Joseph Cornell

United States 1903 - 1972

Collage, Assemblage Art

Joseph Cornell
Joseph Cornell
United States
March 4, 2015
Alias of Jasmina Sevic, a researcher and author for Widewalls. She graduated from the Faculty of Political Science (Department for Journalism) in Belgrade in 2013.

Joseph Cornell was an American artist who pioneered the art of boxed assemblage. Along with the collage assemblage, he made the experimental avant-garde film, influenced by surrealism and pop art. Cornell led a peculiar life, spending most of his time inside his home where he grew up. Being very introverted and self-conscious, he did not like to go out much or to meet other people, yet somehow he managed to account Andy Warhol, Rothko, and many other famous artists from the mid 20 century. Staying cornered in a house, he managed to find the portal to infinity inside his boxes.

artist american collection york exhibition imagination artist american collection york exhibition imagination artist american collection york exhibition imagination museum untitled works gallery arts museum untitled works gallery arts museum untitled works gallery arts Joseph Cornell - Pharmacy, 1943
Joseph Cornell – Pharmacy, 1943, photo credits Guardian

Collecting Treasueres

Joseph Cornell was born in Nyack, New York, in 1903. He had two sisters and a brother. His family was a typical middle-class family, his father was a textile salesman, and his mother was a preschool teacher. After his father suddenly passed away in 1917, his poverty-stricken family had to move to the district of Queens. Cornell attended the Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, but soon returned home. Since then, he never ever left New York. He was very close with his brother, Robert, who had cerebral palsy. He and Joseph spent almost every moment of their lives together. Cornell felt comfortable in his house, but he had to go outside to work, so that was the reason to despise his merchant job even more. While he was employed, he found a new joy and excitement in visiting the city museums, flea markets where he purchased interesting memorabilia and random objects that fascinated him. Along with the museums, galleries, and open markets, Cornell visited bookshops and Opera. He started making a big collection of his found objects, from paper cutouts to old tickets, sea shells, pinecones, plastic, and glass. His fascination with the opera, especially ballerinas, later had quite an influence on his artwork. He admired female power and befriended many ballerinas and actresses. Also, many of his business partners later in life were female. Unfortunately, his shyness kept him away from romance.

Cornell stayed true to his childhood theme, using objects and images from the fun parks or children books

Joseph Cornell - Sanstitre
Joseph Cornell – Sanstitre, photo credits Penccil

Paper Files and the Beginnings of Assemblages

Cornell never learned how to draw and paint, and when he discovered what surrealism is, during the 1930’s he decided that he can also pursue art. To be able to express himself, an artist can create and chose his own medium, that was the philosophy of surrealism and Cornell’s guiding idea. He improvised his studio, at first a kitchen table at his home in Utopia Parkway, and worked with glue, scissors, and paper, mostly at night. His first artworks were collages, that were done in a form of paper archives, similar to the what we today call portfolio. There was one with ballerinas, one with butterflies, cyclists, food, bugs and other animals. He called his paper files, part art, part categorization. Soon after mastering the collage, he turned to experimental avant-garde film and his first shadow boxes. He was completely self-taught and knew nothing about the art world, yet his films were very popular. His films were even reviewed in artistic, Surrealist and Dada, magazines at the time. His first shadow box Soap Bubble Set was exhibited at the MOMA in 1936, as part of the Surrealist and Dada exhibition. Even though he was very shy and completely introverted, he liked that his work was praised and well accepted by art critiques and fellow artist. He continued to communicate with all of them, for the business reasons, even though he found it hard to stay so open.

Cornell was a real magician in finding the exact right object to go with the story of the box

Joseph Cornell - Various Boxes
Joseph Cornell – Various Boxes, photo credits Lorenzduberry

