Artist Profile: Joseph Cornell

Joseph Cornell & His Own Brand of American Surrealism

Though now considered one of the few American proponents of Surrealism, Joseph Cornell was apprehensive about the affiliation, once admitting to Alfred H. Barr that, “I do not share in the subconscious and dream theories of the surrealists. While fervently admiring much of their work, I have never been an official surrealist…” and in a letter to the poet Charles Henri Ford, “I never liked the kind of black magic that Dali, Breton, etc. go in for—it’s always seemed cheap to me.” Instead of finding commonalities, Cornell readily identified Salvador Dalí, André Breton, and Max Ernst with profanity, eroticism, extreme subversion, and iconoclasm. His apparent personal aversion notwithstanding, Cornell’s art should not be so readily branded “Surrealist”. Cornell’s vein of avant-garde was forged from childlike innocence and as a secretive refuge from adulthood (stories by Hans Christian Anderson and Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince were often referenced in Cornell’s works). Rather than striving for alchemy or access into other worlds like the firebrand Surrealists, Kynaston L. McShine, writing for the Museum of Modern Art’s 1962 exhibition The Art of Assemblage, described Cornell’s oeuvre as: “…natural and filled with love… Lost illusions are sheltered along with pristine innocence and the pure naïveté of childhood… His art is enduring as it is ephemeral… as wise and series as it is witty and ironic.”

“I do not share in the subconscious and dream theories of the surrealists. While fervently admiring much of their work, I have never been an official surrealist…”

Rather than relying on the subconscious or chance encounters, as in the case of the Surrealists’ “exquisite corpse” exercises, Cornell was deliberate in his expression and selection of assemblage materials. Cornell’s art did not seek perversion and transformation as Ernst did in his collages, but to bring significance to and unify the found items in his constructions, perhaps having more in common with Art Brut than Dalí. Much of Cornell’s art is taken from a curious, childlike perspective, and though Cornell is widely understood as an isolated hermit, he did his best to reach out to the younger generation with his art, including leading initiatives to exhibit his works in public libraries. Later in his career, he employed teenagers to care for his home and studio. Among the tasks that the assistants took on, were acquisitioning assemblage materials and building boxes. Cornell took the opportunity to train his most promising assistants, who were recruited from universities and the local artist community. Towards the end of his life, Cornell personally contacted museums and universities to offer his boxes on loan. Though introverted, Cornell in fact had a large network of creatives, at times hosting them in his home.

Early Life

Cornell was born in Nyack, New York on December 24, 1903, the first of four children, to Joseph I. Cornell and Helen Ten Broeck Storms, both descendants of Dutch settlers. The elder Cornell was a menswear textile designer for a woolen manufacturer in New York. Broeck Storms was the granddaughter of Commodore William R. Voorhis and led a privileged life regaled with stories of the Commodore’s adventures. Intending to be a teacher, she graduated from Packer Collegiate Institute in Brooklyn and studied at Miss Jenny Hunter’s Training School in New York. Both Cornell’s parents were very active in their hobbies; Cornell’s father enjoyed hunting, fishing, and woodworking, and his mother was an amateur dramatist. The home of the close-knit family was filled with music and art (his sister Elizabeth had studied drawing with Edward Hopper). The family spent their summers vacationing, and Cornell fondly remembered traveling to Coney Island. As a child, Cornell was sensitive, an avid reader of children’s books and magazines, with a range of diverse interests, and enjoyed going to the local cinema. 

By 1910 Cornell’s youngest sibling, Robert started to exhibit symptoms of what is now thought to be cerebral palsy. Although the family contacted several specialists and Robert had access to the best care, he remained partially paralyzed through adulthood. Meanwhile, Cornell’s father developed leukemia, which he succumbed to in April 1917. After a friend conned the Cornell family out of much of their estate, Cornell’s mother came to manage the family’s resources herself. One cost-saving measure was to move the family to a rental home in Douglaston on Long Island (they moved to Bayside in 1919), with funds to spare for Cornell’s education at the prestigious Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. Although Cornell attended the Academy from September 1917 to June 1921, he did not complete his coursework and did not graduate, possibly as a result of his homesickness and chronic anxiety. Upon his return, Cornell lived with his family in Bayside, working as a salesman in the textile industry. Cornell’s personality prevented him from finding meaningful success at his job, as he did not like interacting with customers. He did, however, get the opportunity to explore New York and scour local antique, book, and record shops. He amassed a collection of books, records, art prints, films, and movie and theater memorabilia. Though he was not yet a practicing artist, Cornell frequented New York art exhibitions, the opera, and theater with his sisters. He especially enjoyed the exhibitions curated by Alfred Stieglitz. Cornell’s love of photography and film would prod him to write plots for experimental films, such as Monsieur Phot, which centered around an eponymous photographer who magically transforms into a child, in 1933.

