Cornell, Joseph (1903-1972), American sculptor, known for his poetic assemblages of objects and images in small, wooden boxes. His incongruous juxtaposition
of objects was influenced by surrealism, a movement that emphasized the role of the subconscious mind in art. Cornell's selection of objects has an extremely personal quality, and his works evoke a mood of nostalgic
Cornell was born in Nyack, New York, and moved to New York City in 1921, where he was employed by a textile firm. Although he had no formal art training, he explored the city's museums, theaters, and
second-hand bookstores, and during the 1920s began collecting old books, engravings, and objects from earlier eras. In 1931 he saw examples of surrealist art at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York City. The next year
Levy included several of Cornell's collages in an exhibition of surrealist art. The collages soon developed into three-dimensional sculptures—small, stagelike shadow boxes containing sequins, cut-up engravings, and
colored sand—which he exhibited in his first solo show, at Julien Levy in 1932.
By 1936 Cornell had established his signature format: the glass-fronted, handmade wooden box containing evocative arrangements of
such objects as thimbles, old photographs, marbles, and seashells. Untitled (Soap Bubble Set) (1936, Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut) is the earliest work in this genre. The work consists of a box that Cornell
lined with pale blue fabric and an antique French map of the moon and in which he arranged a clay pipe, a cordial glass holding a painted egg, a doll's head attached to a white wooden pedestal, and other objects. He
also created boxed homages to historic opera singers and ballerinas, and he often drew from art history. One example of this is The Medici Slot Machine (1942, private collection, New York City), which includes a
reproduction of a portrait of Lorenzo de' Medici, an important Renaissance patron of the arts. Cornell's boxes influenced American pop artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, who in the mid-1950s combined disparate objects
to create large, collagelike sculptures known as combines.
In the mid-1950s Cornell resumed making two-dimensional collages, pasting together colorful clippings from contemporary books, magazines, and art
reproductions. He also made several films, some of which he compiled from discarded Hollywood footage to produce a surrealist effect.