Joseph Cornell (American, 1903–1972) is best known for his Modernist assemblages and experimental films, and his association with the Surrealist group of artists. Cornell was born in Nyack, NY, and his family moved to Queens, NY, when he was 12 after his father’s death. Cornell attended Philips Academy in Andover, MA, for three years before returning to Queens, where he lived for the rest of his life. He worked a number of different jobs after attending school, ranging from designing textiles to selling refrigerators. During this time, he began to create boxes and toys for his brother, who had cerebral palsy, and who lived with Cornell his entire life.
Cornell was keenly interested in opera, ballet, and Fine Art; in the 1920s, he began making sculptural boxes, collages, and assemblages. In the early 1930s, he stated collecting found objects and juxtaposing them in boxes behind glass. He would often scour thrift stores for objects and categorize them into particular themes, embracing them as aesthetic and evocative remnants of the past. In 1931, Cornell met several Surrealist artists at the Julian Levy Gallery in New York City and, while never a part of the circle himself, he exhibited with them several times, including at the landmark Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art in New York. His shadow boxes and assemblage works revolved around themes of birds, travel, movie personas, observatories, the Medici family, and other subjects throughout the 1940s and 1950s. By the 1960s, Cornell was concentrating more heavily on collage works, and revisited his older assemblages, adding further found objects and ephemera to them in imaginative works documenting his own emotions and memories. Cornell has had several retrospectives, including at the Pasadena Art Museum in Pasadena, CA; the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA; the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, NY; and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco, CA.
Cornell died in 1973 at his home in Queens, at the age of 70.