How Joseph Cornell’s Surrealistic Sculptures Transformed 20th Century Art

Alexxa Gotthardt
May 2, 2018 9:32PM

Duane Michals, Joseph Cornell, 1972 © Duane Michals. Courtesy of DC Moore Gallery, New York.

It’s fitting that the artist Joseph Cornell, a self-taught maker of fantastical sculptures, lived the majority of his life on a street called Utopia Parkway. After all, his collages, assemblage boxes, and films operated like portals into enchanted zones where shimmering angels, Hollywood starlets, mythical beasts, and mysterious corners of the cosmos were within reach.

Cornell, who was born in 1903 and died in 1972, didn’t have an easy or charmed life. His father died at a young age, and the artist took care of his demanding mother and disabled brother for the rest of his days. Much of his time was spent working in the basement of his family home in the New York borough of Queens. Within this hermetic reality, Cornell regularly experienced soul-crushing bouts of what he simply described, in his extensive diaries, as “lethargy.” His artworks, however, offered an escape into mystical, happier worlds.

Despite his reclusiveness, Cornell created a body of work that delighted the 1940s art world—and, in some cases, inspired shock and envy. (Famously, the flamboyant Salvador Dalí toppled a projector at Cornell’s first screening out of jealousy.) Amongst Cornell’s passionate admirers were Surrealists like Roberto Matta; the Abstract Expressionist Willem de Kooning; Yayoi Kusama; and the father of Dada himself, Marcel Duchamp. Mark Rothko, for his part, once wrote to Cornell to praise the “uncanny magic” of his work.

During his life—and well beyond it—artists, scholars, and countless Cornell acolytes have lauded the power of his vision. Cornell was a voyager, as collector Robert Lehrman has written—an artist “traveling through space and time to dimensions of the imagination and the spirit.”

Who was Joseph Cornell?


Cornell was born in 1903 in South Nyack, New York, as the sixth “Joseph Cornell” in his family’s lineage. He wasn’t interested in fine art at a young age, and decided against joining his sister in painting classes she took (with none other than Edward Hopper). Instead, he was attracted to “the shiny surfaces of popular culture and enthralled by tricks of magic and escape,” as his biographer, Deborah Solomon, has written.

Raised by solidly middle-class parents, Cornell spent his early years looking forward to the family’s jaunts into New York City. They would attend vaudeville shows in Manhattan and make trips to Coney Island’s Luna Park, where rides like “A Simulated Trip to the Moon” whisked him into otherworldly landscapes. The penny arcades unlocked peepholes revealing train-filled vistas and delivered mystical fortunes.

These amusements all but stopped, however, after the Cornell family experienced a series of misfortunes. First, Cornell’s brother, Robert, was born with cerebral palsy. Not long after, in 1917 (when Cornell was only 14), his father died after a battle with “pernicious anemia,” a disease similar to leukemia. After this, a defining aspect of Cornell’s future was written for him: For the rest of his life, he’d live with and care for his mother and brother. “The three would be inseparable for life,” wrote Solomon. “Though it would be wrong to assume that the arrangement was particularly rewarding for any one of them.”

Regardless, Cornell provided unconditionally for his family. Throughout the 1920s and ’30s, he took jobs—as a textile salesman, a garden nursery attendant, an image researcher—that subsidized his loved ones but bored him. In response, he escaped further and further into the fantastical stories offered by theater, literature, and religion.

In particular, he sought refuge in the Christian Science church, whose teachings he followed devoutly, as well as in the pomp and pageantry of ballet and opera. He was further inspired by the growing pantheon of Golden Age Hollywood actresses, like Lauren Bacall and Carmen Miranda, and natural phenomena: the psychedelic plumage of exotic birds, iridescent seashells, or the awe-inspiring architecture of constellations.

