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Joseph Cornell

Joseph Cornell

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Joseph Cornell was an American
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

 artist and sculptor, one of the pioneers and most celebrated exponents of assemblage
Assemblage (art)
Assemblage is an artistic process. In the visual arts, it consists of making three-dimensional or two-dimensional artistic compositions by putting together found objects...

. Influenced by the Surrealists, he was also an avant-garde
Avant-garde
Avant-garde means "advance guard" or "vanguard". The adjective form is used in English to refer to people or works that are experimental or innovative, particularly with respect to art, culture, and politics....

 experimental filmmaker.

Life


Joseph Cornell was born in Nyack, New York
Nyack, New York
Nyack is a village in the towns of Orangetown and Clarkstown in Rockland County, New York, United States, located north of South Nyack; east of Central Nyack; south of Upper Nyack and west of the Hudson River, approximately 19 miles north of the Manhattan boundary, it is an inner suburb of New...

, to Joseph Cornell, a well-to-do designer and merchant of textiles, and Helen TenBroeck Storms Cornell, who had trained as a kindergarten teacher. The Cornells had four children: Joseph, Elizabeth (b. 1905), Helen (b. 1906), and Robert (b. 1910). Both parents came from socially prominent families of Dutch ancestry, long-established in New York State. Cornell's father died in 1917, leaving the family in strained circumstances. Following the elder Cornell's death, his wife and children moved to the borough of Queens
Queens
Queens is the easternmost of the five boroughs of New York City. The largest borough in area and the second-largest in population, it is coextensive with Queens County, an administrative division of New York state, in the United States....

 in New York City
New York City
New York is the most populous city in the United States and the center of the New York Metropolitan Area, one of the most populous metropolitan areas in the world. New York exerts a significant impact upon global commerce, finance, media, art, fashion, research, technology, education, and...

. Cornell attended Phillips Academy
Phillips Academy
Phillips Academy is a selective, co-educational independent boarding high school for boarding and day students in grades 9–12, along with a post-graduate year...

 in Andover, Massachusetts
Andover, Massachusetts
Andover is a town in Essex County, Massachusetts, United States. It was incorporated in 1646 and as of the 2010 census, the population was 33,201...

, in the class of 1921, although he did not graduate.

Except for the three and a half years he spent at Phillips, he lived for most of his life in a small, wooden-frame house on Utopia Parkway in a working-class area of Flushing
Flushing, Queens
Flushing, founded in 1645, is a neighborhood in the north central part of the City of New York borough of Queens, east of Manhattan.Flushing was one of the first Dutch settlements on Long Island. Today, it is one of the largest and most diverse neighborhoods in New York City...

, along with his mother and his brother Robert, whom cerebral palsy
Cerebral palsy
Cerebral palsy is an umbrella term encompassing a group of non-progressive, non-contagious motor conditions that cause physical disability in human development, chiefly in the various areas of body movement....

 had rendered physically challenged.

Cornell was wary of strangers. This led him to isolate himself and become a self-taught artist. Although he expressed attraction to unattainable women like Lauren Bacall
Lauren Bacall
Lauren Bacall is an American film and stage actress and model, known for her distinctive husky voice and sultry looks.She first emerged as leading lady in the Humphrey Bogart film To Have And Have Not and continued on in the film noir genre, with appearances in The Big Sleep and Dark Passage ,...

, his shyness made romantic relationships almost impossible. In later life his bashfulness verged toward reclusiveness, and he rarely left the state of New York
New York
New York is a state in the Northeastern region of the United States. It is the nation's third most populous state. New York is bordered by New Jersey and Pennsylvania to the south, and by Connecticut, Massachusetts and Vermont to the east...

. However, he preferred talking with women, and often made their husbands wait in the next room when he discussed business with them. He also had numerous friendships with ballerinas, who found him unique, but too eccentric to be a romantic partner.

His last major exhibition was a show he arranged especially for children, with the boxes displayed at child height and with the opening party serving soft drinks and cake.

