Biography of Joseph Cornell, Creator of Surrealist Shadow Boxes

joseph cornell
Denise Hare

Joseph Cornell was an American artist known for his creation of collages and shadow boxes featuring found objects, from marbles to photos of movie stars and small sculptures of birds. He was part of the Surrealist movement in New York City and helped lay the groundwork for the future development of Pop Art and installation art.

Fast Facts: Joseph Cornell

  • Occupation: Collage and shadow box artist
  • Born: December 24, 1903 in Nyack, New York
  • Died: December 29, 1972 in New York City, New York
  • Selected Works: "Untitled (Soap Bubble Set)" (1936), "Untitled (Penny Arcade Portrait of Lauren Bacall)" (1946), "Cassiopeia 1" (1960)
  • Notable Quote: "Life can have significance even if it appears to be a series of failures."

Early Life

Born in Nyack, New York, a suburb of New York City, Joseph Cornell was the oldest of four children. His father was a comfortably positioned designer and seller of textiles, and his mother had training as a teacher. In 1917, when his oldest son was 13, Cornell's father died of leukemia and left the family in financial difficulty.

The Cornell family moved to the Queens borough of New York City, and Joseph Cornell attended Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, for three and a half years, but he did not graduate. Those years were the only time the often reclusive and shy artist traveled beyond the immediate area surrounding New York City. When Cornell returned to the city, he devoted himself to caring for his younger brother Robert, who suffered disabilities caused by cerebral palsy.

Joseph Cornell never attended college and did not receive formal art training. However, he was very well read and sought out cultural experiences on his own. He regularly attended theater and ballet performances, listened to classical music, and visited museums and art galleries.

To support his family, Cornell initially worked as a wholesale fabric salesman, but he lost that job in 1931 during the Great Depression. Among his later jobs were door-to-door appliance sales, textile design, and designing covers and layouts for magazines. From the 1930s on, he also made a small income selling his artwork.

©The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York; used with permission
Joseph Cornell (American, 1903-1972). Untitled (Soap Bubble Set), 1936. Box construction. 15 3/4 x 14 1/4 x 5 1/2 in. (40 x 36.2 x 13.9 cm). Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut, Purchased through the gift of Henry and Walter Keney. © The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York; Photo Allen Phillips

Surrealism Movement

The New York art scene was small and extensively interconnected in the 1930s. A few small galleries had a powerful impact. One of those was the Julien Levy Gallery. There, Joseph Cornell met many poets and painters who were part of the U.S. Surrealist movement. He designed a catalogue cover for a show by the group in 1932.

Cornell created his own pieces by placing glass bells over found objects. His first solo exhibition in 1932 was titled Minutiae, Glass Bells, Coups d'Oeil, Jouet Surrealistes. He garnered enough respect as an artist that New York's Museum of Modern Art included one of Joseph Cornell's earliest shadow boxes Untitled (Soap Bubble Set) in the 1936 show Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism.

©The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York; used with permission
Joseph Cornell (American, 1903-1972). "Penny Arcade" series re Autumnal, October 14-15, 1964. Collage with ink and pencil on Masonite. Image 12 x 9 in. (30.5 x 22.9 cm). The Dicke Collection. Photo: Tom Powel Imaging Inc. © The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation / Licensed by VAGA, New York

Like the German artist Kurt Schwitters, Joseph Cornell relied on found objects to create his art. However, Schwitters often used discarded refuse from society, while Cornell scoured bookshops and thrift stores in New York City for small treasures and objects. The often forgotten pieces placed in a new environment gave much of Cornell's work a profoundly nostalgic impact.

Established Artist

By the 1940s, Joseph Cornell was best known for his shadow boxes. He counted other prominent artists including Marcel Duchamp and Robert Motherwell as part of his circle of friends. By the end of the decade, Cornell was able to support himself and his family through the income from his art. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, he created shadow boxes on the subjects of birds, celebrities, and the Medici, among others. One of his best-known boxes Untitled (Penny Arcade Portrait of Lauren Bacall) (1946) drew inspiration from the movie To Have and Have Not, which starred Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart.

©The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York; used with permission
Joseph Cornell (American, 1903-1972). Untitled (Penny Arcade Portrait of Lauren Bacall), ca. 1945–46. Box construction with blue glass. 20 1/2 x 16 x 3 1/2 in. (52.1 x 40.6 x 8.9 cm). The Lindy and Edwin Bergman Collection. Photo: Michael Tropea. © The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation / Licensed by VAGA, New York

Cornell worked in the basement of his home. He crowded the space with his growing collection of found objects to use in future boxes. He kept extensive hand-written files with photographic images that he clipped from newspapers and magazines.

Film

Joseph Cornell developed an interest in creating experimental films in addition to his collage and shadow box work. One of his first projects was a 1936 montage titled Rose Hobart made by splicing together pieces of film Cornell found in warehouses in New Jersey. Most of the footage came from the 1931 movie East of Borneo.

When he showed Rose Hobart publicly, Cornell played Nestor Amaral's record Holiday in Brazil, and he projected the film through a deep blue filter to give it a more dreamlike impact. Legendary artist Salvador Dali attended a showing at the Julien Levy Gallery in December 1936. Dali became angry because he claimed that Cornell appropriated his idea of using collage techniques in films. The event traumatized the shy Joseph Cornell so much that he rarely showed his films in public from that point onward.

©The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York; used with permission
Joseph Cornell (American, 1903-1972). Untitled (Cockatoo with Watch Faces), ca. 1949. Box construction with inoperable music box. 16 1/4 x 17 x 4 7/16 in. (41.3 x 43.2 x 11.3 cm). The Lindy and Edwin Bergman Collection. Photo: Michael Tropea. © The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation / Licensed by VAGA, New York

Joseph Cornell continued to create film experiments until his death. His later projects included new footage shot by professional filmmakers that the artist hired as collaborators. Among those who worked with him was celebrated experimental film artist Stan Brakhage.

Later Years

Joseph Cornell's fame as an artist increased in the 1960s, but he created less new work due to increased duties caring for his family. He began an intense platonic relationship with Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama in the mid-1960s. They called each other daily and often sketched each other. He created personalized collages for her. The relationship continued until his death in 1972 even after she returned to Japan.

©The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York; used with permission
Joseph Cornell (American, 1903-1972). Untitled (Tamara Toumanova), ca. 1940. Collage with tempera on paperboard. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation. Photo: Lea Christiano. © The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation / Licensed by VAGA, New York

Cornell's brother, Robert, died in 1965, and his mother died the following year. Although he was already in ill health himself, Joseph Cornell seized upon the newly available free time to create new collages and restructure some of his old shadow boxes.

The Pasadena Art Museum (now the Norton Simon Museum) mounted the first major museum retrospective of Cornell's work in 1966. The exhibition traveled to the Guggenheim in New York City. In 1970, the Metropolitan Museum of Art presented a major retrospective of Cornell's collages. He died from heart failure on December 29, 1972.

Legacy

Joseph Cornell's work had a significant impact on the development of 20th-century American art. He bridged a gap between Surrealism and the development of Pop Art and installation art in the 1960s. He inspired such significant figures as Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg.

Sources

  • Solomon, Deborah. Utopia Parkway: The Life and Work of Joseph Cornell. Other Press, 2015.