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Collections> Browse Joseph Cornell

Joseph Cornell
Holdings (16)
6 sculptures, 6 unique works on paper, 1 book, 1 poster, 2

Wikipedia About Joseph Cornell

Joseph Cornell (December 24, 1903 – December 29, 1972) was an American artist and sculptor, one of the pioneers and most celebrated exponents of assemblage. Influenced by the Surrealists, he was also an avant-garde experimental filmmaker. Full Wikipedia Article

essay Joseph Cornell, Walker Art Center Collections, 2005

Joseph Cornell’s poetic, intimately scaled boxes conjure a magical world filled with fantasy, esoterica, and mystery, yet Cornell was self-taught as an artist and never traveled abroad, living most of his adult life in a modest frame house in Queens, New York, with his mother and invalid brother. His yearnings—for places not visited, inaccessible young women, eras long past—are as crucial to his work as his frequent walks in the city (he was for a time a traveling textile salesman) and his love of theater, cinema, music, ballet, and the circus. He was a lifelong stargazer and an inveterate scavenger, browsing antique shops, bookstalls, secondhand stores, planetariums, and penny arcades for raw materials. In 1932, he had his first solo exhibition at Julien Levy Gallery in New York, which had introduced Surrealism to the American public. Cornell was influenced by their ideas, but he never considered himself a Surrealist—he disliked the group’s reading of his works as sophisticated toys for adults, and did not share their theories about dreams and the subconscious.1 For him, those realms were the stuff of everyday life.

Cornell’s work falls into informal series that he clustered around specific topics or motifs. A particular favorite was the nineteenth-century ballerina Fanny Cerrito, who was famed for her role in Ondine, ou La Naïade (1843), the tale of an ethereal sea siren whose passion for a young fisherman threatens her immortality. Cornell made dozens of works on the theme of Ondine/Cerrito, often in the form of small keepsake boxes. The Walker Art Center’s collection includes an untitled piece made around 1942 that is similar to others dedicated to Cerrito: a few small shells, a scrap of chiffon, and a sprinkling of glitter in a box lined with pink velveteen. A handful of rose petals, both real and artificial, allude to Ondine’s declaration that she would rather fade like a rose than give up her love. They also symbolize the irreconcilable clash between the mortal and the immortal—a common theme in the romantic ballet and one Cornell addressed throughout his career in various ways.2

Other series, developed in greater depth during the 1950s and 1960s, include the Aviaries, Soap Bubble Sets, Celestial Navigation Variants, and Sand Fountains. Many allude in some way to the heavens, as Cornell subscribed to several journals on astronomy and was fascinated both by the rich mythology of the skies and the scientific data being gathered through postwar space exploration.3Andromeda (Sand Fountain) (1953–1956) addresses a favorite constellation (and one of the many inaccessible female “stars” of whom Cornell dreamed).4 A later work, Eclipsing Binary, Algol, with Magnitude Changes (circa 1965), refers to an observed phenomenon: Algol, the most famous of the eclipsing binary stars. It is a two-star system in which a visible, bluish star is orbited by a larger, dimmer orange star. Every 2.87 days, the two cross paths and a partial eclipse occurs, causing the bluish star’s magnitude to plummet. In this work, Cornell has combined a diagram of Algol with a bright orange rubber ball that rolls along two metal rods and a broken white clay pipe from Holland—the kind he had used to blow bubbles as a child—that for him signified his Dutch ancestry.5 Since both Cornell’s mother and brother had died within the year before he made this work, it is tempting to read it as a reflection on the complex nature of family systems and an acknowledgment that the world had become, for him, a temporarily darker place.

  1. See Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, “Joseph Cornell, A Biography,” in Kynaston McShine, ed., Joseph Cornell, exh. cat. (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1980), 103.

  2. For an exhaustive discussion of Cornell’s fascination with romantic ballet, see Sandra Leonard Starr, Joseph Cornell and the Ballet, exh. cat. (New York: Castelli, Feigen, Corcoran, 1983), especially pages 19–35 on the works dedicated to Fanny Cerrito.

  3. See Mary Ann Caws, ed., Joseph Cornell’s Theater of the Mind: Selected Diaries, Letters, and Files (New York and London: Thames & Hudson, 1993), 221.

  4. Although the Walker Art Center organized Cornell’s first solo museum exhibition in 1953, his work was not acquired for the collection until 1971, when Andromeda (Sand Fountain) was purchased. See Deborah Solomon, Utopia Parkway: The Life and Work of Joseph Cornell (New York: Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux, 1997), 220–221, and the Walker Art Center Archives.

  5. He also lined the bottom of the box with pages from a Dutch-language book.

Rothfuss, Joan. “Joseph Cornell.” In Bits & Pieces Put Together to Present a Semblance of a Whole: Walker Art Center Collections, edited by Joan Rothfuss and Elizabeth Carpenter. Minneapolis, MN: Walker Art Center, 2005.

© 2005 Walker Art Center