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Joseph Cornell
Birth Date: 
Birth Place: 
Nyack, New York
Death Date: 
Death Place: 
Flushing, New York City
Known for creating collages and boxes containing found objects and appropriated images, Joseph Cornell was also a writer, filmmaker and commercial artist. Born into a prosperous family in 1902, Cornell lived in Nyack, N.Y. on the Hudson River about thirty miles north of New York City. Although the family suffered financial reverses after the death of his father in 1917, Cornell attended Phillips Academy in Andover, MA for nearly four years, although he did not graduate. His mother had moved Cornell’s brother Robert (who suffered from cerebral palsy and became partially paralyzed) and two sisters to the Bayside district in the borough of Queens, New York City, where Cornell went to live with his family in 1921. Cornell worked as a salesman for a wholesale textile company and began his obsessive collecting of books, prints, photographs, and three-dimensional ephemera from shops of all kinds as well as found objects. Troubled by ill-health, he found a respite in the doctrines of Christian Science and joined that church in 1925. Despite limited means, he became very interested in movies, art and attending performances of opera and ballet. The Cornell family was able to buy a house on Utopia Parkway in the Flushing district of Queens in 1929; Cornell would live there for the rest of his life. He lost his job in 1931 during the Depression. While unemployed, he continued to wander around the City, collecting ephemera and visiting museums and galleries, particularly the Julien Levy Gallery where he was introduced to Surrealism. Although Cornell was a self-taught artist, his black-and-white collages composed of fragments of 19th century engravings and an assemblage inside a bell jar were included in the Levy Gallery’s January 1932 “Surrealisme” exhibition. Later that year Cornell was given a solo show at the gallery, which included shadow boxes containing cut-out portions of engravings and ephemera. He met Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) during the early 1930s, became familiar with his work and ultimately great friends with the French artist. Cornell also became familiar with collages by Max Ernst (1891-1976). During the 1930’s Cornell started collecting movies and then wrote a movie script. By 1936 he had created a film, “Rose Hobart,” by re-editing a 1931 movie. He went on to create several films by re-editing existing movies. He found work as a textile designer in 1934, creating his art at night and on weekends. Cornell learned woodworking and began making wooden boxes for his creations. Alfred Barr, Jr. (1902-1981) included Cornell’s first glass-fronted wooden box, Untitled (Soap Bubble Set) (1936) in the Museum of Modern Art’s 1936 exhibition, “Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism,” along with other assemblages by Cornell. He quit his textile design job in 1940 to devote himself to art, taking free-lance assignments for magazines such as Vogue to create illustrations and covers and writing articles to make a living. Cornell became very interested in dance, and created boxes inspired by ballerinas. Many of his works were in series, from the Soap Bubble Set to a series using reproductions of portraits of Renaissance princes to the Aviary series of birds and birdcages. He also continued to care for his brother and aging mother. Cornell’s artistic expression expanded to “dossiers,” files of research, photographs, clippings and ephemera on various subjects or persons. His 1949 exhibition of twenty-six Aviary boxes at the Charles Egan Gallery in New York helped to establish his national reputation. He exhibited in Chicago and California as well as New York during the 1950s, increasingly in museum shows. Cornell returned to collages and filmmaking during the 1950s. Rather than using old engravings, he used color images taken from books and magazines in his new collages. Rather then re-editing an existing film, he wrote, directed and edited the films, which were shot by professional cameramen. By the 1960s Cornell made fewer new boxes, instead re-working old ones. Facing his own declining health and the need to care for his mother and brother, he hired assistants, often young women, to help with his art. He became less social, and earned a reputation as a recluse. His brother Robert’s death in 1965 inspired a group of collages. His mother’s death in 1966 led to depression. Cornell received his first museum retrospective exhibitions in 1967, at the Guggenheim Museum in New York and the Pasadena Art Museum. By the end of the decade he was much less active, particularly after prostate surgery in 1972. He died in his home in Flushing from heart failure on December 29, 1972. (TNB 6/2014) Selected bibliography: Hartigan, Lynda Rose. Joseph Cornell: Navigating the Imagination. Exhibition catalog. Salem: Peabody Essex Museum and Washington: Smithsonian American Art Museum, in association with Yale University Press, 2007.