Even Cornell’s favorite foods evoked childhood pleasures and whimsy. He was obsessed with sweets, and often documented his dessert intake in his diaries. In one entry, he recounts a late-night snack of “raspberry almond paste strips (petit fours)”; in another, “toasted coconut covered marshmallows.” Matta remembered a visit to Cornell’s home in which “the first thing he showed me as a ‘promise’ of a good weekend was the ice-box,” he recalled. “It was packed with cake, ice cream, and all sorts of sweets.”

In the 1920s, on trips into Manhattan, Cornell began collecting trinkets that reflected his wide-ranging interests: photographs, records, books, and baubles of all sorts. By the ’30s, he was transforming them into collages, and assemblages soon after, while working on his kitchen table. By then, he and his family had moved into their modest Utopia Parkway home, where, for the rest of his life, Cornell would live, eat copious amounts of dessert, and make shape-shifting, surrealistic sculptures.  

What inspired him?

Cornell never had formal art training. Instead, his work emerged from his impressions of the world around him—and what he envisioned might exist beyond it.

Despite his hermetic and antisocial tendencies, Cornell observed his surroundings attentively. Even a casual bike ride could inspire “complete happiness in which every triviality becomes imbued with a significance,” as he described in a 1948 diary entry. Over the course of that adventure, he observed “an overgrowth of vine,” a “girl arranging a sunchair,” and a “bob-white call” with wonder. In everyday objects and details, he found what he called “a glow of inexpressible joy.” He also voraciously consumed art history and contemporary culture at New York’s museums, galleries, operas, ballets, and theatres.

In the 1943 issue of Americana Fantastica magazine, Cornell contributed a text-based artwork that could be read as a summation of his interests. On one page, he arranged hundreds of words in the shape of a pagoda, like a pantheon of his passions. They included Mozart, the Blue Grotto of Capri, pageants, Leonardo da Vinci, Italian villas, sunbursts, daguerreotypes, Edgar Allen Poe, Ursa Major, marvels of motion, Johannes Vermeer, dovecotes, and a cohort of prima ballerinas. He embedded all of these inspirations—which occasionally transformed into obsessions—in his body of work.

He made his earliest artworks by combining Victorian prints that he collected on trips to Manhattan’s antique district. In one of these collages, the sail of a ship metamorphoses seamlessly into a rose with a giant spiderweb at its center. As Cornell scholar Lynda Roscoe Hartigan has suggested, these pieces “acknowledged an initial debt to Max Ernst’s Surrealist collages,” but without any of his “black humor and eroticism.” Instead, Cornell’s two-dimensional works evoked whimsy and wanderlust.

While Cornell spent most of his life in New York, he “relished the notion that he was descended from voyagers,” explained Solomon. (Cornell’s great-grandfather, Commodore Voorhis, was integral to the town of Nyack’s development, and designed and raced clipper ships.) Indeed, much of the artist’s work references journeys—whether into tempestuous seas, the lives of movie stars, or the cosmos.

He also discussed his own artistic process by using the language of travel. Cornell referred to the transformation of his impressions into representations as “exploring that became creative.” By the late 1930s, this exploration inspired his first three-dimensional works, composed from the souvenirs he’d collected throughout the last decade.

“In the absence of art training, he learned by doing, and frequently referred to himself as a maker rather than an artist,” noted Solomon. Often, the texture of objects both fascinated him and informed the content of his compositions. “One of the few sources of sensuality he allowed himself—texture—was also a catalyst for understanding a range of phenomena, from the patina of age and nature’s weathering effects.” (Cornell wasn’t known to have any physically intimate relationships, despite a deeply emotional connection he developed with Kusama.)

Some of his first assemblages brought together his interests in faraway places, religious icons, and contemporary starlets. In Untitled (Tilly Losch) (1935–38), a cutout illustration of the famous dancer floats like a hot-air balloon over a mountainscape. Untitled (Penny Arcade Portrait of Lauren Bacall) (1945–46) features small images of Bacall that surround a larger, central portrait—an effect akin to “a great Northern Renaissance altarpiece,” as famed curator (and friend of Cornell’s) Walter Hopps has pointed out.