In the mid to late 1920s, the Cornell family seemed to enjoy a brief change in fortune. Cornell’s two sisters married, and both settled close to home. His mother finally bought a house in Flushing in the spring of 1929, where Cornell would live for the rest of his life. In hopes of curing his anxiety and associated stomach pains and night terrors, Cornell sought healing in Christian Science and the writings of Mary Baker Eddy. Attributing his improved health to his newfound spirituality, he became part of the Church around 1925, and thereafter was engrossed in routine prayer, mass, and bible study. It is unknown as to if Cornell created collages, or as he called them “montages,” during this time, though finding meaning in spontaneity would have been encouraged by his religious study.

Joseph Cornell & Julien Levy Gallery

The opening of the Julien Levy Gallery fortuitously coincided with Cornell’s unemployment in 1931 amid the Great Depression. Cornell encountered Levy while the gallerist was preparing artworks for the Wadsworth Atheneum’s exhibition Newer SuperRealism. Cornell returned to the gallery to show Levy his montages which closely resembled those by Ernst. Levy decided to include Cornell in subsequent exhibitions, the first of which was the watershed Surréalisme in January 1932. Cornell drew upon his encyclopedic collection of ephemera and memorabilia for his montages. After he started to create art, Cornell’s collecting became more deliberate and inspired by a flurry of nascent projects. Such a pointed purchase trip was to the 1939 New York World’s Fair (according to Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, in Joseph Cornell: A Biography, the clay pipes in Soap Bubble Sets were sourced from the Dutch pavilion, and the Fair’s souvenir art reproductions would contribute to Cornell’s Mathematics in Nature collages). Cornell’s initial exposure at Levy’s exhibition garnered some attention, and his first solo exhibition was held in November 1932, featuring his three-dimensional assemblages, including box constructions and jouets surrealistes. He would also be included in the Museum of Modern Art’s 1936 exhibition Fantastic Art, Dada, and Surrealism

Cornell’s success only allowed him a modest income but afforded him opportunities to meet other avant-garde artists and writers. He forged several lasting friendships, among them Marcel Duchamp, Roberto Matta, and Yayoi Kusama. Cornell had to find supplemental work with odd jobs, including as a freelance illustrator for Harper’s Bazaar. He was employed full-time as a textile designer at the Traphagen Commercial Textile Studio in New York from about 1934 to 1940. He recalled this period as a happy time, spending long hours researching designs at the New York Public Library, and frequenting the library’s opera and dance recordings for his own enjoyment. Overall, Cornell’s employment was varied and sporadic, like his moods, through the 1940s. While he was employed, he sectioned off time for art making and creative writing in the mornings and evenings, contributing to literary and special interest magazines, including Charles Henri Ford’s View and Lincoln Kierstein’s Dance Index. As Cornell established more connections within the art and theater worlds, he met several ballerinas, to whom Cornell dedicated much of his contemporaneous works. 

Later Years

With the closing of Levy’s gallery in 1949, Cornell partnered with Charles Egan and his gallery, which represented young artists of the New York School. His Aviary boxes, exhibited at Egan, appear to be more abstract, fitting with his compatriots’ works at the new gallery. As the boxes grew popular with collectors, Cornell grew weary of them, and often created variants of older works. Perhaps seeking change, he experimented with other media, including film and collages utilizing contemporary material. Cornell’s career was consistently interrupted by his mood swings and often incapacitating physical ailments. Through the 1950s and 1960s, Cornell struggled with managing his career and home life. He began to employ housekeepers, nurses for his mother and brother, and studio assistants. As his health declined, Cornell’s excursions to New York grew infrequent and he focused on the less arduous production of collages, rather than his boxes. In 1965 and 1966, Cornell’s brother Robert and his mother died, respectively, and Cornell began to incorporate some of Robert’s drawings into his own collages. Despite these hardships, Cornell was fairly active and kept up a full work and social schedule until the 1970s. Perhaps sensing his critical decline, Cornell testified at the Bayside First Church of Christ, Scientist, for the first time since joining the congregation twenty years earlier. On December 29, 1972, he died from heart failure. Since his death, letters, diaries, and other writings have given better insight to Cornell’s inner life and artistic processes, though his erroneous characterization as a reclusive Surrealist working in isolation still captures the public imagination.

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