Art: Joseph Cornell’s Assemblages

Cornell-Untitled-Celestial-Navigation-1958Joseph Cornell: Untitled (Celestial Navigation), 1958. via Washington City Paper

The instinct to collect may be a basic part of human nature; we acquire and amass and stockpile a variety of things, be it nostalgic keepsakes, artistic treasures, emergency snacks, or cherished memories. Parents hold on to their children’s baby teeth, bibliophiles fill their houses with books, sports fans hunt down memorabilia from their favorite teams; my own mother dutifully collected Longaberger baskets for a good ten years. I myself collect all manner of things, often to the level of hoarding, but that is a discussion for another day. Perhaps this shared tendency is why the work of Joseph Cornell strikes a chord within so many, as I have yet to meet anyone who dislikes his thoughtful and intricate assemblages of found objects. A collector as much as an artist, he has inspired generations of artists and art-lovers, tapping into that seemingly innate human interest in stuff.

Born in 1903, Cornell grew up in the small village of Nyack, New York, a picturesque spot along the Hudson River. His four years at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts became the longest period he would spend away from home. After leaving school without a diploma, he moved back in with his family and became a textile salesman like his father, who had passed away in 1917. During the 1920s he collected various paper and secondhand ephemera, but it was not until around 1931 that he began making art out of such materials. Inspired by Surrealist exhibitions at the Julian Levy Gallery–especially Max Ernst’s collages–he created three-dimensional boxes and sculptures assembled from found objects. By 1932 he was exhibiting at the same gallery, with a solo show that fall. He also experimented with filmmaking, cutting together bits of collected film strips to create collaged movies (he returned to the medium in the 50s, collaborating with auteurs like Stan Brakhage to make films with new footage).

Throughout the next several decades, Cornell worked full- or part-time as an artist, never moving out of his mother’s house in Flushing, NY (where he helped care for his brother Robert, who had cerebral palsy) but taking frequent trips to New York City and establishing an ever-growing assortment of artistic connections and friendships, from artists Mark Rothko and Yayoi Kusama to dancer Allegra Kent and poet Mina Loy. He continued to make collages and assemblage boxes until the end of his life, dying of heart failure in 1972 at the age of 69. Though his art was exhibited across the country and was gaining value by the 1950s, he often preferred to make work as gifts to friends and people he admired, instead of commodifying everything he produced.

cornell.hotel-edenJoseph Cornell: Untitled (The Hotel Eden), 1945. ibiblio

cornell-ASwanLakeForTamaraToumanova-HomagetotheRomanticBalletJoseph Cornell: A Swan Lake for Tamara Toumanova (Homage to the Romantic Ballet), 1946. via The Old Curiosity Shop

The wonderful thing about Joseph Cornell is he created works of high art that could easily be read as pure knick-knacks if not for their powerful associative effect. He taps into the nostalgia inherent to so many objects, deftly combining his found items so as to elicit a response related to memory or personality, expressing feeling and experience through secondhand castaways. Putting together things like glassware, maps, stuffed birds, torn book pages, and keys, he silently invites viewers to extrapolate their own connections with such everyday items. We bring along our own baggage, our own memories, our own wishful thinking, and we are able to take it personally. Generally, Cornell is not making bold political statements or irreverent art historical references; he is not caught up in the manifestos and rampant theories of many artists of his day. He is sharing his own interests and perspective with others–often specific friends, colleagues, and crushes–through his own belongings. Many early-twentieth-century artists made art out of the everyday, but Cornell made art out of his everyday, which in turn could easily become reinterpreted as our own.

Many of his boxes can actually be read as portraits, combining photographs with symbolic ephemera so that a person’s essence might be distilled down to a few objects in a box, a shrine to their persona or legacy. His tribute to Lauren Bacall is dark and haunting, emphasizing both her alluring sexuality and her youth, along with her unattainable, iconic status. His assemblage for Tilly Losch seems to cast her as a delicate paper doll, floating above an abandoned landscape, possibly referencing her skills as a ballet dancer. She appears aloof and alone, but not unhappy, and clearly treasured in her mottled-marble frame. There is an air of preservation about Cornell’s assemblages, containing newly-precious objects behind glass and assuring they remain forever. Knowing many of his boxes were gifts or tributes of sorts, it’s hard not to see them as parts of the artist himself, given in trust to those he admired. Known as something of a recluse and a loner (by choice, though of course affected by his ailing younger brother and the early death of his father), Cornell nevertheless formed many significant relationships, and seemed keen to fall in love with various artistic women. Perhaps sharing bits of his own collections was his way of sharing something of himself.

Cornell - BacallJoseph Cornell: Untitled (Penny Arcade Portrait of Lauren Bacall), 1945-46. via MSU

Cornell _Untitled-TillyLosch-1935.jpgJoseph Cornell: Untitled (Tilly Losch), 1935. via MBA Lyon

cornell - medici boyJoseph Cornell: Untitled (Medici Boy), 1942-52. via ibiblio

Cornell-untitled-no3-1955Joseph Cornell: Untitled No. 3. via MBA Lyon

cornell - solar setJoseph Cornell: Untitled (Solar Set), 1956-58. via ibiblio


The Archives of American Art

The Joseph Cornell Box

Adam Gopnick. “Sparkings: Joseph Cornell and the Art of Nostalgia” in The New Yorker.

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