Biographical / Historical
Joseph Cornell (1903-1972) was a self-taught assemblage and collage artist, and filmmaker, active in New York City. He was born in Nyack, New York on December 24, 1903, and died of heart failure at his home in Queens, New York on December 29, 1972. The oldest of four children, he was born Joseph I. Cornell to his mother, Helen Storms Cornell (1882-1966), and his father, Joseph I. Cornell (1875-1917). Cornell had two younger sisters, Elizabeth ("Betty") Cornell Benton (1905-2000) and Helen ("Sissy") Cornell Jagger (1906-2001), as well as one brother, Robert Cornell (1910-1965), who had cerebral palsy.
Cornell attended the Phillips Academy, a preparatory boarding school in Andover, Massachusetts, beginning shortly after his father's death in 1917. He attended for four years but did not receive a diploma, and soon began work as a textile salesman for the William Whitman Company in Manhattan. His work took him, by foot, through the city, visiting secondhand bookshops on Fourth Avenue, browsing music stores and magazine shops, and catching early shows at the Metropolitan Opera House. He would occasionally wait outside the stage doors for favorite singers and dancers to emerge, requesting signatures on photographs or bits of costumes.
Around 1926, Cornell joined the Christian Science Church, joined by his brother Robert shortly thereafter, and both continued to be lifelong members. Cornell kept a number of books in his personal library on Christian Science teachings and regularly subscribed to "The Christian Science Monitor."
After living in several rental houses in Bayside, New York, Cornell's mother purchased a house for the family in 1929 in Flushing, Queens. Cornell, along with his mother and brother, would live at 3708 Utopia Parkway, for the rest of their lives. His two sisters soon married and moved away, eventually settling in Westhampton, Long Island and in the poultry-farming business.
With no formal art training to speak of, Cornell's first work was a Max Ernst-inspired collage, "Untitled (Schooner)," created in 1931. He was especially inspired by Ernst's collage novel, "La Femme 100 têtes," published in 1929. French artist Odilon Redon was also among the few artists Cornell named as an influence on his art. His first sculptural works were small, cardboard pill boxes with bits of ephemera, costume adornments, and nature hidden inside. Cornell also created a series of glass bell jar works, placing small trinkets and Victorian-era-like compositions within. It was these early collages and bell jar works that were included in Cornell's debut exhibition, "Surréalisme" (January 9-29, 1932), a group show at the Julien Levy Gallery. Cornell designed the announcement for the show and exhibited alongside Max Ernst, Man Ray, Pierre Roy, Pablo Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, Eugène Atget, George Platt Lynes, Jean Cocteau, and Salvador Dalí. Months later, Cornell was invited to have his first solo show, "Objects by Joseph Cornell: Minutiae, Glass Bells, Shadow Boxes, Coups d'Oeil, Jouets Surréalistes" (November 26-December 30, 1932), also at the Julien Levy Gallery.
In 1932, after eleven years of work, Cornell was laid off from the William Whitman Company due to the Great Depression. Soon after, he took on more responsibility in the church, working part-time as an attendant in the Christian Science Reading Room in Great Neck, New York. Beginning in 1933, he taught Sunday school classes for three years and in 1935, became the Sunday school librarian. However, his religious activities and artistic ventures continued to remain separate.
In the early 1930s, Cornell progressed from movie lover to filmmaker. When Julien Levy began his New York Film Society in 1933, holding screenings of various experimental films in the gallery, Cornell began buying and collecting films and film stills in earnest. He set up a 16-millimeter projector in his home to screen favorites, such as those by Georges Méliès, D.W. Griffith, and Louis Feuillade. His collection quickly grew to over 2,500 film stills and several hundred films, and included silent era films, such as nature documentaries, goofy newsreels, travelogues, early cartoons, and slapstick comedies, as well as several feature films. In 1933, Cornell wrote a screenplay, or "scenario," entitled "Monsieur Phot." Between 1935 and 1937, Cornell also occasionally created publicity photomontages for Universal and Columbia studios. Of the nearly thirty films Cornell created, periods of activity can generally be separated into two areas: collage films of the late 1930s, consisting of combined elements from films in his own collection, and films he directed in the 1950s, which were collaborations with other filmmakers set in New York City. "Rose Hobart," Cornell's most celebrated collage film, was created and shown in the Julien Levy Gallery in 1936 and includes clipped footage from "East of Borneo." Later films were directed and filmed with cinematographers Stan Brakhage, Rudy Burckhardt, and Larry Jordan.
