Joseph Cornell: Whisperer of the Shadow-Boxes

Image: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Cornell#/media/File:Joseph_Cornell_1971.jpg

American artist and sculptor Joseph Cornell is famous for juxtaposing cast-off and discarded artifacts into glass-fronted boxes to create a dream-like miniature tableaux. Among one of the pioneers of assemblage Cornell was born in Nyack, New York, on Christmas eve of 1903. Oldest of the four siblings the artist remained wary of strangers and led an isolated life with his mother and disabled brother in a small wooden-frame house on Utopia Parkway in the New York City borough of Queens. The self-taught artist attended Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts in 1921 but dropped out after three years. Though the shy artist was not formally educated but he was extremely well read and sought out culture independently, regularly attending the theatre and the ballets, listening to classical music and frequently attending the museums and art galleries.

Influenced by irrational juxtaposition of Surrealism Cornell’s simple shadow boxes could create a poetry of their own. To him, the Victorian bric-a-brac, old photographs, dime-store trinkets and other found elements were not garbage but fragments of once beautiful and precious objects he found on his frequent trips to the bookshops and thrift stores of New York. Addressing recurrent themes as childhood, space and birds these boxes evocate nostalgia and inspire the viewer to see each component in a new light. Rejecting the violent and erotic aspects of surrealism Cornell described them as the “white magic” side of surrealism.

Famed as a leading American Surrealist and a herald of pop art and installation art the artist made a series of box assemblages such as the “Soap Bubble Sets”, the “Medici Slot Machine” series, the “Pink Palace” series, the “Hotel” series, the “Observatory” series, and the “Space Object Boxes” etc.  In 1932 Cornell had his first solo exhibition at The Julien Levy Gallery and was included in The Museum of Modern Art's seminal exhibition in 1936.

Apart from making boxes Cornell was also interesting in filmmaking. He cut and re-edited a Hollywood film “East of Borneo” in 1931 collaged it into a short, experimental, avant-garde film that he named after the star of original, “ Rose Hobart”. From 1940s to 1950s the artist concentrated on making collages due to his increasing family responsibilities.

In addition to creating boxes, flat collages and making short films, Cornell also assembled more than 160 “dossiers” containing his scribbled notes and found photographic images of various themes all organized according to the subject.

After the death of his brother and mother in 1965 and 1966 respectively, he continued working for the next several years and died of heart failure at his home on 29 December 1972, just a few days after his sixty-ninth birthday.


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