He devoted his life to caring for his younger brother Robert, an invalid suffering from cerebral palsy. This was another factor in his lack of relationships. At some point in the 1920s, or possibly earlier, he read the writings of Mary Baker Eddy
Mary Baker Eddy
Mary Baker Eddy was the founder of Christian Science , a Protestant American system of religious thought and practice religion adopted by the Church of Christ, Scientist, and others...

, including Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures
Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures
Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures is the central text of the Christian Science religion. It was written by Mary Baker Eddy, inspired by studies of the Bible she undertook in 1867 following a healing experience....

. Cornell considered Eddy's works to be among the most important books ever published after the Bible, and he became a lifelong Christian Science
Christian Science
Christian Science is a system of thought and practice derived from the writings of Mary Baker Eddy and the Bible. It is practiced by members of The First Church of Christ, Scientist as well as some others who are nonmembers. Its central texts are the Bible and the Christian Science textbook,...

 adherent.

He was also rather poor for most of his life, working during the 1920s as a wholesale fabric salesman to support his family. As a result of the American Great Depression
Great Depression
The Great Depression was a severe worldwide economic depression in the decade preceding World War II. The timing of the Great Depression varied across nations, but in most countries it started in about 1929 and lasted until the late 1930s or early 1940s...

, Cornell lost his textile industry job in 1931, and worked for a short time thereafter as a door-to-door appliance salesman. During this time, through her friendship with Ethel Traphagen, Cornell's mother secured him a part-time position designing textiles. In the 1940s, Cornell also worked in a plant nursery (which would figure in his famous dossier "GC44") and briefly in a defense plant, and designed covers and feature layouts for Harper's Bazaar
Harper's Bazaar
Harper’s Bazaar is an American fashion magazine, first published in 1867. Harper’s Bazaar is published by Hearst and, as a magazine, considers itself to be the style resource for “women who are the first to buy the best, from casual to couture.”...

, View
View (magazine)
View was an American literary and art magazine published from 1940 to 1947 by artist and writer Charles Henri Ford, and writer and film critic Parker Tyler. The magazine is best known for introducing Surrealism to the American public....

, Dance Index, and other magazines. He only really began to sell his boxes for significant sums after his 1949 solo show at the Charles Egan Gallery
Charles Egan Gallery
The Charles Egan Gallery opened at 63 East 57th Street in about 1945, when Charles Egan was in his mid-30's. Egan's artists helped him fix up the gallery: "Isamu Noguchi did the lighting... Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline painted the walls."...

.

Cornell became a highly regarded artist towards the end of his career, yet remained out of the spotlight. He produced fewer box assemblages in the 1950s and 1960s, as his family responsibilities increased and claimed more of his time. He hired a series of young assistants, including both students and established artists, to help him organize material, make artwork, and run errands. At this time, Cornell concentrated on making collages, and collaborated with filmmakers like Rudy Burckhardt, Stan Brakhage
Stan Brakhage
James Stanley Brakhage , better known as Stan Brakhage, was an American non-narrative filmmaker who is considered to be one of the most important figures in 20th century experimental film....

, and Larry Jordan
Larry Jordan
Larry Jordan is an independent filmmaker who has been working in the Bay Area in California since 1955, and making films since 1952. He has produced some 40 experimental and animation films, and three feature-length dramatic films. He is most widely known for his animated collage films. In 1970 he...

 to make films that were evocative of moving collages.

Cornell's brother Robert died in 1965, and his mother in 1966. Joseph Cornell died of apparent heart failure on 29 December 1972, a few days after his sixty-ninth birthday. The executors of his estate were Richard Ader and Wayne Andrews, as represented by the art dealers Leo Castelli
Leo Castelli
Leo Castelli was an American art dealer. He was best known to the public as an art dealer whose gallery showcased cutting edge Contemporary art for five decades...

, Richard Feigen, and James Corcoran. Later, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation was established, which administers the copyrights of Cornell's works and represents the interests of his heirs.