Shadow Boxes

After the first success, he decided to resign from his sales job and to open a real studio this time in his basement. There he started making many shadow boxes, and he started constructing the frames himself. He became very skillful with power tools, wood cutting procedures, and he used lots of paint, lacquer, and colors. His assemblages, the shadow boxes, carried a strange Victorian energy. They completely captivated the viewer, bearing a feeling of nostalgia. They recall childhood memories, bringing the mixture of sadness and joy. Cornell was a real magician in finding the exact right object to go with the story of the box. All that hoarding, and sorting out the found objects, turned out to be very useful while he made his boxes for 15 years. First, he made each box over a slow period of time, later he made them in series, telling a unique story in chronological order, and making sure that the composition of each one matches the other. He stayed true to his childhood theme, using many objects and images from the fun parks or children books. His series Medici Slot Machine was done with hidden awards, colored balls, and childlike play games. In Hotels and Observatories he emphasized the feeling of transcendence one encounters on a way to an observatory. His imagination was infinite. There was nothing he could not think of, and everything seemed possible and made sense. Passengers could travel outside of the world, visit the celestial landscapes, parrots could be targets for play shooting, and whole new worlds could fit into the box.

All images used for illustrative purpose only © Joseph Cornell

YearName of the exhibitionMuseum/GallerySolo/Group
2015WanderlustRoyal Academy of Arts, LondonSolo
2014Joseph Cornell and SurrealismThe Fralin Museum of Art, Charlottesville, Virginia, USAsolo
2013Joseph Cornell and Surrealism in New YorkMusée des Beaux-Arts, Lyon, Francesolo
2013Nouvelles Impressions de Raymond RousselPalais de Tokyo, Paris, Francegroup
2012Micro ManiaGagosian Gallery, Paris, Francegroup
2012FrameworksBarbara Mathes Gallery, New York, USAgroup
2011One, AnotherFLAG Art Foundation, New York, USAgroup
2011The Unfinished FilmGladstone Gallery, New York, USAgroup
2011Surrealism. The Poetry of DreamsGallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, Australiagroup
2011Fragments 1915-2011. Modern and Contemporary CollageACA Galleries, New York, USAgroup
2011Midnight PartyWalker Art Center, Minneapolis, USAgroup
2010Art of Modern JapanNational Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, Japangroup
2010Worlds in a Box. Mary Bauermeister and the Experimental Art of the SixtiesWilhelm Hack Museum, Ludwigshafen, Germanygroup
2009Karsten Greve, 20 Years in ParisGalerie Karsten Greve, Parisgroup
2008Modernidad americana. Obras de la Corcoran Gallery of ArtFundación Joan Miró, Barcelona, Spaingroup
2008Coming of Age. Arte americana dal 1850 al 1950Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice, Italygroup
2008Selections from the Collection of Helga & Walther LauffsHauser & Wirth, Zurich, Switzerlandgroup
2008Lights, Camera, Action. Artists´ Films for the CinemaWhitney Museum of American Art, New York, USAgroup
2007Joseph Cornell. Navigating the ImaginationSan Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, USAsolo
2007Navigating the ImaginationPeabody Essex Museum, Salem, USAsolo
2007Joseph CornellPavel Zoubok Gallery, New York, USAsolo
2007Lights, Camera, Action. Artists´ Films for the CinemaWhitney Museum of American Art, New York, USAgroup
2006Joseph Cornell. Navigating the ImaginationSmithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C., USAsolo
2006Eleven Collages by Joseph CornellThe Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, San Marinosolo
2006Andromeda Hotel. The Art of Joseph CornellKatonah Museum of Art, Katonah, New York, USA solo
2006Collage AestheticSheldon Museum of Art, Lincoln, USAgroup
2006Le mouvement des imagesCentre Georges Pompidou, Musée National d´Art Moderne, Paris, Francegroup
2006Rock Paper Scissors. American Collage NowFleisher-Ollman Gallery, Philadelphia, USAgroup
2005Mapping SpaceMiami Art Museum, Miami, USAgroup
2005Dialogues. Duchamp, Cornell, Johns, RauschenbergDallas Museum of Art, Dallas, USAgroup
