Joseph Cornell, Artist

Known as the reclusive surrealist of Utopia Parkway, Queens, Joseph Cornell did collages and box constructions in which images and objects convey an aura of mysterious innocence. In his will, he left a foundation for making charitable grants from the sales of his art and returns on investments.

Cornell was born in Nyack, New York and attended Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. He lived primarily in New York City from 1929. A collage album made by surrealist Max Ernst inspired Cornell to make his signature boxes, something he began in the early 1930s. He had no training for these objects that were filled with items such as thimbles, bells, sequins, theatre mementoes, and other everyday objects, some of them from the 19th century. The combinations challenged the viewers' imaginations because they had unusual juxtapositions and played visual tricks. Titles include "Multiple Cubes", 'Soapbubble Set'. and 'Night Skies'.

A close collaborator and major influence early in his career was Marcel Duchamp whom he met in 1933 at Constantin Brancusi sculpture exhibition, organized by Duchamp at Brummer gallery in New York. Their acquaintance was renewed when Duchamp moved to New York in 1942, and Duchamp hired Cornell to assist him in making editions of his "portable museums," or boxes in a valise. As Cornell's career grew, his boxes became increasingly abstract, perhaps influenced by Duchamp and also by Piet Mondrian whose work he admired. Later Cornell did a number of assemblages in homage to his friend Duchamp, and they were discovered after Cornell's death in 1972.

Matthew Baigell, Dictionary of American Art

Internet Resources

This reclusive, gray, long-beaked man would sally forth on small voyages of discovery, scavenging for relics of the past in New York junk shops and flea markets…The earth is presented as one strange planet among others, which to Cornell it was.
Mark Harden
Information about Joseph Cornell in art museums, auction watch service, image archives, other sites, and articles.
He was fascinated not by refuse, garbage, and the discarded, but by fragments of once beautiful and precious objects, relying on the Surrealist technique of irrational juxtaposition and on the evocation of nostalgia for his appeal.
Nicolas Pioch
How could a reclusive fabric salesman with no art education or training become almost universally acknowledged as a modern master?
Paul Solman
The mysterious little worlds he created in his boxes influenced everyone from pop artists like Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol to contemporary installation artists.
National Public Radio
Since his death, in 1972, it is not so much that Cornell's fame has grown, which is what happens when critics water a reputation, as that his work has become part of the living body of art, which is what happens when artists eat it.
Adam Gopnik

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