Christmas Eve, 1903 – Joseph Cornell
He’s my husband’s favorite and the biggest influence on his work, so this #BTD goes out to him:
Susan Sontag, Lauren Bacall and Tony Curtis shared a passion for the work of artist Joseph Cornell, and they appear in the BBC documentary Joseph Cornell: Worlds In A Box (1991) directed by Mark Stokes. Sontag is also the subject of one of Cornell’s collages, something she talks about in the film. Curtis collected Cornell’s boxes and used to visit the artist when he was in New York; in Stokes’s film he discusses their relationship and reads from Cornell’s writings.
By favorite novel is Michael Chabon‘s The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier And Clay (2000). Chabon imagines Cornell at a party hosted by Salvador Dalí. Chabon writes:
“Most of the partygoers seemed to be Americans – Peter Blume, Edwin Dickinson, a shy, courtly fellow named Joseph Cornell – who shared an air of steel-rimmed, Yankee probity that surrounded like a suburb their inner Pandemonium.”
Cornell was a shy and reclusive man who, mingling fantasy and reality, produced works outstanding not only for their originality and craftsmanship but for their complexity and diversity. Cornell made boxes. Poetry in boxes, if you ask me. Cornell is known as a pioneer of an artistic genre called “assemblages”. To avoid an Art History lesson here, the short version is that Cornell created three-dimensional, boxed compositions using objects from here, there, and everywhere. From maps to photographs, stuffed parrots to dolls, drinking glasses to pipes, sand to cork – whatever he found, he at least considered and often incorporated into his art.
For me, Cornell is the greatest assemblagist; he elevated the box to an art form. Plus, Cornell was an accomplished collagist and filmmaker, and one of America’s most innovative artists. His work is romantic, poetic, lyrical and surrealistic. Self-taught but amazingly sophisticated, Cornell created his first collages, box constructions and experimental films in the early 1930s, when he met several Surrealist writers and artists at the Julien Levy Gallery where he saw Max Ernst‘s collage La Femme 100 Têtes.
Cornell was inspired and his early constructions of found objects were first shown in the group exhibition Surréalisme at the Levy Gallery in 1932. He returned to the gallery a few weeks later and left a small package on Levy’s desk, saying nothing. It contained a half‐dozen collages in which Cornell had cut and rearranged old engravings to create magical scenes. When Levy staged a major surrealist show a few months later, he included several of Cornell’s works.
He got the idea for his boxes when he passed an antique shop one day and saw a pile of compasses in the window. Cornell:
”I thought, everything can be used in a lifetime and I went on walking. I’d scarcely gone two blocks when I came on another shop window full of boxes of different kinds. Halfway home on the train that night, I thought again of the compasses and boxes, and it occurred to me to put the two together.”
From 1934 to 1940, Cornell supported himself by working as a textile salesman in Manhattan. During these years, he became familiar with Marcel Duchamp‘s and Kurt Schwitters‘s constructions. Cornell was included in the 1936 exhibition Fantastic Art: Dada, Surrealism at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA. Always interested in film, he made a dozen movies, including the collage film Rose Hobart (1936).
Cornell’s first two solo exhibitions were at the Levy Gallery in 1932 and 1939, and they included his first shadow boxes. By 1940, his boxes contained found materials artfully arranged, then collaged and painted to suggest poetic associations inspired by the arts, humanities and sciences. During the 1950s, he made many boxes inspired by many of his interests, including boxes devoted to stage and screen personalities. In the early 1960s, Cornell stopped making new boxes and began to reconstruct old ones and to work intensively in collage.
Born on Christmas Eve, Cornell was raised in an affluent, close family in Nyack, New York. He attended Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts from 1917 to 1921, but did not graduate. While working as a textile designer in New York City between 1921 and 1931, Cornell became avid collector of memorabilia. Exploring the city, he developed his interests in ballet, literature, and opera, all while living with his mother and brother at their home in the Flushing, Queens. Cornell explored the city and its cultural resources, and converted to Christian Science, a major influence on his life and work.
He believed aesthetic theories were foreign to the origin of his art but said his works were based on everyday experiences, “the beauty of the commonplace”. An insatiable collector, he acquired thousands of examples of printed and three-dimensional ephemera, searching the libraries, museums, theaters, bookshops and antique fairs in NYC and relying on his contacts across the USA and in Europe. With these objects, he created magical relationships by seamlessly combining disparate images. Even though Cornell’s assemblages may seem random, his boxes were created deliberately and with purpose and meaning.
One of my favorite poets, Frank O’Hara, wrote a box-shaped poem as a tribute to Cornell, aptly titled Joseph Cornell. I can’t accurately preserve the lovely shape of the poem here; instead I am going to show you a picture:
A tall, gaunt man, with steely gray hair, long handsome nose and pale blue eyes, liked to wear an old sweater, slacks and moccasins. In the white‐shingled blue trimmed house he had lived most of his life, he kept files filled with newspaper clippings, photographs and memorabilia on the esoteric subjects that interested him, including astronomy, bird plumage and Renaissance painters.
Cornell received $5,000 to $15,000 for his work during his lifetime. To make money, he designed covers and feature layouts for Harper’s Bazaar, Dance Index, and other magazines. He only really began to sell his boxes for significant sums after his 1949 solo show.
Until the late 1940s, Cornell frequented New York City art circles. In the 1950s he acquired a reputation as a recluse; but he was always at home to selected visitors. He preferred talking with women, and often made their husbands wait in the next room when he chatted up the wives. He had numerous friendships with ballerinas. He devoted his life to caring for his younger brother who was disabled with cerebral palsy, which was another factor in his lack of relationships. He was probably gay, but Cornell had a passionate, but platonic, relationship with Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama while she was living in NYC in the mid-1960s. She was 26 years younger; they would call each other daily, sketched each other, and he sent personalized collages to her. Their friendship lasted even after her return to Japan, and ending only with his death in 1972, a few days after his 69th birthday.
He spent his entire life in the USA, rarely venturing far beyond his small house in Queens. And yet he was intoxicated by European culture and history, which he researched avidly, combing the bookshops in NYC.
Cornell ended his career as a highly regarded artist but remained out of the spotlight. He has had major museum shows, including Cornell’s first major retrospective, titled An Exhibition of Works by Joseph Cornell at the Pasadena Art Museum in December 1966. In 1970, the Metropolitan Museum of Art mounted only the second major museum retrospective of his collages. His work is now at Centre Pompidou in Paris, The Los Angeles County Art Museum, The Tate London, The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Royal Academy of Arts in London, and the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. In 2015, Cornell’s Penny Arcade Portrait Of Lauren Bacall (1946) fetched $5.3 million at Christie’s, setting an auction record for the artist. The jewel-like box, with images of Bacall on blue background, was inspired by To Have And Have Not, a film starring Bacall and Humphrey Bogart.
For more on his life, try Utopia Parkway: The Life And Work Of Joseph Cornell (2015) by Deborah Solomon, and for viewing pleasure, I love Joseph Cornell: Wanderlust (2015) by Lynda Hartigan.