Joseph Cornell, assemblagist, collagist, and filmmaker, was born on December 24, 1903 in Nyack, New York. He was the oldest son of Joseph I. Cornell, a textile salesman and designer, and Helen Storms Cornell, and had two younger sisters, Elizabeth (b. 1905), nicknamed Nell and later Betty, and Helen (b. 1906), and a younger brother, Robert (b. 1910), who suffered from cerebral palsy. Cornell shared close relationships with his siblings, and was especially attached to his brother whom he took care of as an adult. His fondest childhood memories included family Christmas celebrations, outings to Manhattan where he saw vaudeville shows and strolled around Times Square, and trips to Coney Island where he encountered penny arcade machines. These childhood memories, among others, inspired some of the themes later explored in his art work.
After his father's death in 1917, Cornell was sent to study at the Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. He remained there for four years, but left without receiving a diploma. During this time, the family moved from Nyack to Bayside, Queens, where they lived in a series of rented houses. Cornell rejoined his family in 1921, at which time he went to work as a salesman in the Manhattan office of a textile wholesaler, the William Whitman Company. He joined the Christian Science church in the mid-1920s, and in 1929, the family bought a house at 37-08 Utopia Parkway in Flushing, where he resided for the rest of his life, living there with his mother and brother after both his sisters married and moved away.
During the 1920s, Cornell developed his passion for walking the city streets and taking in their sights, sounds, and impressions; browsing in the secondhand bookshops along Fourth Avenue; and collecting material such as books, prints, postcards, and printed and three-dimensional ephemera. He cultivated his growing interest in culture and the arts by attending opera and ballet performances, seeing plays (the 1922 play Rain, which starred Jeanne Eagels, was among his favorites), visiting galleries and museums, reading, and going to the movies.
In 1931, Cornell began to frequent the Julien Levy Gallery, where he encountered Surrealist art for perhaps the first time. Around this time, he created his first works of art - a series of black-and-white collages composed from cutouts of nineteenth-century engravings - inspired by Max Ernst's collages, in particular his collage-novel, La Femme 100 tetes (1929). Cornell went on to create three-dimensional works of art such as pill boxes and a glass bell series (consisting of objects arranged under a bell jar). His work, including several collages and a glass bell, was first exhibited as part of the groundbreaking "Surrealisme" show at the Levy Gallery in January 1932. He also designed the cover of the show announcement. His first one-man show at the gallery, "The Objects of Joseph Cornell," followed in the fall of 1932. (It was seven years before his next solo show.) By this time, Cornell had been laid off from his job at Whitman's. He was out of work for several years before getting a job as a textile designer at the Traphagen Commercial Textile Studio in 1934. During the next several years, he continued to work on his art at night.
Around this time, Cornell began collecting movies and movie stills, and embarked upon various film-related projects. In 1933, he wrote a scenario for a silent movie, Monsieur Phot. A few years later, he made his first film, Rose Hobart (1936), comprised of re-edited footage from the B-movie, East of Borneo (1931), which starred the actress, Rose Hobart. And he began work on a trilogy of collage-films - The Children's Party, Cotillion, and The Midnight Party (circa 1937). He then took a break from making films until the mid-1950s, but continued to collect film-related material, which he began to incorporate into his other art work.
In 1936, Cornell constructed his first glass-fronted shadow box, Untitled (Soap Bubble Set), which was included that same year in the "Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism" exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, along with a cabinet box and several glass bells. In creating some of his other early boxes, he began the practice of using photo reproductions of images which he located in books and magazines, or in the Picture Collection at the New York Public Library, among other places. In his tribute boxes to actresses (1930s), he made use of publicity shots, and in the box, Dressing Room for Gilles (1939), he employed a photostat (or stat) of a reproduction of Jean-Antoine Watteau's painting, Gilles (1718).
