Biography

(1903 - 1972)

Joseph Cornell was born in Nyack, New York, in 1903. He attended Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts for three years, subsequently moving to Utopia Park in Queens, New York, to live with his mother and handicapped brother, Robert. There he created the works that would establish him as one of the postwar-era’s most revered Assemblage artists. Cornell has been the subject of countless exhibitions, including many during his lifetime. He was shown alongside his friend, Marcel Duchamp, in the 1936 exhibition Fantastic Art, Dada & Surrealism at the Museum of Modern Art, honored with a retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 1967, and an exhibition of his collages at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1971. His work is found in numerous museum collections, including the Museum of Modern Art, The Art Institute of Chicago, The Tate Gallery, London, and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington DC. The artist died in Queens in 1972.

Joseph Cornell was a self-taught artist, recluse, and master of Assemblage. Influenced by as many subjects as he included in his artworks – American Transcendentalists, European Surrealism, Hollywood, ballet, the French Symbolists – Cornell charged humble materials with intrigue, mystery and unforeseen complexity. He combined disparate knick-knacks like magazine clippings, glass fragments, sand, beads and ball-bearings, mirrors, letter-blocks, bird-forms, silverware and pocket watches, to produce his lavish and eclectic box constructions. The works are filled with child-like wonder, and recall the sand-toys and penny arcades of the Victorian era, or the “wunderkammer” of the same period – great halls where the aristocracy of the day would display rare treasures: shells, fossils, taxidermy, fine china, numismatics and other curiosities. Cornell made his own obsessive collections of inexpensive contemporary objects, which became inventory for his constructions. The elevated importance and charge brought to humble materials is central to the intrigue and mystery of his art. A use of patina and weathered surface gave Cornell’s objects a sense of history and hand-made appeal. Cornell sparked a new idiom for mid-century American art, one which elevated flotsam and jetsam to reflect on celestial and mythical themes, dream worlds, the subconscious, and questions of our own mortality.