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
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?”