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Known as the reclusive surrealist of Utopia Parkway, Queens, Joseph Cornell did collages and box constructions in which images and objects convey an aura of mysterious innocence. In his will, he left a foundation for making charitable grants from the sales of his art and returns on investments.
Cornell was born in Nyack, New York and attended Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. He lived primarily in New York City from 1929. A collage album made by surrealist Max Ernst inspired Cornell to make his signature boxes, something he began in the early 1930s. He had no training for these objects that were filled with items such as thimbles, bells, sequins, theatre mementoes, and other everyday objects, some of them from the 19th century. The combinations challenged the viewers’ imaginations because they had unusual juxtapositions and played visual tricks. Titles include Multiple Cubes, Soapbubble Set and Night Skies.
A close collaborator and major influence early in his career was Marcel Duchamp whom he met in 1933 at Constantin Brancusi sculpture exhibition, organized by Duchamp at Brummer gallery in New York. Their acquaintance was renewed when Duchamp moved to New York in 1942, and Duchamp hired Cornell to assist him in making editions of his “portable museums,” or boxes in a valise.
As Cornell’s career grew, his boxes became increasingly abstract, perhaps influenced by Duchamp and also by Piet Mondrian whose work he admired.
Later Cornell did a number of assemblages in homage to his friend Duchamp, and they were discovered after Cornell’s death in 1972.
In the 60′s, Cornell was given major retrospectives at the Pasadena Art Museum and at the Guggenheim in New York, attention that earned him a 12-page spread in the December 15, 1967 issue of Life magazine. The culminating exhibition of his career, perhaps, was the huge 1969 show ”New York Painting and Sculpture: 1940-1970,” mounted by Henry Geldzahler at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It included 22 of his constructions, virtually all of them important — a mini-retrospective of its own.
Matthew Baigell, Dictionary of American Art
David Bourban, Life magazine, 12/15/1967
Biography from the Archives of AskART.