Joseph Cornell was born in 1903 in Nyack, New York. At the age of 14 his father died, and he moved, with his mother and three siblings, to the Queens section of New York City. Despite his relatively sheltered life, living as an adult with his mother and brother, his art was contemporary and sophisticated. His most famous and distinctive works were boxes he created out of wood, glass, and innumerable objects and photos he collected in New York City's antique and secondhand shops, which conveyed a poetic and magical aura. His first job at 18 was as a salesman in the textile industry. At this time, he also began to collect all sorts of natural objects, memorabilia and antique and contemporary images, and arranged these 'found' objects into collages and constructions. In 1931, he saw an exhibition of Surrealist art in a New York gallery, and later met Surrealist writers and artists at the Julien Levy Gallery, eventually showing his work in Surrealist exhibitions. Artistic influences included Dada artists Marcel Duchamp and Kurt Schwitters, and Surrealist Max Ernst; other influences were his interest in ballet, music and literature.
His small wooden boxes (from 10-12 inches to 20 or more inches in size), carefully filled with various objects, were usually covered with a pane of glass. Some of the elements were kinetic. These works of art are referred to as assemblages, mainly three-dimensional works of combined objects. The objects were chosen carefully, although many held no intrinsic value alone; only when combined did these objects reveal a deeper meaning. Birds were a common image, as were constellations and other heavenly bodies, either as two-dimensional images or merely evoked by a round sphere. Juxtapositions were always poetic, evoking associations often explored by Surrealists, of mystery, fantasy, the subconscious, dreams, etc., however his work differed from the Surrealists in that, while they were interested in unexpected or shocking juxtapositions, he was more interested in finding poetic connections of meaning between disparate objects. The miniature world in itself has a unique charm, and when these few objects are isolated in such a way, they force us to really look at them, perhaps for the first time, and to think about their possible meanings. The spareness of the compositions also contributes to the expressiveness, with their geometry, curves and two- and three-dimensional spaces.
Cornell worked in the textile industry as a designer until 1940, and continued to make his boxes and collages, as well as a number of films. He continued to be honored as an artist, and to live his quiet life. At home, he also continued to care for his brother, who was crippled with cerebral palsy. His mother and brother both died in the 1960's; Cornell continued to live in the house in Queens until his death in 1972. His will stipulated that money made from the sale of his work would go to charity.
Cornell's art, cloistered world such as it is, seems to contain the entire universe in microcosm - its infinity, its physical wonders, its myriad complex organisms, its mystery, its power. These are metaphysical works, and encourage contemplation and inspiration. They also invoke the past, reaching to the Italian Renaissance, to ancient stargazers, and to Victorian America. More than the work of almost any other artist, they reveal to us our own possibilities - that each of us contains a universe, which we also can develop, discover and share with the world. Cornell had no formal art training; he learned by associating with other artists, by looking at the world and the art around him, and by his introversion. In the 21st century, we tend to be impressed by film special effects and other technological tricks. We seem to have forgotten that the night sky holds mystery and power that dwarfs any on earth; that we are just one tiny planet in one tiny solar system in one galaxy among millions, in one universe among millions. There are colossal natural phenomenona and dramas out there that are unknown to us; our past - our future. Cornell's work brings some of this sense of wonder and mystery back to us.
Duchamp, the Dada artist, developed the idea of the 'readymade' as an art object, early in the 20th century. Basically as an intellectual questioning of what the nature of art truly is, as well as a Dada shock tactic, Duchamp placed a urinal in a New York exhibition in 1915 (an object is art if the artist says it is). From this point on, the 'found' object could also be art, alone or with other objects. Cornell had already been collecting bits and pieces and putting them together into collages when he met Duchamp in the early 1930's. His acquaintance with Duchamp and the Surrealists influenced his thinking and his work, as well as the box constructions of Kurt Schwitters, another Dada artist. Schwitters' abstract collages and constructions were composed of materials which had already been thrown away and 'useless,' however, rather than precious items chosen carefully for their meanings. Cornell had no formal art training, and didn't draw or paint or sculpt in the traditional sense, however in the true sense, he was the very definition of artistic and creative - that is, an artist is one who takes materials and/or elements, and combines them in inventive and/or expressive ways. What the materials/elements are is of lesser concern, as well as is the method used to combine them - the bottom line is how successful the final product is, as art.
Although he was associated with the Surrealists, as well as later movements (Abstract Expressionism and Pop art), he was perhaps an artist not part of a group, but an individual following his personal vision. He was especially interested in past times, such as the Victorian era, and his work may have evolved from the Victorian practice of preserving souvenirs and mementos in boxes, as well as Victorian parlor games. His range of subjects was vast - Hollywood stars, birds, astrology, ballet (a swan), opera, Medicis of the Renaissance, travel, artists (Juan Gris), poetry (Emily Dickinson), the cosmos. The materials he used were also wide-ranging: cut-outs from various publications, marbles, butterfly wings, scraps of wallpaper, souvenirs and memorabilia, sky charts, old advertisements, broken glassware, music boxes, feathers, metal springs, maps, seashells, mirrors, plastic ice cubes. He was also influenced by the philosophy of Christian Science, with its emphasis on harmony and the spirit.
The themes in his work are quite varied, and sometimes profound and poetic - themes that are often not translatable into words. His use of images of birds can be interpreted in many ways - from the theme of the caged bird (caged spirit, such as his own), to the bird as a symbol of freedom, or fragility, the association of birds with song and tropical environments; even the association of exotic birds with gypsy fortune-telling. Many of his images deal with the ideas of time, death and decay, aging, the evaporative 'bubble' of life, universal mystery, regret, permanence, memory, metaphysics, the positive power of art. A recurring theme in art is calling attention to the commonplace, from Van Gogh's painting of his boots to Andy Warhol's soup cans. Cornell created cosmic art from the most ephemeral objects; eternity from the most temporal; visual poetry from the most prosaic. In a way, his works are like a butterfly collection - a vain attempt to capture fleeting, elusive life and beauty, by meticulous means. They are romantic works, magical and rich. Cornell also kept a diary, in which he recorded his thoughts and feelings. Though his outer world was small, his inner one was elaborate. His work was admired by many of the leading artists of his time, and he had shows at the Guggenheim Museum, the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Duchamp also enlisted his help in compiling a dossier on his life's work.
One piece, Medici's Slot Machine, combines the rarefied world of a Renaissance prince with that of a modern vending machine. His combining such disparate elements is a contemporary device; in fact, many of the methods and concepts he used are still much in currency in art now. His later work, such as his homages to the Cubist painter, Juan Gris, contains pared-down, spare compositions - eloquent with less, with a strong architectural and geometric character, and restrained formal elegance. One box in particular, Verso of Cassiopeia I (click on link below), is composed of a symmetrical framework of two large circles each within a square, in which sky charts of various constellations, with their mythological representations, reside. This spare geometry is contrasted at the lower part of the image by a small baroque figure, all curves and expressiveness. There are also images of ancient and modern stargazers. The color is an interaction of neutral (black), delicate eggshell blue, and rust, with tiny areas of red. The overall symmetry is broken by the smaller asymmetrical elements. There are visual contrasts of color fields and fine lines; dark and light, bold and frail. The image evokes the ancient past, the vast cosmos, the changes wrought by time, man's place in the universe, and many other associations, not just in the images, but in the formal elements themselves - the color, space and composition.