Sculpture and collage



Cornell's most characteristic art works were boxed assemblages created from found objects. These are simple boxes, usually fronted with a glass pane, in which he arranged surprising collections of photographs or Victorian
Victorian era
The Victorian era of British history was the period of Queen Victoria's reign from 20 June 1837 until her death on 22 January 1901. It was a long period of peace, prosperity, refined sensibilities and national self-confidence...

 bric-à-brac, in a way that combines the formal austerity of Constructivism
Constructivism (art)
Constructivism was an artistic and architectural philosophy that originated in Russia beginning in 1919, which was a rejection of the idea of autonomous art. The movement was in favour of art as a practice for social purposes. Constructivism had a great effect on modern art movements of the 20th...

 with the lively fantasy of Surrealism
Surrealism
Surrealism is a cultural movement that began in the early 1920s, and is best known for the visual artworks and writings of the group members....

. Many of his boxes, such as the famous Medici Slot Machine boxes, are interactive and are meant to be handled.

Like Kurt Schwitters
Kurt Schwitters
Kurt Hermann Eduard Karl Julius Schwitters was a German painter who was born in Hanover, Germany. Schwitters worked in several genres and media, including Dada, Constructivism, Surrealism, poetry, sound, painting, sculpture, graphic design, typography and what came to be known as...

, Cornell could create poetry from the commonplace. Unlike Schwitters, however, he was fascinated not by refuse, garbage, and the discarded, but by fragments of once beautiful and precious objects he found on his frequent trips to the bookshops and thrift stores of New York. His boxes relied on the Surrealist technique of irrational juxtaposition, and on the evocation of nostalgia
Nostalgia
The term nostalgia describes a yearning for the past, often in idealized form.The word is a learned formation of a Greek compound, consisting of , meaning "returning home", a Homeric word, and , meaning "pain, ache"...

, for their appeal. Cornell never regarded himself as a Surrealist; although he admired the work and technique of Surrealists like Max Ernst
Max Ernst
Max Ernst was a German painter, sculptor, graphic artist, and poet. A prolific artist, Ernst was one of the primary pioneers of the Dada movement and Surrealism.-Early life:...

 and René Magritte
René Magritte
René François Ghislain Magritte[p] was a Belgian surrealist artist. He became well known for a number of witty and thought-provoking images...

, he disavowed the Surrealists' "black magic," claiming that he only wished to make white magic with his art. Cornell's fame as the leading American "Surrealist" allowed him to befriend several members of the Surrealist movement when they settled in the USA during the Second World War
World War II
World War II, or the Second World War , was a global conflict lasting from 1939 to 1945, involving most of the world's nations—including all of the great powers—eventually forming two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis...

. Later he was claimed as a herald of pop art
Pop art
Pop art is an art movement that emerged in the mid 1950s in Britain and in the late 1950s in the United States. Pop art challenged tradition by asserting that an artist's use of the mass-produced visual commodities of popular culture is contiguous with the perspective of fine art...

 and installation art
Installation art
Installation art describes an artistic genre of three-dimensional works that are often site-specific and designed to transform the perception of a space. Generally, the term is applied to interior spaces, whereas exterior interventions are often called Land art; however, the boundaries between...

.

Cornell often made series of boxed assemblages that reflected his various interests: the Soap Bubble Sets, the Medici Slot Machine series, the Pink Palace series, the Hotel series, the Observatory series, and the Space Object Boxes, among others. Also captivated with birds, Cornell created an Aviary series of boxes, in which colorful images of various birds were mounted on wood, cut out, & set against harsh white backgrounds.

In addition to creating boxes and flat collages and making short art films, Cornell also kept a filing system of over 160 visual-documentary "dossiers" on themes that interested him; the dossiers served as repositories from which Cornell drew material and inspiration for boxes like his "penny arcade" portrait of Lauren Bacall
Lauren Bacall
Lauren Bacall is an American film and stage actress and model, known for her distinctive husky voice and sultry looks.She first emerged as leading lady in the Humphrey Bogart film To Have And Have Not and continued on in the film noir genre, with appearances in The Big Sleep and Dark Passage ,...

. He had no formal training in art, although he was extremely well read and was conversant with the New York art scene from the 1940s through to the 1960s.

