Joseph Cornell is the first surrealist master of the box, an art object—or anti-art object—that challenges the traditional function of painting, and is actually an attempt at painting in relief. More precisely the box is a sort of painting under glass, containing an icon that combines painting, writing, collage and assemblage. Like a butterfly collection, the ensemble requires protection from the outside world. When he was sixteen, Cornell was forced to interrupt his schooling at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, where he was studying Latin and science, to work in a textile factory. In 1921 he worked as a fabric salesman in Manhattan, and a few years later as a refrigerator salesman. One day, while visiting the Julien Levy Gallery in New York, he was stunned by the collages of Max Ernst. He immediately tried some collages of his own (untitled, which was contrary to the rules of the genre). Julien Levy showed several examples, along with Cornell's Glass Bell object, in his Surrealism exhibition in January 1932. Living in Queens with his mother and handicapped brother, Cornell indulged in his precious reveries, which he enclosed in glass-covered boxes so that no one could dispel them with a touch. His first Soap Bubble Set, in 1936, featured a map of the world, a clay pipe, a cocktail glass, a doll's head and an egg. A bibliophile and a collector of picturesque objects and silent movies, Cornell practiced both a learned and inspired art. In his studio-gallery-laboratory in the basement of his house on Utopia Parkway in Queens, he polished his wood boxes to age their finish and glued pages from old books onto the backs. As Kynaston McShine explained, "He even on occasion put the box in the oven so the outer paint would peel and crack to suggest passing time. He also obtained subtle colors." In 1938 he was invited to participate in the International Exhibition of Surrealism, in Paris.
José Pierre exclaimed, "It almost certainly was the example of Breton's object-poems that encouraged Cornell to combine tiny objects with poetic phrases, which, unable to compose himself, he borrowed from various sources—lists of French hotels, old books cut in strips, exquisite corpses made of news-paper headlines, music scores, etc.)." Yet Cornell couldn't have known of Breton's object-poems be-fore 1942, when he met Breton in New York and discovered the exiled surrealist's review VVV. Although he venerated Breton (of whom he did a box portrait), Cornell was afraid of disappointing him by revealing that he was a Christian Scientist. What Cornell mainly took from the Manifestos was this principle: "The marvelous is always beautiful, anything marvelous whatsoever is beautiful, and indeed the marvelous alone is beautiful." Cornell's boxes are proof of his awe before certain women (romantic ballerinas, like Marie Taglioni, or movie stars, such as Hedy Lamarr) and certain aspects of the world. Occasionally, he would parody the still lifes of the Dutch masters he admired. In his last period he returned to making collages with color illustrations from magazines. He also composed collage-movies, including Rose Hobart, Cotillion and Children's Party, with scraps of forgotten films. In May 1967 a large Joseph Cornell retrospective opened at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. According to Gérard Durozoi: "His work belongs less to dreams and automatism than to rigorously organized daydreams around a few highly personal obsessions that remain secret."
Born 1903 in Nyack New York; died 1972 in Queens, New York.