In 1934, Cornell began a job at the Traphagen Commercial Textile Studio as a "textile designer," a job he held for six years. Continuing to work at his kitchen table in the evenings, Cornell completed his first assemblage box construction, "Untitled (Soap Bubble Set)," in 1936. It was first exhibited at The Museum of Modern Art's show, "Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism" (December 9, 1936-January 17, 1937). This work was also the first to be acquired by a museum, purchased for $60.00 by the Wadsworth Atheneum in Massachusetts in 1938. Cornell's European debut was also in 1938, as one of three Americans represented in the "Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme" (January 17-Febuary 24, 1938) at the Galerie Beaux-Arts in Paris, alongside Man Ray and Anne Clark.
At the end of 1939, Cornell began corresponding with poet Charles Henri Ford, founder of avant-garde magazine "View," Pavel Tchelitchew, and Parker Tyler. After his "Soap Bubble Sets," this period saw the development of Cornell's homages to singers and actresses, including "Untitled (Fortune-Telling Parrot for Carmen Miranda)," the destroyed "Garbo (Greta Garbo in the Legendary Film 'The Crystal Mask,' c. 1845)," and "Dressing Room for Gilles." He also began using photostats of art reproduction prints, as with the print of Jean Antoine-Watteau's painting, "Pierrot" (circa 1719), used in his "Gilles" box.
In the 1940s, the Romantic ballet emerged as Cornell's new topic of interest. Through his friend Pavel Tchelitchew, Cornell was introduced to the School of American Ballet and New York City Ballet founders, Lincoln Kirstein and George Balanchine. Cornell collected dance memorabilia and had a great love of the Romantic ballet. His favorite dancers were primarily ballerinas of the nineteenth century, including Fanny Cerrito, Marie Taglioni, Fanny Elssler, Lucille Grahn, and Carlotta Grisi. Cornell's "Homage to the Romantic Ballet" works largely took the shape of jewel-box style wooden boxes with glass overlays and included bits of velvet, tulle, sequins, crystals, and chiffon, occasionally collected from dancers themselves. His most well-known work of this series is "Taglioni's Jewel Casket" (1940). Cornell also admired several living ballet dancers, including Tamara Toumanova, Zizi Jeanmaire, and Allegra Kent, who would all make their way into Cornell's box works and/or collages. Collecting for the "exploration," "Portrait of Ondine," Cornell's cased portfolio dedication to Fanny Cerrito and her role in the ballet "Ondine," began in the 1940s, though not completed until around 1960.
In late 1940, Cornell quit his job at Traphagen to concentrate on freelance commercial magazine design and editorial work during the day and his artwork at night. That same year, Charles Henri Ford started "View" magazine to promote Surrealists and Neo-Romantics in New York City and often asked Cornell to contribute. Published in the December 1941-January 1942 issue, one of his early contributions was a collage dedication to stage actress Hedy Lamarr: "Enchanted Wanderer: Excerpt from a Journey Album for Hedy Lamarr" (1941). Along with writing the accompanying text, he created a photomontage of Lamarr with her face overlaying the painted portrait of a Renaissance boy by Italian painter Giorgione. Peggy Guggenheim, at the advice of Marcel Duchamp, purchased multiple Cornell works prior to opening her new gallery, Art of This Century. Cornell also befriended Roberto Matta Echaurren, another Surrealist living in exile, who introduced him to Robert Motherwell.
After deciding to fully dedicate his time to his art in early 1940, he set up a studio in his basement. Complete with floor-to-ceiling wooden shelving, he kept his large collection of boxed source material stacked with handwritten labels in cardboard boxes. Themed folders of materials such as "Stamps" or "Maps" were kept in stacks and works in progress and finished works were stored in the basement, garage, and attic. Entering a renewed period of productivity, Cornell embarked on many new and important box projects in 1942. One of the first boxes created in his new basement studio, and the first of the "Penny Arcade" or "Medici Slot Machine" series, was "Medici Slot Machine" (1942), which includes a photostat of "Portrait of Marquess Massimiliano Stampa" (1557) by Sofonisba Anguissola. Another work from this time is the first of his "Castle" or "Palace" series, "Setting for a Fairy Tale" (1942), which uses a photostat of a French building from Jacques Androuet du Cerceau's book, "Les Plus excellents bastiments de France" (1576). "Untitled (Pharmacy)" (circa 1942) was the first of his "Pharmacy" series and included twenty-two apothecary jars. Cornell tended to work in series and created thirteen "Palace" boxes between 1942 and 1951, and ultimately created six "Pharmacy" works.