Works like these also reference Cornell’s enduring interest in the trappings of childhood, and a reverence for children in general. Though his own youth was marked with tragedy—or perhaps because of this fact, as scholars suggest—he retained a fondness for games, trinkets, and youthful innocence. For his series of “Medici Slot Machines,” which he made between the 1940s and 1960s, Cornell placed images of children born into the influential Florentine family (who were patrons of Renaissance art) into boxes resembling his own beloved penny arcades, filled with balls, jacks, feathers, and other playful curiosities.

These works celebrate Cornell’s child-subjects as celebrities generously doling out prizes, but the series also has an ominous edge. Some of his Medici boxes resemble targets, an allusion to another more serious game of chance swirling around Cornell: World War II. While he wasn’t drafted, he was acutely aware of, and disturbed by, the conflict.

Cornell dealt with tragedy by letting his imagination wander into worlds unaffected by sickness and war. Many of his most celebrated boxes explore spirituality, space, and the mysteries of science.

His “Soap Bubble Sets”—perhaps the artist’s most surrealistic series—probe the relationship between “science and imagination, knowledge and wonder,” as Hartigan has written. In one set, from 1941, a found pipe emits otherworldly “bubbles,” while glass discs containing cutouts of seashells float against a sea of black. In another, from 1947–48, cork balls become something of a solar system, hovering above a celestial map and luminous blue marbles. It’s no surprise that Cornell often described his basement studio as a laboratory, organizing his materials with the precision of a scientist labeling lab specimens.  

Likewise, later works in series like his “Hotels and Observatories” and “Celestial Navigation Variants” operate like windows into other realms. Cornell created gridded, architectural constructions resembling rooms. At their center, he often placed squares, like windows, that open into maps or abstract paintings depicting star-studded night skies. In these works, the artist “telescopes down, literally, physically, from the world we’re in, to the inside of this box, to a window beyond,” as Hopps has explained.

In the process, Hopps suggested, Cornell introduced big questions: “Where are we going?” “Where are we?” “What is beyond, beyond?”

Why does his work matter?

While Cornell intentionally resisted direct associations with the artistic groups and movements that cropped up during his almost 70-year life, his work deeply influenced Surrealism, Dada, Abstract Expressionism, Pop, and even Minimalism.

In 1936, just several years after Cornell began making art, the director of the Museum of Modern Art, Alfred Barr Jr., included Cornell’s first box, from the “Soap Bubble Set” series, in the movement-defining exhibition “Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism.” Cornell’s transformation of everyday, forgotten objects into elements of wonder aligned with Surrealism’s tenets, and artists like Matta and André Breton recognized him as one of their own.

Cornell’s ability to represent expansive ideas, spiritual quandaries, and vast landscapes within small spaces—and with just a handful of objects—also inspired artists working in abstraction. De Kooning, for one, commended the “architecture” of Cornell’s work. Cornell’s extensive use of the grid in representing expandable systems and vastness likewise informed the Minimalists. Hopps has described Cornell’s use of “cordial glasses to represent the forces of nature that hold experience together” as “very big ideas, achieved with very simple means.”

Dada and Pop artists took note of Cornell’s rejection of painting and drawing; inventive use of found objects; and interest in popular culture. Duchamp and Cornell were big fans of each other. And Kusama—whose intimate but platonic relationship with Cornell is visible through extensive correspondence between the two artists—was inspired to re-launch her own artistic career in Japan after Cornell mailed her a box of magazine cutouts. Kusama went on to create a series of collages that charmed the Japanese art establishment; later on, she, too, would infuse themes of infinity into her work.  

But perhaps most of all, Cornell’s legacy is defined by the enthralling spirit of magic, fantasy, and mystery his assemblages emit. As Lehrman has said, he “could take you into the universe in the space of a thimble.”

Alexxa Gotthardt