Joseph Cornell 1903-1972


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Joseph Cornell grew up in a family of designers and textile manufacturers. He worked in the textile industry in the 1920s, but after the Great Depression he lost his job and became a door-to-door salesman in order to support his family. He took close care of his mother, who suffered from cerebral palsy. She did not care for strangers, which lead him to be a self-taught artist.


Cornell’s work was greatly influenced by Surrealists as Max Ernst and Salvador Dali, poetry, 19th century romantic literature and filmmaking. He became famous for his shadow boxes, which led to his commonly-accepted role as the pioneer of Assemblage. Cornell once said, "Shadow boxes become poetic theater or settings wherein are metamorphosed the elements of a childhood pastime.” One of his most famous works, Toward the Blue Peninsula (1953), was modeled after a passage from Emily Dickinson in which she described the view of the night sky from her bedroom window. In the 1950s and 1960s, Cornell made very few shadow boxes, since most of his time was being spent taking care of family members. At the end of his career, Cornell experimented with avant-garde filmmaking. In 1969, he donated his collection of films to the Anthology Film Archives in New York.


Cornell’s work is featured in the permanent collections of the MoMA, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Smithsonian Museum of American Art in Washington, D.C. and the MCA Chicago.


Related Categories: Appropriation, Use of Found Objects, Assemblage, Symbolic Composition, Collage, Popular Culture, Art That Plays With Scale, Sculpture, The Fantastic, United States.