Cornell was heavily influenced by the American Transcendentalists, Hollywood starlets (to whom he sent boxes he had dedicated to them), the French Symbolists such as Stéphane Mallarmé
Stéphane Mallarmé
Stéphane Mallarmé , whose real name was Étienne Mallarmé, was a French poet and critic. He was a major French symbolist poet, and his work anticipated and inspired several revolutionary artistic schools of the early 20th century, such as Dadaism, Surrealism, and Futurism.-Biography:Stéphane...

 and Gérard de Nerval
Gérard de Nerval
Gérard de Nerval was the nom-de-plume of the French poet, essayist and translator Gérard Labrunie, one of the most essentially Romantic French poets.- Biography :...

, and great dancers of the 19th century ballet
Ballet
Ballet is a type of performance dance, that originated in the Italian Renaissance courts of the 15th century, and which was further developed in France and Russia as a concert dance form. The early portions preceded the invention of the proscenium stage and were presented in large chambers with...

 such as Marie Taglioni
Marie Taglioni
Marie Taglioni was a famous Italian/Swedish ballerina of the Romantic ballet era, a central figure in the history of European dance.-Biography:...

 and Fanny Cerrito
Fanny Cerrito
Fanny Cerrito, originally Francesca Cerrito , was an Italian ballet dancer and choreographer.Born in Naples, she studied under Carlo Blasis and the French choreographers Jules Perrot and Arthur Saint-Léon, to the latter of whom she was married from 1845–1851. Notable roles included Ondine and a...

.

Christian Science belief and practice informed Cornell's art deeply, as art historian Sandra Leonard Starr has shown.

Experimental film



Joseph Cornell's 1936 found-film montage Rose Hobart was made entirely from splicing together existing film stock that Cornell had found in New Jersey warehouses, mostly derived from a 1931 'B' film entitled East of Borneo
East of Borneo
East of Borneo is an adventure film directed by George Melford, co-written by Edwin H. Knopf and Dale Van Every, starring Rose Hobart, Charles Bickford, Georges Renavent, Lupita Tovar, and Noble Johnson, and released by Universal Studios....

. Cornell would play Nestor Amaral's record, 'Holiday in Brazil' during its rare screenings, as well as projecting the film through a deep blue glass or filter, giving the film a dreamlike effect. Focusing mainly on the gestures and expressions made by Rose Hobart
Rose Hobart
Rose Hobart was an American actress.-Career:Born in New York City, her father was a cellist in the New York Symphony...

 (the original film's starlet), this dreamscape of Cornell's seems to exist in a kind of suspension until the film's most arresting sequence toward the end, when footage of a solar eclipse is juxtaposed with a white ball falling into a pool of water in slow motion.

Cornell premiered the film at the Julien Levy Gallery in December 1936 during the first Surrealist exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art
Museum of Modern Art
The Museum of Modern Art is an art museum in Midtown Manhattan in New York City, on 53rd Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. It has been important in developing and collecting modernist art, and is often identified as the most influential museum of modern art in the world...

 in New York. Salvador Dalí
Salvador Dalí
Salvador Domènec Felip Jacint Dalí i Domènech, Marquis de Púbol , commonly known as Salvador Dalí , was a prominent Spanish Catalan surrealist painter born in Figueres,Spain....

, who was in New York to attend the MoMA opening, was present at its first screening. During the screening, Dali became outraged at Cornell's movie, claiming he had just had the same idea of applying collage techniques to film. After the screening, Dali remarked to Cornell that he should stick to making boxes and to stop making films. Traumatized by this event, the shy, retiring Cornell showed his films rarely thereafter.

Joseph Cornell continued to experiment with film until his death in 1972. While his earlier films were often collages of found short films, his later ones montaged together footage he expressly commissioned from the professional filmmakers with whom he collaborated. These latter films were often set in some of Cornell's favorite neighborhoods and landmarks in New York City: Mulberry Street, Bryant Park, Union Square Park, and the Third Avenue Elevated Railway, among others.

In 1969 Cornell gave a collection of both his own films and the works of others to Anthology Film Archives
Anthology Film Archives
__notoc__Anthology Film Archives is a film archive and theater located at 32 Second Avenue on the corner of East Second Street in the East Village neighborhood of Manhattan, New York City devoted to the preservation and exhibition of experimental film. It is the only non-profit organization of its...

 in New York City.