Over the years, Cornell came into contact with various figures of the art, dance, and literary worlds. In the 1930s and 1940s, he met the artists, Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp, and Salvador Dali, and befriended the artists, Lee Miller and Dorothea Tanning. His formative friendships during 1940s were with the artist, Pavel Tchelitchew, the writers, Charles Henri Ford (founder of the avant-garde periodical, View), Parker Tyler, and Donald Windham, and the balletomane, Lincoln Kirstein (founder of Dance Index). His other friends included the artists, Roberto Matta Echaurren and Robert Motherwell, the dancer and actress, Tilly Losch, and the poets, Mina Loy and Marianne Moore. In the 1950s, he associated with artists from the Abstract Expressionist movement, including Willem de Kooning, Jack Tworkov, and Mark Rothko. Beginning in the mid-1950s, he befriended many young artists, including Lee Bontecou and Carolee Schneeman, and young actresses, including Lois Smith, Gwen Van Dam, and Suzanne Miller, whom he sought to appear in his films. And in the early 1960s, he met the Pop artists, Robert Indiana, James Rosenquist, and Andy Warhol.
Beginning in 1940, Cornell developed a keen interest in dance, particularly ballet. Ballerinas from the Romantic era, such as Marie Taglioni and Fanny Cerrito, especially captured his imagination, inspiring such works as the box, Taglioni's Jewel Casket (1940), and the Portrait of Ondine "exploration," which comprised a portfolio of material relating to Cerrito and her famous role in the ballet, Ondine. Cornell was also fascinated with the modern counterparts of the Romantic ballerinas. In 1940, he befriended the Russian ballet dancer, Tamara Toumanova, and over the years produced many works in homage to her, including swan boxes (inspired by her role in Swan Lake), boxes made with scraps from her costumes, and scrapbooks of clippings, stats, and memorabilia. In 1949, he became enamored of the French dancer, Renee "Zizi" Jeanmarie, after seeing her perform in Carmen and meeting her backstage, and he created several dance-related boxes in her honor. In 1957, he met the ballerina, Allegra Kent. After meeting again in 1964, they became friends, and she served as the subject of several works based on images reproduced from a Parmigianino painting.
In December 1940, Cornell left his job at the Traphagen textile studio to pursue art full-time. He set up a workshop in the basement of the house on Utopia Parkway, which served as a combination studio and storage space. While he spent most days at home, he continued to make regular trips into Manhattan to wander around the city, visit with friends, and hunt for material. Around this time, he began to keep a diary, recording his day-to-day experiences (usually comprising his thoughts, feelings, impressions, ideas) on scraps of paper (including used envelopes, paper bags, napkins, and ticket stubs, among other fragments). He would then type up some of these notes into more formal diary entries, but most of them remained, in his word, "scribblings." Diary keeping eventually became one of his primary activities, along with box construction, collage, research, and collecting.
By this time, his art work was beginning to sell, yet he was not able to live from these sales alone. During the 1940s, he primarily supported himself by doing freelance work for magazines such as Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, and Good Housekeeping, supplying illustrations from his picture collection and designing covers and layouts. He also regularly contributed pieces to View and Dance Index. His notable contributions to View included "Enchanted Wanderer: Excerpt from a Journey Album for Hedy Lamarr" (December 1941), "Story Without a Name - for Max Ernst" (April 1942), and "The Crystal Cage [portrait of Berenice]" (January 1943). His projects for Dance Index included various collage-covers, essays, and thematic issues, such as the Summer 1944 issue, which comprised a 22-page tribute to the Romantic ballerinas, Taglioni, Carlotta Grisi, Cerrito, and Fanny Elssler. To supplement his income, Cornell also held brief positions at an electronics plant, the Allied Control Company, Inc. (in 1943), and at a nursery, the Garden Centre (in 1944).
In 1942, Cornell created one of his more memorable works, Medici Slot Machine, embarking upon a large series of Medici boxes in which he utilized reproductions of portraits by Italian Renaissance artists, such as Sofonisba Anguissola and Pinturicchio. His other boxes from this time period explored themes ranging from ballet, as in A Pantry Ballet (for Jacques Offenbach) (1942), to doomed love, as in Paolo and Francesca (1943-48), to nature, as in the Sand Boxes (1940s) and Sand Fountains (1950s). Cornell often created boxes in series, producing variations on a theme with variants that differed significantly or only slightly. Over the years, series included: Pink Palaces, Pharmacies, Habitats, Aviaries, Dovecotes, Hotels, Observatories, and Night Skies, among others.
