Joseph Cornell’s
Text by Samantha Andreacchi

Joseph Cornell was a collector of curiosities. A regular visitor to the flea markets, secondhand bookshops, and museums of New York City, he assembled a collection of Victorian bell jars and magazines, seashells and silver chains, wooden beads and colored paper, and mechanical toys and games that many would consider mere clutter. To Cornell, however, these knickknacks, tchotchkes, and doodads were the materials that formed the foundation of his art, the treasures and talismans that, if arranged just so, could yield small, perfect worlds that enraptured viewers and invited them to explore their own nostalgia, sensuality, and relationship to time and the natural world.

Joseph Cornell, Untitled, Soap Bubble Set/Pipe/Figurehead, not dated. Wood, glass, metal, paint and construction. Collection of Phoenix Art Museum, Gift of The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation. © 2019 The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation / Licensed by VAGA at Artist Rights Society (ARS), NY.

Born in 1903 on Christmas Eve in Nyack, New York, Cornell never received formal art training, instead working full-time to support his mother and younger brother, Robert, who had cerebral palsy. Despite his non-traditional approach and his classification as a fringe artist, Cornell enjoyed a career spanning five decades, characterized by an expansive body of work that includes collages, films, graphic designs, and his renowned glass-paneled shadow boxes, in which he artfully ordered his oddities to create, as he once said, “poetic theaters.” 

He exhibited in major New York City galleries alongside Marcel Duchamp, Salvador Dalí, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly, and other prolific avant-garde artists of the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s. In 1972, he died in obscurity to the masses but remained largely known and respected by his fellow artists of the era, as well as the museum directors and curators and art critics, dealers, and collectors who had come to know and appreciate his work.

On view at Phoenix Art Museum through July 12, 2020, Joseph Cornell: Things Unseen provides a small taste of the artist’s whimsical creations. Through 12 two-sided collages, two unlidDed boxes filled with rolled paper and spools of thread, and one shadow box, viewers can discover how Cornell never attempted to imitate reality but instead created many realities of his own.

“Joseph Cornell revered Marcel Duchamp’s use of the readymade, Kurt Schwitters’ signature collages, and Paul Klee’s childlike perspective, and later, he was inspired by Andy Warhol’s repetitive imagery and Robert Rauschenberg’s combines,” said Rachel Zebro, the Museum’s assistant curator of contemporary art and the exhibition’s curator. “The works on view in Things Unseen are strong examples of how he used these progressive art forms to explore surrealist concepts of memories, fantasies, and dreams.”

Joseph Cornell, Untitled (Shaker Box with cylinders), not dated. Mixed media. Collection of Phoenix Art Museum, Gift of The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation. © 2019 The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation / Licensed by VAGA at Artist Rights Society (ARS), NY.

Cornell’s collages are installed perpendicular to the walls of the Museum’s Orme Lewis Gallery, encouraging viewers to walk around them and discover every detail. The varied compositions include an ethereal nude placed among desert plants, animals on a roller coaster superimposed on a stark landscape, and a watercolored face of a sun. 

The exhibition also showcases For Emily Dickinson (undated), with an image of children jumping rope in front of a setting sun, collaged above a cloudy sky. Cornell was deeply influenced by poetry and had a strong affinity toward famous women and starlets, such as Dickinson, Hedy Lamarr, Shirley MacLaine, Marlene Dietrich, and Marilyn Monroe. For Emily Dickinson stands as an homage to a famous poet Cornell greatly admired, while exploring themes of childhood, nature, and nostalgia for days gone by.

The exhibition’s shadow box, on the other hand, with two clocks and a silver hoop as its focal points, references Cornell’s fascination with non-linear time. Cornell often created multiple variations of his shadow boxes, circling the same theme in repetition to explore it from every perspective. In addition, viewers may note that many of the works in the exhibition are undated, existing without temporal reference and prioritizing content over context.

Joseph Cornell: Things Unseen offers the Phoenix community a unique opportunity to experience the imaginative, wonder-filled qualities that undoubtedly characterize Cornell’s body of work. Yet the yin to the exhibition’s yang cannot be ignored, as Things Unseen also offers a profoundly melancholic view into the psyche of a reclusive artist who sacrificed greatly to support his family, creating in the basement of his mother’s house until his final days. Is it possible that Cornell’s lifelong fascination, if not obsession, with childhood, time, nature, and famous women spoke to a deeper desire and longing for more of each in his own life? For as many answers as Things Unseen provides, it also leaves space for viewers to question, contemplate, and imagine.

Joseph Cornell: Things Unseen

Through July 12

Phoenix Art Museum