Filmography

  • Rose Hobart (1936)
  • Children's Party (c. 1940)
  • Cotillion (c. 1940)
  • The Midnight Party (c. 1940)
  • The Aviary (1955)
  • Gnir Rednow (1956) (made with Stan Brakhage
    Stan Brakhage
    James Stanley Brakhage , better known as Stan Brakhage, was an American non-narrative filmmaker who is considered to be one of the most important figures in 20th century experimental film....

    )
  • Mulberry Street (1957)
  • Boys' Games (1957)
  • Centuries of June (1955) (made with Stan Brakhage
    Stan Brakhage
    James Stanley Brakhage , better known as Stan Brakhage, was an American non-narrative filmmaker who is considered to be one of the most important figures in 20th century experimental film....

    )
  • Nymphlight (1957)
  • Flushing Meadows (c. 1965) (made with Larry Jordan
    Larry Jordan
    Larry Jordan is an independent filmmaker who has been working in the Bay Area in California since 1955, and making films since 1952. He has produced some 40 experimental and animation films, and three feature-length dramatic films. He is most widely known for his animated collage films. In 1970 he...

    )
  • A Legend for Fountains (1957–1965)
  • Bookstalls (???)
  • By Night with Torch and Spear (1979).

Cultural references



The Dutch
Netherlands
The Netherlands is a constituent country of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, located mainly in North-West Europe and with several islands in the Caribbean. Mainland Netherlands borders the North Sea to the north and west, Belgium to the south, and Germany to the east, and shares maritime borders...

 pop band The Nits
The Nits
Nits are a Dutch pop group, founded in 1974. Their musical style has varied considerably over the years, as has their line-up with the core of Henk Hofstede , Rob Kloet, drummer, Robert Jan Stips , keyboards.Their biggest hit in the Netherlands was "Nescio" , a tribute to...

 released a song, "Soap Bubble Box", on their 1992 album Ting, about seeing some of Cornell's boxes in the Museum of Modern Art
Museum of Modern Art
The Museum of Modern Art is an art museum in Midtown Manhattan in New York City, on 53rd Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. It has been important in developing and collecting modernist art, and is often identified as the most influential museum of modern art in the world...

 in New York City
New York City
New York is the most populous city in the United States and the center of the New York Metropolitan Area, one of the most populous metropolitan areas in the world. New York exerts a significant impact upon global commerce, finance, media, art, fashion, research, technology, education, and...

. The song was a minor hit in the Netherlands.

Singer-songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter
Mary Chapin Carpenter
Mary Chapin Carpenter is an American folk and country music artist. Carpenter spent several years singing in Washington, D.C. clubs before signing in the late 1980s with Columbia Records, who marketed her as a country singer...

 imagines Cornell going about his creative life in the song "Ideas are like stars", found on her 1996 album A Place in the World
A Place in the World (album)
A Place in the World is the sixth album by Mary Chapin Carpenter, and was a #3 Country Album on the Billboard charts. Album tracks that entered the Hot Country Singles chart were "Let Me into Your Heart" at #11, "I Want to Be Your Girlfriend" at #35, and "Keeping the Faith" at #58...

.

Cornell's Aviaries are prominently referred to in Audrey Niffenegger
Audrey Niffenegger
Audrey Niffenegger is an American writer, artist and academic.-Writing:A film version of Niffenegger's debut novel, The Time Traveler's Wife , starring Eric Bana and Rachel McAdams, was released in August 2009.She has also written a graphic novel, or "novel in pictures" as Niffenegger calls it,...

's novel The Time Traveler's Wife
The Time Traveler's Wife
Once their timelines converge "naturally" at the library—their first meeting in his chronology—Henry starts to travel to Clare's childhood and adolescence in South Haven, Michigan, beginning in 1977 when she is six years old...

.


The novel Daughter! I Forbid Your Recurring Dream! by James Chapman
James Chapman (author)
James Chapman is an American novelist and publisher. He was raised in Bakersfield, California, has lived in New York City since 1978, and is the author of nine novels to date....

 uses Cornell's boxes as a prominent image throughout its story, and includes two epigraphs from Cornell.

