Art History: Thoughts on Joseph Cornell


Here is another art history rant. Doing this has really helped me to gather my thoughts on this artist that I have been entranced by for a while and couldn’t really figure out why. I first heard of Joseph Cornell when I read an incredible book called What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt. A character in the book made boxes very similar to Cornell’s, and I found that he was the inspiration for them. As a collagist (in two or three dimensions) and as a collector, I have found true inspiration from this man. He was both a romantic and a modernist; existing in a limbo between the two titles and totally outside of them as well, shut away in his New York apartment piecing together his own stories. This is just a reflection on a few pieces of his, as I hope I can learn a lot more about his expansive body of work in the future.

Joseph Cornell’s early work has been lumped in with the Surrealist movement in the past, though that may not be a completely accurate description. His "Glass Bell" is considered a solidly Surrealist piece. A glass bell jar encloses a hand holding a flower with an eye at its center. Certainly this seems to be something out of a dream, dealing with themes like the subconscious and transformation. Julian Levy considered Cornell to be one of the best in his Surrealist exhibition held at his gallery in New York in 1932. At this time, the Surrealist movement had been formed mostly in Europe, leaving this exhibition as a mis-matched collection of American "Surrealist-sympathizers". The term "Surrealism" was very loose in New York, though many artists were influenced by it.

Later in his work, Cornell moved further away from the subconscious, not really wanting to be associated with the Surrealists, although he admired them greatly. He started to create these shadow boxes from objects he found, had saved, weathered, and made. For instance, his Medici Princess includes a portrait of Bia de' Medici, with a pull-out drawer containing a feather and floor plan of her palace. One can now imagine that these objects belonged to her. Cornell's boxes, like Duchamp’s Readymades, centralize around the idea of taking an object and re-contextualizing it to become art. Unlike Duchamp, however, Cornell tends to favor “retinal” art--a Duchamp-coined term referring to art that is solely made for aesthetic reasons. Cornell’s boxes are often meant to simply be experienced rather than thought about.  

To add to his theme of "experiencing rather than thinking", Cornell often included elements of child's play in his work. Like his Medici Princess, the Medici Slot Machine contains a small ball, as if it belonged to the owner of this portrait-game sculpture. He has also added a compass, jacks, a numbered cube, and a coin. His Medici pieces are fascinating because they allude to both the power of these young people, and their youthfulness, as they were thrust into a high position at an age where they should still be "playing". 

Cornell spent a good deal of his career creating toys and reflections of child's play. He had a very Romantic idea about innocence, imagination, dreaming and freedom. This included the freedom to be curious and to think of things as they could be, instead of how they are. In is Soap Bubble Sets, notes Dawn Ades, "... where a clay pipe becomes a bubble-blowing pipe, the bubbles themselves become heavenly bodies: the moon...the sun with constellations."

Star maps and drawings of constellations are often included in his work. Constellations are “abstractions of the stars, are constructions of the human spirit," wrote Fairfield Porter. Humans imposed their stories upon the patterns they saw in the stars. Cornell's fascination with this idea is another example of his Romanticism. His Hotel de l'Etoile is a hotel actually amongst the stars for the cosmic traveller. The little compartments reflect the ambiguousness of the average hotel. He was attracted to the hotel because he could place it anywhere in the universe and it would still be recognizable. Cornell rarely traveled anywhere at all with his physical body. Instead he did all this exploring through his art and vast knowledge of art history and literature. So many of his works are just explorations and records of the traveling he does in his mind.
In order to understand the works of Cornell, you must give your mind up to imagination and curiosity. The meaning rarely lies in the subconscious like in the case of the Surrealists, or in linear thought at all. Instead, it is sensory and primary, like child’s play. It is full of wonder and exploration. Basically, I'm in love.


  1. Interesting to read considering my current project is on surrealism and dealing with the subconscious, (having to explain that to people without sounding like a pretentious art student is proving difficult) but I like the idea of his work being about exploration. His work is really intriguing, I just want touch it all haha. xxx

    1. Haha I know, it's so easy to become a pretentious art student. I tend to just go for it haha.
      His work is just so rad. I can't wait to see your project!