Joseph Cornell and his extraordinary worlds in box

He lived with his mother and his brother in a humble house on Utopia Parkway, Queens, he rarely moved away from New York and he never left America.

However, Joseph Cornell was an explorer in his city, he constantly was looking for images, objects and stories that he used to create small worlds in box: the “Shadow boxes”.

Imagined travels 

«What kind of man is this who, from old brown cardboard photographs collected in second-hand bookstores, has reconstructed the nineteenth-century “grand tour” of Europe for his mind’s eye more vividly than those who took it […] who knows Vesuvius’s look at a certain morning of 1879 […]. What kind of man indeed? ». These the words used by Robert Motherwell to describe Joseph Cornell. The American artist, who never travelled, explored the world by imagination and he named “travel” the process of re-creation from which, between the forties and sixties, came to life artworks such as Untitled (Celestial Navigation), Naples, Untitled (Soap Bubble Set, Latitude and Longitude Box).

 Give form to chaos

Joseph Cornell collected in a compulsive way, in his basement studio, postcards and glasses, birds’ feathers, dried branches and sand, newspaper clippings and shards of glasses. Then, with a kind of poetic and rational process he found a connection among these artifacts dug up around the city, he combined them according to his memories or personal desires and he transformed fragments and waste material into microcosms. In Cornell’s small boxes, in which objects are never combined randomly, timeless stories come alive.

Joseph Cornell_Untitled Celestial Navigation
Joseph Cornell, Untitled (Celestial Navigation), 1956-58.

Surrealist games

In 1931 Cornell was twenty-eight years old and, by chance, he ended up in the gallery of Julien Levy. Levy was fascinated by the collages that Cornell shown to him shyly, the art dealer invited him to exhibit his artworks at the gallery, close to the ones of Ernst and other Surrealist artists. A year later, Levy organized the first solo exhibition of the artist entitled Objects by Joseph Cornell: Minutiae, Glass Bells, Shadow Boxes, Coups d’Oeil, Jouets Surréalistes: once again the art of Cornell was put near the Surrealism. However, Cornell never works by dissociation and he never wants to provoke weird sensations in the observers: the Shadow boxes, surreal as they are dreamlike, still maintain a contact with the reality and an evocative tone.

Art without etiquettes

The artworks of the New Yorker artist escape from any attempt of classification, despite its name was associated, from time to time, with Surrealism, Expressionism and Pop Art. He had a unique belief, the rediscovered object, and the only artist close to his poetics was maybe Marcel Duchamp. The two had known each other in the thirties and, animated by mutual esteem, had become friends. Cornell trusted Duchamp so much that he could even access his basement in Utopia Parkway.

Encounters at the Galley

Besides Duchamp, Cornell came into contact with other artists. Right at Julien Levy’s gallery, Cornell met Robert Motherwell, Max Ernst and above all the photographer, actress and muse of the Surrealists Lee Miller. She will be the one to create, in 1933, the most famous portrait of Cornell in which the artist’s profile seems to fluctuate into the void, set in a sailing ship in honour of his Dutch origins and his spirit as explorer of the imaginary.



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