The English band The Clientele
The Clientele
The Clientele are a London-based British band with Alasdair MacLean on vocals and guitar, Mark Keen on drums, James Hornsey on bass and Mel Draisey on violin, keyboards, backing vocals and percussion....

 has a song titled "Joseph Cornell" on the group's debut album "Suburban Light
Suburban Light
Suburban Light is the debut album by The Clientele, released in November 2000. The album is not a proper debut as such because it's a collection of singles released from 1997 through 2000...

", released in 2001.

Jonathan Safran Foer
Jonathan Safran Foer
Jonathan Safran Foer is an American author best known for his novels Everything Is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close...

's anthology A Convergence of Birds is a collection of fiction and poetry inspired by Cornell's work.

The American novelist and short story writer Robert Coover
Robert Coover
Robert Lowell Coover is an American author and professor in the Literary Arts program at Brown University. He is generally considered a writer of fabulation and metafiction.-Life and works:...

 published a series of stories entitled The Grand Hotels (of Joseph Cornell) in 2002. Akin to short fables, the stories refer to various themes and images in Cornell's Hotel series of boxes.

Charles L. Mee
Charles L. Mee
Charles L. Mee is an American playwright, historian and author known for his collage-like style of playwriting, which makes use of radical reconstructions of found texts.-Early Life and Early Career:...

's play Hotel Cassiopeia (2006) is based on the life of Joseph Cornell.

Anne Tyler
Anne Tyler
Anne Tyler is an American novelist.Tyler, the eldest of four children, was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Her father was a chemist and her mother a social worker. Her early childhood was spent in a succession of Quaker communities in the mountains of North Carolina and in Raleigh...

's Celestial Navigation (1974) is a fictional riff on being Joseph Cornell.

The cyberspace novelist William Gibson
William Gibson
William Gibson is an American-Canadian science fiction author.William Gibson may also refer to:-Association football:*Will Gibson , Scottish footballer...

 used the finding of long lost boxes by Joseph Cornell as a narrative element in his novel "Count Zero
Count Zero
Count Zero is a science fiction novel written by William Gibson, originally published 1986. It is the second volume of the Sprawl trilogy, which begins with Neuromancer and concludes with Mona Lisa Overdrive, and is a canonical example of the cyberpunk sub-genre.Count Zero was serialized by Isaac...

" (1984).

Further reading

  • Mary Ann Caws
    Mary Ann Caws
    Mary Ann Caws is an American author, art historian and literary critic.She is currently a Distinguished Professor of English, French and Comparative Literature at the Graduate School of the City University of New York. She is an expert on Surrealism and modern English and French literature,...

    , Joseph Cornell's Theater of the Mind: Selected Diaries, Letters, and Files (New York: Thames and Hudson, 2000) ISBN 0-500-28243-9
  • Catherine Corman
    Catherine Corman
    Catherine Cormans book of photographs, Daylight Noir: Raymond Chandler's Imagined City was included in the 2009 Venice Biennale. She is also the editor of Joseph Cornell's Dreams....

    , Joseph Cornell's Dreams (Cambridge: Exact Change, 2007) ISBN1-878-97241-3
  • Deborah Solomon
    Deborah Solomon
    Deborah Solomon is an American art critic, journalist and biographer. She is best-known for her weekly column, "Questions For," which ran in The New York Times Magazine from 2003 to 2011.-Early life and education:...

    , Utopia Parkway: The Life and Work of Joseph Cornell (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1997) ISBN 0-374-52571-4
  • Sandra Leonard Starr, Joseph Cornell: Art and Metaphysics (New York: Castelli Corcoran Feigen, 1982) LC Catalogue Card Number 82-71787
  • Lindsay Blair, The Working Method of Joseph Cornell Reaktion Books; illustrated edition edition (April 1, 1998) ISBN 0-948462-49-3
  • Diane Waldman,Joseph Cornell: Master of Dreams (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2002) ISBN 0-810912-27-9

External links