2005The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation GiftThe Contemporary Museum Honolulu, Honolulu, Hawaii, USAgroup
2004American Collage ExhibitionUniversity of Virginia Art Museum, Charlottesville, USA group
2003Joseph Cornell. CollagesFraenkel Gallery, San Francisco, USAsolo
2003Da Modigliani al contemporaneo. Scultura dalle collezioni GuggenheimFondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Modena, Modena, Italygroup
2003Travelling - towards the borderThe National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo, Japangroup
2002Joseph Cornell. CollagesL&M Arts, New York, USAsolo
2002The Spirit of Joseph CornellAlbright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, USAsolo
2002Surrealism - Desire UnboundThe Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USAgroup
2001The Collection Lauffs IMuseum House Lange,House Esters, Krefeld, Germanygroup
1999Joseph Cornell, Marcel Duchamp ... in resonanceThe Menil Collection, Houston, USAgroup
1998Joseph Cornell, Marcel Duchamp…in resonancePhiladelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, USAgroup
1997Joseph Cornell. Private ConstellationsSan Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, USAsolo
1997Deep Storage. Sammeln, Speichern, Archivieren in der KunstKulturforum Potsdamer Platz, Berlingroup
1996Joseph CornellManny Silverman Gallery, Los Angeles, USAsolo
1996Joseph Cornell. Box Construction and CollagesL&M Arts, New York, USAsolo
1995Exploring the Unknown. Surrealism in American ArtMichael Rosenfeld Gallery, New Yorkgroup
1994A View to the Future. Recent AcquisitionsDavid Winton Bell Gallery, Providence, Rhode Island, USAsolo
1993Joseph CornellKawamura Memorial Museum of Art, Chiba, Japansolo
1992Joseph Cornell. 1903 - 1972Galerie Karsten Greve, Cologne, Germany group
1992Surrealism Embodied. The Figure in American Art, 1933-1953Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, New York, USAgroup
1991The World of BoxArt Tower Mito ATM, Mito, Japangroup
1990Joseph Cornell. CollagesRichard Gray Gallery, Chicago, USA solo
1990Contemporary Art in a Modern ContextPeggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice, Italygroup
1989Joseph CornellGalerie 1900-2000, Paris, Francesolo
1989Joseph Cornell. Box Constructions and CollagesRichard Gray Gallery, Chicago, USAsolo
1987The Window in Twentieth-Century ArtContemporary Arts Museum, Houston, USAgroup
1984Joseph CornellFundación Joan Miró, Barcelona, Spainsolo
1984Joseph CornellFundación Juan March, Madrid, Spainsolo
1983Joseph Cornell, George Brecht - Kleine ObjektkästenStädtisches Museum Abteiberg, Moenchengladbach, Germanygroup
1982Joseph CornellThe Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, USAsolo
1982The Americans. The CollageContemporary Arts Museum, Houston, USAgroup
1981Joseph CornellKunsthalle Duesseldorf, Duesseldorf, Germanysolo
1981Joseph CornellWhitechapel Art Gallery, London, Englandsolo
1980Joseph CornellThe Museum of Modern Art, New York, USA solo
1979Joseph Cornell, MATRIX 30Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive BAM-PFA, Berkeley, USAsolo
1978Joseph Cornell. Collages 1931 – 1972Leo Castelli Gallery, New York, USAsolo
1978Three Generations. Studies in CollageMargo Leavin Gallery, Los Angeles, USAgroup
1977Joseph Cornell. ScatolaGalleria L'Attico, Rome, Italysolo
1976Joseph CornellLeo Castelli Gallery, New York, USAsolo
1973Collage and the Photo ImageMuseum of Modern Art, New York, USAgroup
1972documenta 5Kassel, Germanygroup
1972Metamorphose des DingesKunsthalle Basel, Basel, Switzerlandgroup
1971Metamorphose des DingesPalazzo Reale, Milan, Italygroup
1968Joseph CornellThe Rose Art Museum, Waltham, USAsolo
1968documenta 4Kassel, Germanygroup
1967Joseph CornellSolomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, USA solo
1965Joseph CornellAllan Stone Gallery, New York, USA solo
1965American CollagesThe Museum of Modern Art, New York, USAgroup
1961The Art of AssemblageThe Museum of Modern Art, New York, USAgroup
1959Out of the OrdinaryContemporary Arts Museum, Houston, USAgroup
1958The Disquieting Muse. SurrealismContemporary Arts Museum, Houston, USAgroup
1949Joseph CornellCharles Eagan Gallery, New York, USAsolo
1942First Papers of SurrealismCoordinating Council of French Relief Societies, New York, USAgroup
1938Exposition Internationale du SurrealismeGalerie des Beaux-Arts, Paris, Francegroup