Joseph Cornell (December 24, 1903 – December 29, 1972) was an American artist and sculptor, one of the pioneers and most celebrated exponents of assemblage. Influenced by the Surrealists, he was also an avant-garde experimental filmmaker. Joseph Cornell was born in Nyack, New York, to Joseph Cornell, a well-to-do designer and merchant of textiles, and Helen TenBroeck Storms Cornell, who had trained as a kindergarten teacher. Cornell attended Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, in the class of 1921, although he did not graduate. Except for the three and a half years he spent at Phillips, he lived for most of his life in a small, wooden-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 challenged. Aside from the aforementioned period he spent at the academy in Andover, Cornell never traveled beyond the New York City area. 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 devoted his life to caring for his younger brother Robert, who was disabled and lived with cerebral palsy. This was another factor in his lack of relationships. 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. He only really began to sell his boxes for significant sums after his 1949 solo show at the Charles Egan Gallery. Cornell was a highly regarded artist towards the end of his career, yet remained out of the spotlight. He produced fewer box assemblages in the 1950s and 1960s, as his family responsibilities increased and claimed more of his time. He hired a series of young assistants, including both students and established artists, to help him organize material, make artwork, and run errands. At this time, Cornell concentrated on making collages, and collaborated with filmmakers like Rudy Burckhardt, Stan Brakhage, and Larry Jordan to make films that were evocative of moving collages. Cornell’s brother Robert died in 1965, and his mother in 1966. Joseph Cornell died of apparent heart failure on 29 December 1972, a few days after his sixty-ninth birthday.
Cornell’s most characteristic art works were boxed assemblages created from found objects. These are simple boxes, usually fronted with a glass pane, in which he arranged surprising collections of photographs or Victorian bric a brac, in a way that combines the formal austerity of Constructivism with the lively fantasy of Surrealism. 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 USA during the Second World War. Later he was claimed as a herald of pop art and installation art.
Planet Set, Tête Etoilée, Giuditta Pasta (dédicace) 1950
Untitled (Celestial Navigation) 1958
Untitled (Paul and Virginia) c. 1946-48
Untitled (Soap Bubble Set), 1936
Untitled (Solar Set), c. 1956-58
Untitled (Tilly Losch), ca. 1935–38
Untitled (Window Facade) (1950-52)
Untitled The Hotel Eden c1945
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 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 to stop making films. Traumatized by this event, the shy, retiring Cornell showed his films rarely thereafter.