Joseph Cornell, the most poetic and mysterious of American artists, was born on December 24, 1903 in Nyack, New York. Diminishing family fortunes 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. Cornell, a compulsive collector, compiled extensive dossiers on many of the above that included images culled from Fourth Avenue bookstalls.
Beginning in the 1930’s, Cornell created his first collages and box constructions, mini-universes dedicated to obsessive themes such as the Penny Arcades and the Medici princes and princesses. As a leading American “Surrealist”, Cornell met other 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, Joseph Cornell at the Guggenheim Museum, New York. In 1970, Collages of Joseph Cornell was exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. In 1971, Cornell had his first solo exhibition at the Galleria Galatea in Turin, Italy. In 1974 a memorial exhibition Joseph Cornell 1903-1973 was presented at the National Collection of Fine Arts, now the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C. In 1980, Joseph Cornell, 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, San Francisco; The Guggenheim Museum, New York; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; The National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C; The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago; The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C; The Reina Sofia National Museum, Madrid; The Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C; and The Tate Gallery, London.
Joseph Cornell died December 29, 1972.