Although he never ventured beyond New York State, the American artist Joseph Cornell (1903-72) toured the world, travelled across time, encountered different cultures and even embarked on space expeditions. All through his intriguing and complex shadow boxes – glass-fronted cases containing arrangements of the objects and images he amassed. ‘He preferred the yearning and dreaming of something than actually doing it,’ says Sarah Lea, curator of Cornell’s first major London retrospective in 35 years. ‘He experienced the world incredibly intensely, but loved absorbing the atmosphere of Manhattan and riding all the trains. The city was a complete revelation for him – the museums, the opera, the ballet, this world of culture. He thought: Why travel, I’ve got it all here?’
From the 1920s, while working as a textile salesman, he scoured second hand shops for books, prints, maps and souvenirs, filling his basement studio in the Queens home he shared with his overbearing mother and disabled brother with all manner of paraphernalia. Over years, Cornell collected knick-knacks, ephemera including cork, glass and seashells, as well as meticulously collating paper dossiers on the Medici family, ballet dancers, opera singers and screen starlets; Marilyn Monroe became a favourite. Cornell breathed new life into his treasures by assembling them in boxes, which he found or made. Playful and captivating, with hints and echoes of novelty arcade games and miniature theatres, the results are as unique as anything you’ll find in twentieth-century art. Some address themes such as astronomy, cinema, literature, hunting and ornithology (‘Habitat Group for a Shooting Gallery’, 1943, above). Others are more obviously the esoteric outpourings of a loner. ‘This is really where the wanderlust idea comes together,’ says Lea. ‘I think he was looking for a way to capture and frame an experience.’
Despite being self-taught, by the time Cornell gave up his day job in 1940, he’d already achieved recognition with commercial gallery exhibitions and was included in Alfred Barr’s ground-breaking 1936 show, ‘Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism’ at the Museum of Modern Art. Yet he had conflicts with the professional art world, both in parting with his work permanently and for money, and in his aversion to being categorised alongside the surrealists, neo-romantics and abstract expressionists he was invited to exhibit with. ‘He really is a one off because he doesn’t fit into any of the movements of his day,’ says Lea.‘He wanted to make art that everyone could relate to, whether you’re someone who knows about art or not.’
It’s the intensity of Cornell’s passion and the uniqueness of his vision that makes his miniature worlds so engaging. Resisting categorisation to this day, they’re certainly something everyone should experience, especially when they’re only a tube ride away.