Joseph Cornell
Year, Birthplace 1903, United States
Year, Place of death 1972, United States
Nationality United States
Joseph Cornell settled in New York in 1921, where he worked in a textile factory. With no formal training, he visited museums, antique fairs and old bookshops on the lookout for discoveries. On his own initiative, he built up a collection of etchings, books and old objects. Following the opening of Julien Levy’s gallery in 1931, he became interested in surrealism – in particular La Femme 100 têtes [The Hundred Head(less) Woman], a series of collages by Max Ernst from 1929 – and fell in love with this form of expression. It is also possible that he came into contact with Dadaist objects, like those of Kurt Schwitters. He nurtured a particular admiration for René Magritte. It was in Levy’s gallery that he presented, the following year, his first solo exhibition of collages. Cornell did not paint or draw but accumulated the most banal objects and assembled them, some in small boxes with glass lids, others in glass bottles or other receptacles. He called these object-sculptures ‘shadow boxes’ (or ‘shadow theatre'), conceived as theatre sets, with props displayed on what represented a stage. With the manner of an entomologist, obsessively (making endless additions to his collection of more than hundred and sixty dossiers on the most diverse topics), walking the streets of New York, he gathered objects such as glass balls, thimbles, cups, shells, pieces of old fabric, stones, bits of soap, clay pipes... He grouped them in what he called Explorations or Constellations. These found objects were often displayed against a background of postcards, old geographical maps or newspaper pages. His poetry assumed the form of a staged fantasy rather than a dream-like process. The construction of these boxes was perfectly controlled. Some of them, like meditations, resembled Vanitas. He isolated objects from the outside so that wonder and dreams could bloom inside. Others, like those of the Medici Slot Machine series, were interactive and intended to be handled. Despite the distance (he never went to France), his refusal to compromise and his lack of interest in group activities, Cornell was admired and soon considered to be a surrealist, being adopted by the group. He was welcomed at a time when the surrealists were reflecting on the notion of objects. Cornell’s work was therefore present at the Exposition surréaliste d'objets [Surrealist exhibition of objects] at the Galerie Charles Ratton in Paris in 1936. André Breton dedicated a text to him, entitled ‘Crisis of the Object’, in the Cahiers d’art nos. 1-2. That same year, one of his objects illustrated the dust jacket of Surrealism, published by Levy. In 1938, his work was present again at the Exposition internationale du surréalisme [International surrealist exhibition] at the Galerie Beaux-Arts in Paris and appeared in the Dictionnaire abrégé du surréalisme by Breton and Paul Éluard. When he arrived in New York in 1941, Breton met Joseph Cornell for the first time. The American artist joined in with some of the activities organised by surrealists in exile. He illustrated View magazine and exhibited at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of this Century gallery. But he refused to become any further involved, not relinquishing his independence, being monopolised by his mother and devoted to a disabled brother. After the war, Cornell would have a great influence on the new generation, from American pop artists via Louise Nevelson to the French Nouveaux Réalistes, or even – more recently – Christian Boltanski and his series of boxes. All of these artists made use of the appropriation of objects. His work is also considered a precursor to installations. During the 1950s, Cornell would create new collages in two dimensions, mixing magazine cuttings of contemporary works and reproductions of masterpieces. He was also the creator of experimental films. The first, Rose Hobart (1936), is completely composed of images found in the emporia of New Jersey, mostly from a B movie entitled East of Borneo. He would go on to make a dozen films. AC