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Joseph Cornell

American Sculptor

Joseph Cornell Photo
Movements and Styles: Surrealism, Assemblage

Born: December 24, 1903 - Nyack, New York

Died: December 29, 1972 - Queens, New York

"Life can have significance even if it appears to be a series of failures."

Joseph Cornell Signature

Summary of Joseph Cornell

Using the Surrealist technique of unexpected juxtaposition, Joseph Cornell's best-known works are glass-fronted boxes into which he placed and arranged Victorian bric-a-brac, old photographs, dime-store trinkets, and other found elements. Generally referred to as "shadow boxes," the resulting pieces are dream-like miniature tableaux that inspire the viewer to see each component in a new light. Cornell often used the shadow boxes to address recurrent themes of interest such as childhood, space, and birds, and they represented an escape of sorts for their creator, who was famously reclusive. Among the earliest examples of assemblage, the shadow boxes also helped give rise to a host of other Modern and Contemporary American art forms, from Installation art to Fluxus boxes.

Key Ideas

Cornell's signature art form is the shadow box. Infused with a dream-like aura, the shadow boxes invite the viewer into Cornell's own private, magical world. Alternately known as "memory boxes" or "poetic theaters," the boxes evoke the memories associated with the items contained within, while also containing parallels with, or expressing reverence for, other art forms, such as theater, ballet, and film.
Inspired by Marcel Duchamp's readymades, Cornell elevated the found object to the center of his oeuvre and embodied a new paradigm of the artist as collector and archivist. Often purchased on Cornell's frequent visits to New York secondhand shops or cut out from magazines, these objects comprise the primary materials of his art; they not only inhabit Cornell's shadow boxes, they are also key to other aspects of his artistic practice, such as his famous "dossiers," which were organized repositories of visual-documentary source material collected by the artist.
Although he was never officially part of the Surrealist movement and came to dismiss the Surrealist label in relation to his own work, Surrealism was a major influence on Cornell, most notably inspiring his embrace of unexpected juxtapositions. Rejecting Surrealism's violent and erotic aspects, Cornell preferred instead what he described as the "white magic" side of Surrealism embodied by Max Ernst. Cornell played a major role in America Surrealism; in 1939, his art was famously described by Salvador Dalí as "the only truly Surrealist work to be found in America."
Joseph Cornell Photo

Joseph Cornell was born in Nyack, New York, on Christmas Eve of 1903. He was the oldest child of four including two sisters, Elizabeth and Helen, and a brother, Robert, who suffered from cerebral palsy. When Cornell was thirteen, his father died of leukemia after battling the disease for several years. After his father's death, the family moved to Douglastown, Long Island where his mother took on several odd jobs to support her children. With the help of his father's former employer, Joseph Cornell was able to attend Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, for a few years. While at Phillips, the headmaster took notice of Cornell's extreme shyness and insecurity and expressed his concern to Cornell's mother. Cornell seemed to be overly fearful of many things, and he once confided in his sister Elizabeth how frightened he was at the concept of infinity. When he was in his twenties, he learned about Christian Science and became a devout follower of the religion, as he believed it had cured him of recurring stomach ailments.

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