Joseph Cornell: Outside the box

Known for his exquisite shadow boxes filled with ephemera, Joseph Cornell experimented extensively in a career that brushed against both Surrealism and Pop Art

In some respects, Independence Day was an apt date on which to open an exhibition dedicated to an artist who not only never left his home country, but lived and worked most of his life in the family home on Utopia Parkway, Queens, New York. Yet as Joseph Cornell: Wanderlust, the 2015 show at the Royal Academy in London, demonstrated, this singular character evinced a fascination with foreign cultures, especially those of Europe, which added depth, richness and a yearning nostalgia to his delicate works.

Jospeh Cornell (1903-1972) is best known for his shadow boxes — glass-fronted constructions that contain combinations of ephemera (postcards, magazine cuttings and found objects) that suggest grey areas between travelogues and science demonstrations, spirituality and a natural curiosity with the world around him. These were devised with great care at the home where Cornell cared for his mother and a brother who had cerebral palsy — and where he also hoarded items collected from junk shops, book stalls and the like that became raw materials in his art.

Because Cornell was a self-taught, religious and private figure who kept his distance from the art world, an image has built up of a figure who was shy and eccentric, a naïve outsider artist. Part of this show’s aim is to show that from the 1940s to his death he was involved in the New York and global art scenes.

As well as boxes, Cornell spent a good deal of time on collages, in an era when the form was being popularised by Surrealists — many of whom he met in the city and went on to build long, fruitful relationships with, including Marcel Duchamp. Cornell also collected film footage and commissioned bespoke shots from filmmakers that he re-purposed in his own pioneering moving-image montages.

Here, we present extracts from an interview with the RA’s curator, Sarah Lea, who ahead of the opening of the show offered her expert insights into Cornell’s unique career.

What is Cornell’s relevance today?

Sara Lea: ‘It is not a case of direct influences, but if you look at contemporary art, there are so many collage and appropriation-based practices that he foregrounded with his approach to assemblage. His role as a progenitor of avant-garde film is very significant. People who specialise in film regard that achievement as more important than any of his art works. John Stezaker says seeing the 1981 exhibition changed his practice, while Peter Blake and Damien Hirst are also great admirers, but his influence extends beyond the arts. He has also inspired poets and composers.’

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Joseph Cornell (1903-1972), Medici Slot Machine: Object, executed in 1942. 15½ x 12 x 4⅜ in (39.4 x 30.5 x 11 cm). Estimate: $4,000,000-6,000,000. This lot is offered in Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale on 15 November 2018 at Christie’s in New York © 2018 The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY

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Joseph Cornell (1903-1972), Object, executed in 1940. 11⅛ x 8¼ x 2½ in (28.2 x 21 x 6.3 cm). Estimate: $800,000-1,200,000. This lot is offered in Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale on 15 November 2018 at Christie’s in New York © 2018 The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY

The show was divided into four sections: ‘Play & Experiment’, ‘Collecting & Classification’, ‘Observation & Exploration’ and ‘Longing & Reverie’. Why?

SL: ‘“Play & Experiment” is about his interest in the childhood imagination and the scientific imagination being closely linked. “Collecting & Classification” relates to his series — for him collecting and making were pretty much the same thing. “Observation & Exploration”: he wasn’t just a collector of physical things, he collected ephemeral glimpses and experiences. He actually used the word explorations to refer to his paper dossiers — that shuffling of imagery was the equivalent of sketching for him. He called his studio boxes, sketch boxes. 

‘Cornell had an expansive notion of time and also worked on many series at one time. Boxes would often lie dormant for many years and he would return to them later when something sparked his memory. There are dates for most of his works, but they’re not exact. In my opinion, he conceived of his work as a continuum — it’s all related to each other.

‘What’s most fascinating and unique about Cornell as an artist are his processes; he was constantly analysing how he made his work, and that’s very clear from his diaries. He called his studio a laboratory and didn’t like the term artist, preferring to call himself a maker — something to do with that amateur versus professional tradition he believed in.’

Joseph Cornell (1903-1972), Untitled (Story without a Namefor Max Ernst), executed circa 1934-1935. Smallest collage: 2⅛ x 2¾ in (5.6 x 7 cm). Estimate: $400,000-600,000. This lot is offered in Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale on 15 November 2018 at Christie’s in New York © The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation/VAGA, NY/DACS, London 2018

‘Cornell preferred the longing for something, the imaginary experience; or as someone else put it, he preferred the ticket to the trip. In an odd way, it was the most practical way for him to travel. He was committed to looking after his brother for most of his life, but he writes about preferring imaginary travel. People invited him to Paris or Rome, but he didn’t want to do that, and I suspect it would have been difficult for him to leave his collection of objects and art works.

‘Europe holds a special place in his mental map. He loved the romance of travel and the idea of it; so he takes a grand tour in his mind’s eye. “Why bother getting a passport, when I can do this anytime I feel like it?” The place that the European past holds in his imagination is instrumental and formative in his whole approach — the tension between the faraway and close-to. It’s immediate in your mind, but physically far, and that’s embodied in the shadow box itself. Everything is there for you to see, but suspended behind glass. His dreaming of another world comes out of these boxes, and that’s what he asks the viewer to do.’

What particular insights into Cornell’s did you come away with?

SL: ‘Cornell is often depicted as this sad and tragic figure, and as much as he did have periods of depression his faith brings him through. You see him struggling with those moods, but he was constantly registering them and often it was absolute joy. He experienced the world in quite an intense way; tiny little things could send him into raptures.

‘A lot of myths around him being this reclusive figure come from people who tried to get to know him later in life. His brother died in the mid-Sixties and his mother the year after, so after that Cornell was in a state of grief and struggled to come to terms with the success of his 1967 retrospectives [at the Pasadena Art Museum and the Guggenheim]. He visited family in Long Island and he had visitors staying with him — Andy Warhol came in 1963 — but he found it difficult to know who to let into his life.’

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