In 1943, Cornell began working at an electronics company, the Allied Control Company, Inc., to do his part to contribute to the defense effort during the war. He also sent correspondence and care packages to displaced Europeans, who listed their needs in "The Christian Science Monitor." Influenced by World War II, one of his strongest works to emerge in 1943 was "Habitat Group for a Shooting Gallery." Another notable work to come out of this period, "The Crystal Cage (Portrait of Berenice)," was an excerpt from one of his album "explorations" that was published in the January 1943 issue of "View."
Cornell left his job at Allied Control in 1944, but soon began working at the Garden Centre in Flushing, owned by a fellow Christian Scientist. Cornell was often nostalgic for this time in his life, devoting an entire "exploration" of material fondly remembered as "GC 44." He rode a bicycle to work and enjoyed collecting trips gathering dried grasses, driftwood, shells, and other relics of nature on the same bicycle as he rode through the streets of Queens. During this time, he continued to tend to his projects for "Dance Index," a magazine founded in 1942 by Lincoln Kirstein, but taken over by Donald Windham in 1944. Cornell designed several covers for the magazine and was given control of the entire summer 1944 issue, which he devoted to the Romantic ballet. He also devoted a special 1945 issue to Hans Christian Andersen, making great use of the New York Public Library Picture Collection.
Throughout the 1940s, Cornell continued to support himself with commercial design work for magazines like "Vogue," "Good Housekeeping," "Harper's Bazaar," "Town & Country," and "Mademoiselle." In 1946, after thirteen years at the Julien Levy Gallery, he joined the Hugo Gallery. In December 1946, Cornell's solo exhibition, "Romantic Museum at the Hugo Gallery: Portraits of Women by Joseph Cornell," celebrated his favorite movie stars, singers, and ballet dancers, and included his work created for the show, "Untitled (Penny Arcade Portrait of Lauren Bacall)." Cornell's "Greta Garbo" box, as well as "Souvenir for Singleton," an homage to Jennifer Jones and her role in the film "Love Letters," were also included in the show. In late 1948, his West Coast debut was in the exhibition, "Objects by Joseph Cornell," held at the Copley Gallery. The end of the 1940s saw the final issue of "View" magazine in 1947, the closure of the Julien Levy Gallery in April 1949, and Cornell's departure from the Hugo Gallery after his last show in November 1949.
In late 1949, Cornell joined the Charles Egan Gallery, known primarily for showing Abstract Expressionists. At this time, Cornell was working on a new series of boxes known as his "Aviary" works, most of which include a white-painted box with cutouts of birds mounted on wood. Though he had worked on bird-related boxes before, including an "Owl" series in the mid-1940s, his "Fortune Telling Parrot" (1939), and "Object 1941" (1941), these newer works were stripped of French elements and left "clean and abstract" by design. His first show at the Egan Gallery, "Aviary by Joseph Cornell" (December 7, 1949-January 7, 1950), included twenty-six "Aviary" works, nearly all created in 1949. Donald Windham agreed to write the foreword for the exhibition catalog, a single folded sheet, and Cornell gave him one of the boxes in the show, "Cockatoo: Keepsake Parakeet," in appreciation. Through the Egan Gallery, Cornell became friends with a new group of artists, including Franz Kline, Jack Tworkov, and Willem de Kooning. Cornell also held two screenings of a selection of his collected films at Subjects of the Artist, an art school founded by Robert Motherwell, Mark Rothko, David Hare, and William Baziotes.
In 1950, Cornell's second show at the Egan Gallery, "Night Songs and Other New Work" (December 1, 1950-January 13, 1951), introduced his new "Observatory" series. These works are largely defined by stark, whitewashed spaces with astronomical charts and constellations replacing colorful birds. The Museum of Modern Art purchased its first Cornell work from this show in early 1951, "Central Park Carrousel, in Memoriam" (1950).
