cornell filmography
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 1936 during the first Surrealist exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. 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, 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.
Cornell’s first major museum retrospective, entitled An Exhibition of Works by Joseph Cornell opened at the Pasadena Art Museum (now the Norton Simon Museum) in December 1966, curated by legendary museum director Walter Hopps which traveled to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York.
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.
Cornell was wary of strangers. This led him to isolate himself and become a self-taught artist. 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. He also had numerous friendships with ballerinas, who found him unique, but too eccentric to be a romantic partner.
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. Christian Science belief and practice informed Cornell's art deeply, as art historian Sandra Leonard Starr has shown.
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.
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.
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.: 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.
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.