"Shadow boxes become poetic theaters or settings wherein are metamorphosed the element of a childhood pastime." Joseph Cornell

1903-72 American assemblage and collage avante-garde artist and filmmaker

Born in Nyack, NY (just north of NYC). After his father died, his family moved to Long Island, where he spent most of the rest of his life. He had no formal art training, entirely self taught. He read widely in diverse subject areas. He was very interested in the French Symbolist poets such as Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine. Although he kept very extensive journals there are many details of his life unknown. At some point in the late 1920's he was exposed to a 'collage novel' by Max Ernst which really impressed him. He was a prolific creator of 3-D 'boxes' which employ a wide array of found objects. He took the train to Manhattan and went through all the antique shops, bookstalls, etc and collected small flotsam and jetsom of the popular culture. For some things, he reached back into the 19th Century. Toward the end of his life, he was cutting things out of full color magazines. He was also very interested in Astronomy and had a wide selection of books on the subject in his library. The stars and planets appeared frequently in his work. He particularly liked archaic maps of the stars such as those which showed the Earth as the center of the universe, or the ones which also showed the locations of heaven and hell. Friends with Marcel Duchamp, had no formal training in art and his most characteristic works are his highly distinctive `boxes'. These are simple boxes, usually glass-fronted, in which he arranged surprising collections of photographs or Victorian bric-à-brac in a way that has been said to combine the formal austerity of Constructivism with the lively fantasy of Surrealism. These boxes were not so much intended to be art as they were made as "gifts" for individuals sometimes living, sometimes dead, often people the artist had never met, but who in some way had touched his life. He was something of a movie buff. He took a B-movie called, "East of Borneo" and rearranged it. He gave the new film the title "Rose Hobart." When it was screened at the Museum of Modern Art in 1936 that Salvador Dalí grabbed the projector and flipped it upside down. He called Cornell a 'Bastard' because he'd done a film before Dali. Later Salvador would collaborate with Luis Buñuel on two Surrealist films of their own, L'Age D'Or and Un Chien Andalou. Things which interested him included Ballet and the celebrity ballerinas of the day. In some cases he carried on correspondences with them through the mail. This included Tamara Toumanova, Tilly Losch and Allegra Kent. He was also taken by the ballet character Ondine which appeared numerous times in his work. He also made a number of boxes dedicated to poplar film stars such as Hedy Lamarr, Lauren Bacall He carried out extensive correspondence with a wide variety of people, including:

His work is much sought after these days and exists in the permanent collecitons of:

See: Kurt Schwitters

He never achieved recognition and fame in his lifetime, but is now considered one of the great artists of the 20th Century. His works now sell for in excess of $100,000.


Sources: McShine, Kynaston (Ed.), "Joseph Cornell", Museum of Modern Art, NY, 1980. Motherwell, Robert "The Dada Painters and Poets: An Anthology", Harvard University Press, 1951 Rubin, William S., "Dada, Surrealism, and Their Heritage", Museum of Modern Art, NY, 1968. Last Updated 05.21.04

He did his boxes, but also collages and dossiers. One in particular, entitled Duchamp Dossier, which contained, basically, insignificant flotsam and jetsam, scraps, from his friendship with Duchamp. Other subjects included Ondine (ballet character), Lauren Bacall, and Patty Duke. One collage, entitled Sorrows of Young Werther (1966), shows a Little Lord Fauntleroy-type child with his dog is standing in the foreground of a reclining nude woman in the backround, in a forest.

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