For three months in 1951, Cornell was beset by various ailments and had trouble finding the energy to create new work. He worried more for his aging mother and the health of his brother. After a monthlong vacation with his sisters in Westhampton, he returned with renewed interest in Emily Dickinson's poetry. His whitewashed boxes took on a new form in his newest "Dovecote" series, using grids and circular cutouts. The works then transformed into homages to Dickinson, notably "Toward the Blue Peninsula: For Emily Dickinson" (circa 1953), and then to his "Hotel" series. Cornell's "Hotel" boxes include photostats of vintage European ads for hotels collected from vintage travel guides, especially "Baedeker's," adhered to the back walls of the boxes. Another new series of work, his "Juan Gris" series, was dedicated to Cubist artist Juan Gris. Between 1953 and the mid-1960s, Cornell created at least fifteen "Juan Gris" boxes, which often include a cutout of a white cockatoo in a Cubist-collage habitat. Cornell's third and last show at Egan Gallery, "Night Voyage" (February 10-March 28, 1953), included some of these newest works. After leaving Egan Gallery, his work was introduced to Chicago collectors in a solo show at the Frumkin Gallery, "Joseph Cornell: 10 Years of His Art" (April 10-May 7, 1953), which included nearly thirty pieces. Cornell's first museum retrospective was this same show held at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis (July 12-August 30, 1953).
As New York City continued to change, Cornell grew more nostalgic for the city he had explored since the 1920s. The impending closure of the Third Avenue El train prompted him to dream up a film project to capture its last days, resulting in "Gnir Rednow," a reworking of Stan Brakhage's 1955, "Wonder Ring." During this time, Cornell joined the Stable Gallery, run by Eleanor Ward, interacting often with Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly, and Joan Mitchell, remaining there until the end of the 1950s. His astronomy-themed exhibition, "Winter Night Skies" (December 12, 1955-January 13, 1956), included his "Night Skies" series of work with celestial chart fragments, Greek mythological figures, and paint-splattered "windows" representative of star-filled night skies. In 1956, he became aware of ballerina Allegra Kent, and began a series of work devoted to her, the first of which was "Via Parmigianino (Villa Allegra)" (1956), which included a photostat of a painting by Parmigianino, "The Madonna of the Long Neck" (circa 1540). In late 1957, after two years, Cornell had his last show at Stable Gallery, "Joseph Cornell: Selected Works" (December 2-31, 1957), consisting of a series of "Sand Fountain" boxes and "Space Object" or "Celestial Navigation" works. The "Sand Fountain" boxes included different colors of sand meant to flow within, often from the tops into cordial glasses. His "Celestial Navigations" included galaxy-like compositions set within the boxes, with rolling, painted cork balls, metal rings, and constellation charts, sometimes hovering over cordial glasses or clay pipes. This last Stable Gallery show earned him his first published profile, written by Howard Griffin for the December 1957 issue of "Art News." Also in 1957, he won the Kohnstamm Prize for Construction at the Art Institute of Chicago's 62rd Annual Exhibition of Paintings and Sculpture.
Towards the end of the 1950s, Cornell spent less time creating new bodies of work, and focused more on revisiting previous series and reviewing piles of collected source material. In 1959, Cornell returned to making collages, frequently sourcing popular magazines. In December 1959, Cornell was awarded $1,500 for his "Orion" collage, entered in the Art Institute of Chicago's "63rd American Exhibition of Painting and Sculpture." Also in December, he was offered a show at Bennington College in Vermont, which he titled, "Bonitas Solstitialis: Selected Works by Joseph Cornell and an exploration of the Colombier" (November 20-December 15, 1959). The show included one of his newest "explorations" of collected material related to "colombier," or pigeon houses.
By 1962, Cornell was working diligently on new collages, using Masonite boards and colorful magazine clippings. He also began creating collages using nude images interspersed with constellation clippings or hazy blue dyes. As in previous decades and art movements, Cornell became acquainted with new artists, spending less time in the city and more time hosting visitors at his Utopia Parkway home. Visitors included artists Walter De Maria, Robert Whitman, Andy Warhol, James Rosenquist, and Robert Indiana. Tony Curtis also became a frequent visitor and friend, introduced by Richard Feigen in 1964. The early 1960s was also the first time Cornell put out an advertisement for assistants in the "Long Island Star-Journal," employing a number of young men and women who helped organize clippings and run errands. Cornell also met Joyce Hunter, a young runaway waitress at a city coffee shop, who would occupy his thoughts and diary notes for the next several years. When she was murdered at the end of 1964, Cornell paid for her funeral. He went on to make several "Penny Arcade" collages in memoriam to her, including, "Penny Arcade (re-autumnal)" (1964).
In 1964, Cornell began friendships with several women including artist Carolee Schneeman, who was his first assistant in the early 1960s. He also met artist Yayoi Kusama through art dealer Gertrude Stein. After becoming friends, she visited him often and they exchanged letters and notes. As he did with other artist friends, Cornell supported her by purchasing several of her early watercolor paintings, and they stayed connected until his death in 1972.