In late 1945, Cornell joined the Hugo Gallery, which was run by Alexander Iolas, and a year later mounted the show, "Romantic Museum at the Hugo Gallery: Portraits of Women by Joseph Cornell" (December 1946). He designed the exhibition catalog for this show, which consisted of portraits - box constructions, objects, and "dossiers" - of the opera singers, Giuditta Pasta and Maria Malibran, the ballerinas, Taglioni and Cerrito, and the actresses, Eleanora Duse, Jeanne Eagels, Greta Garbo, and Jennifer Jones, and which also featured one of his most famous boxes, Untitled (Penny Arcade Portrait of Lauren Bacall) (1945-46).
In 1949, Cornell joined the Egan Gallery, which was run by Charles Egan. Around this time, he began creating his series of Aviary boxes, which explored the symbolism of birds and birdcages. He showed twenty-six of these box constructions in his first exhibition at the Egan Gallery, "Aviary by Joseph Cornell" (December 1949-January 1950). He created other series of whitewashed boxes, including the Dovecote series and a small group relating to the poet, Emily Dickinson. He then went on to explore the themes of astronomy and celestial navigation in the Observatory, Night Skies, and Hotel series. Works from these series were featured in his two remaining shows at the Egan Gallery, "Night Songs and Other Work" (December 1950-January 1951) and "Night Voyage" (February-March 1953). In the fall of 1953, sparked by seeing the painting, Figure Seated in a Cafe (1914), Cornell embarked upon a major series of bird constructions dedicated to the Cubist artist, Juan Gris. Notably, these were the only boxes he explicitly dedicated to another artist.
Over the next couple of years, Cornell's work was exhibited across the country. In 1955, he joined the Stable Gallery, which was run by Eleanor Ward. His first one-man show there, in the winter of 1955-56, was "Winter Night Skies," which featured various box constructions based on constellations. During the mid-1950s, he embarked upon a series of Sand Fountains (vertical standing boxes featuring a broken glass and sand that flowed through it when turned upside down), elaborating upon his earlier Sand Boxes (1940s). These boxes along with some of his other latest works, including the Bleriot boxes and the Space Object boxes (which comprised his final box series), were exhibited in his second and last show at the Stable Gallery, "Selected Works" (December 1957).
After leaving the Stable Gallery, Cornell had several dealers handle his work rather than allowing any one to assume too much control. Dealers included Richard Feigen (in Chicago and then in New York) and Irving Blum (in California), among others. Throughout his career, Cornell never liked selling his boxes. He was always reluctant to let his work go and became increasingly uneasy about the growing status of his work as a commodity. He preferred instead to make gifts of his art work to friends and individuals he admired (especially female ones).
In the mid-1950s, Cornell returned to making films. Rather than just splicing together found images as he had in his films of the 1930s, he began to collaborate with others to shoot original footage. He worked with the experimental filmmaker, Stan Brakhage, on two films, one about the Third Ave El which was about to be torn down ( Wonder Ring or Gnir Rednow) and the other about an old house in Cornell's neighborhood that was slated for demolition ( Centuries of June). Cornell then went on to make nine films with the filmmaker, Rudy Burckhardt, including Aviary, A Legend for Fountains, and Nymphlight, among others. In the late 1960s, he enlisted the help of Larry Jordan, who was also a filmmaker, in completing the trilogy of collage-films that he had begun in the 1930s.
Along with creating works of art and making films, Cornell was involved in a host of other creative endeavors throughout his career as an artist. These included: keeping a diary, which was for him another medium for exploring and expressing the themes, ideas, and concerns recurrent in his art work; carrying out "explorations," which typically involved conducting research, collecting material, and compiling files on persons or topics of interest to him; and other projects, such as publishing pamphlets (or brochures) dedicated to the nineteenth-century opera singers, Malibran and Giulia Grisi. Cornell's "explorations" clearly informed his artwork, but they were also works of art in and of themselves. He continually sought to share this work with an audience and twice had the opportunity to do so, when he exhibited versions of his Portrait of Ondine "exploration" at the Museum of Modern Art in 1945 and at the Wittenborn Bookstore in 1956.
