Joseph Cornell was born on December 24, 1903 in Nyack, New York. Diminishing family fortunes after the death of his father and a troubled family history brought him to Flushing, New York, where he lived a hermit-like existence with his mother and disabled brother on Utopia Parkway. Cornell’s daily life was modest, but his inner life was complex and deeply romantic. His appetite for high and popular culture was vast, ranging from an interest in French literature to astronomy, ballet, opera and cinema.
Beginning in the 1930’s, Cornell created his first collages and box constructions, mini-universes dedicated to themes such as the Penny Arcades and the Medici princes and princesses. Cornell would obsessively collect and catalogue fragments of objects he found around his neighborhood of Flushing and during his frequent trips to bookstores and thrift shops, compiling them together in his boxed assemblages. Seemingly worthless presented out of context, through these boxed assemblages Cornell imbued these artifacts with a sense of romantic nostalgia. As a leading American “Surrealist” —although he never considered himself to be part of that movement—Cornell met European Surrealist writers and artists who had settled in the United States after the Second World War at the gallery of his dealer, Julien Levy. Cornell took particular inspiration from Max Ernst’s collage-novel “La Femme 100 têtes”.
At this time, he began a life-long friendship with Marcel Duchamp, a relationship that strengthened their mutual propensity for the fetishized object. Both artists were included in the epochal exhibition “Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism” at the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 1936. A lifelong passion for film and cinematic technique also played an important role in the formation of Cornell’s art. He made several short films, including the 1936 film-montage “Rose Hobart”.
During the 1940s and the 1950s, Cornell’s encounters with artists broadened to include such divergent figures as Piet Mondrian, Salvador Dalí, Jackson Pollock and Yayoi Kusama. Later in his career, he turned his energy to making visually complex collages with a special emphasis on popular magazine illustrations.
Joseph Cornell had his first retrospective in 1967 at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. In 1970, “Collages of Joseph Cornell” was exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. In 1974, a memorial exhibition titled “Joseph Cornell 1903-1973” was presented at the National Collection of Fine Arts, now the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C. In 1980, a major exhibition of his works was presented at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. In 1998, “Joseph Cornell/Marcel Duchamp…in resonance” was exhibited at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
His work is included in the permanent collections of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C; the Art Institute of Chicago; the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C; the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid; the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C; and the Tate Gallery, London, among many others.
Joseph Cornell died December 29, 1972 in New York.