Cornell's life greatly changed in 1965 with the death of his brother, Robert. By this time, his mother lived with his sister in Long Island, and Cornell was alone in the Utopia Parkway house for the first time. He exchanged frequent letters and phone calls with his mother and devoted much time to thinking about Robert and Joyce, often aligning them in his diary notations. Cornell also created a series of collages dedicated to his brother's memory, incorporating photostats of Robert's hundreds of drawings into Cornell's work, as with the later collage, "The Heart on the Sleeve" (1972). Cornell's "Time Transfixed" series of collages were also dedications to Robert's memory, referencing Magritte and Robert's love of trains. He mounted an exhibition, "Robert Cornell: Memorial Exhibition" (January 4-29, 1966), at the Robert Schoelkopf Gallery, where he showed Robert's artwork alongside his newly created collage dedications.
After Robert's death, Cornell relied more heavily on assistants, going through many part-time "helpers." In October 1966, Cornell's mother died, adding her to his constant thoughts and diaries. Though he was still grieving, he was given two major retrospectives in 1967. The first was at the Pasadena Art Museum, put on by James Demetrion and Walter Hopps, "An Exhibiton of Works by Joseph Cornell" (January 9-February 11, 1967). The second retrospective was at the Guggenheim Museum just three months later, "Joseph Cornell" (May 4-June 35, 1967), organized by Diane Waldman. After these shows, he was highlighted in the December 15, 1967 issue of "Life" in the article, "The Enigmatic Bachelor of Utopia Parkway."
In 1968, Cornell was given an "award of merit," which included a medal and $1,000, by the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. He was also given a medal and $1,000 by the Brandeis University Creative Arts Awards in the painting category, along with an exhibition. Days later, "The New York Times" announced Cornell the winner, along with Donald Judd, of India's first Triennale of Contemporary World Art. The Brandeis exhibition, "Boxes and Collages by Joseph Cornell" (May 20-June 23, 1968), was organized by William Seitz and concentrated on Cornell's more recent 1960s collages. Cornell was also included in the Metropolitan Museum of Art's hundredth anniversary show, "New York Painting and Sculpture: 1940 to 1970" (October 18, 1969-February 1, 1970), where twenty-two of Cornell's boxes were shown in their own gallery. At the end of 1970, Cornell was given a solo show at the Metropolitan, "Collages by Joseph Cornell" (December 10, 1970-January 24, 1971), which included forty-five of his newest collages.
Now preferring to stay closer to his home in Flushing, Cornell was more interested in sharing his art with young adults and children, than an adult audience. He hosted a group of high school students, sponsored by the Metropolitan Museum of Art's education department, at his home in conjunction with his collage show (1970-1971). He also showed his work in the art department of Queens College of the City University of New York. Cornell still hosted visitors on occasion, having Yoko Ono and John Lennon at his home at least once. Leila Hadley, Betsy von Furstenberg, and Anne Jackson also made frequent visits. With his deteriorating health, Cornell worried about what would happen to his work after his death and hired lawyer Harry Torczyner to help him plan his estate and get his affairs in order.
In 1972, Cornell had a show at the Cooper Union, a college in New York, specifically for children. He displayed his boxes and collages at child-height and had cherry soda and brownies at the opening reception on February 10. He then held a show at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, also for children: "Children's Preview of the Exhibition of Joseph Cornell – Collages and Boxes (April 18-June 17, 1972). In the winter of 1972, at the request of the Phoenix House drug treatment and prevention program, Cornell contributed to a charity project compiling limited-edition lithographic prints for a portfolio, which included artists like David Hockney, James Rosenquist, and Ellsworth Kelly.
On December 29, 1972, a week after turning sixty-nine, Cornell died of heart failure at his home. He was cremated and interred near the graves of his mother, father, and brother, overlooking the Hudson River in Nyack, New York.
1. Hartigan, Lynda Roscoe. "Joseph Cornell: Navigating the Imagination." New Haven, Connecticut and London: Yale University Press, 2007. Exhibition Catalog.
2. McShine, Kynaston. "Joseph Cornell." New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1980.
3. San Francisco Cinematheque and The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. "Joseph Cornell: Films." 2007. Exhibition Program. (Presented in conjunction with SFMOMA's exhibition of "Joseph Cornell: Navigating the Imagination").
4. Schaffner, Ingrid and Lisa Jacobs. "Julien Levy: Portrait of an Art Gallery." Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: The MIT Press, 1998.
5. Solomon, Deborah. "Utopia Parkway: The Life and Work of Joseph Cornell." New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997.