Around the mid-1950s, Cornell returned to making collages as independent works of art. Unlike his earlier ones, which were composed from cutouts of black-and-white engravings, his latest collages were made with color images cut out of contemporary magazines and books. In these collages, he explored many of the same themes and preoccupations of his box constructions, including birds, as in Couleur de Peche (1967) and Untitled (Vierge Vivace) (1970), children's games, as in the Penny Arcade series (1960s), and actresses, as in The Sister Shades (1956). Towards the end of his career, collage became his principal medium.
By this time, Cornell was taking fewer trips into Manhattan. Instead, he spent more time at home or traveled only so far as downtown Flushing, where he frequented the public library, hunted for material in stores, such as Woolworth's, and passed time in the coffee-shops on Main Street. From this time on, he kept his diary with increasing regularity, taking down notations with more frequency and creating entries of greater length.
In 1961, fourteen of Cornell's boxes, including Medici Slot Machine, were exhibited as part of the "The Art of Assemblage" show at the Museum of Modern Art. As his biographer notes, Cornell came to view this show "as a turning point in his creative life," marking the "[fall] off in his work" that took place in the sixties (Solomon 271-2). He continued to work on boxes that he had begun long before, but, after this time, rarely if ever constructed new ones. Instead, he focused on making collages and became increasingly concerned with other projects, such as organizing his basement workshop, for which he hired various "helpers" or assistants (mostly young women) over the years. He also became more and more prone to obsessions (or preoccupations, as he called them) with various young women that he encountered both in fantasy (actresses on stage or in films) and in real life (working girls in the city, "teeners" on Main Street, or his female visitors and "helpers" at home). These preoccupations infused his diary writings, and inspired the keeping of "dossiers" on particular individuals and the creation of various collages dedicated to others, including most notably the Penny Arcade series dedicated to Joyce Hunter (or "Tina," as he referred to her in his writings).
After Robert's death in February 1965, Cornell created a series of collages in his memory, many of which incorporated his brother's drawings of animal characters. In January 1966, he exhibited some of these collages, alongside a selection of Robert's drawings, in a show at the Robert Schoelkopf Gallery, "Robert Cornell: Memorial Exhibition." In 1967, there were two retrospective exhibitions of Cornell's work, "An Exhibition of Works by Joseph Cornell" at the Pasadena Art Museum and "Joseph Cornell" at the Guggenheim Museum. By now, Cornell was receiving considerable public recognition for his work. He had received his first profile (by Howard Griffin) in the December 1957 issue of Art News and, ten years later, was treated to a 12-page spread (by David Bourdon) in the December 1967 issue of Life magazine. He was also the recipient of various prizes for his art work, including the M.V Kohnstamm Prize at the Art Institute of Chicago's "62nd American Exhibition of Painting and Sculpture" in 1957 and the winning prize in India's first Triennale of Contemporary World Art in 1968.
In the last years of his life (especially from the time of his mother's death in the fall of 1966), Cornell suffered from severe depression and loneliness, and withdrew even further from the outside world. However, he still maintained relationships with various young friends and artists, who frequently visited Utopia Parkway and/or served as one of his assistants. He became more and more interested in sharing his work with a younger audience and his last two exhibitions in 1972 were expressly for children, "A Joseph Cornell Exhibition for Children" at the Cooper Union School of Art and Architecture and "Joseph Cornell - Collages and Boxes" at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York.
Cornell continued to work until the end of his life, "refurbishing" earlier boxes and creating memorial collages. Following prostate surgery in June 1972, he spent several months recuperating with family in Westhampton before returning to Utopia Parkway in November. He died of heart failure at home on December 29, 1972.
The biographical note draws heavily from Deborah Solomon's biography, Utopia Parkway: The Life and Work of Joseph Cornell (New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1997), and Diane Waldman's book, Joseph Cornell: Master of Dreams (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2002).