Joseph Cornell

United States of America  1903–1972

Joseph Cornell was born on 24 December 1903 in Nyack, New York. In 1929 the family moved to Utopia Parkway in Flushing, Queens, where Cornell was to live for the rest of his life. From 1921 until 1931 he worked as a textile salesman in New York City while independently pursuing his interest in art through libraries and museums. He participated in an exhibition of Surrealist art at the Julien Levy Gallery, New York, in 1932, and later the same year held his first solo exhibition there. Also at Levy’s Gallery, in 1936, he showed his film Rose Hobart, made by collaging together pieces from an early Hollywood movie. Cornell continued this film-making activity intermittently throughout his life. Through Levy he became acquainted with a wide range of Surrealist art and many of the European artists who had settled in New York. Cornell’s work was included in the exhibition Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism at the Museum of Modern Art, New York (MoMA), in 1936, and in 1938 he also participated in the Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme at Galerie des Beaux-Arts, Paris.

To support himself during the 1930s Cornell worked as a textile designer and in the 1940s he drew commercial illustrations for magazines such as Vogue and Harper's Bazaar. He also contributed articles and illustrations to the journals View and Dance Index. By the 1940s he was exhibiting his work regularly, and had established friendships with artists such as Max Ernst, Roberto Matta and Marcel Duchamp; in 1942 he and Duchamp shared an exhibition at Peggy Guggenheim's Art of This Century Gallery. In 1944 Cornell participated in Sidney Janis’ touring exhibition, Abstract and Surrealist Art in the United States. His first solo museum exhibition was held in 1953 at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, and two museum retrospectives of his work were shown in 1967 — at the Pasadena Art Museum and at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Cornell died in Flushing on 29 December 1972. The retrospective organised by MoMA in 1980–81 travelled to London, Düsseldorf, Florence, Paris and Chicago. During the 1980s and 1990s a number of important monographs and biographies were published, as were his diaries and letters, and these gave the artist a new prominence.

See more works by this artist in the NGA collection

Joseph Cornell Untitled c.1950 © Joseph Cornell. VAGA/Copyright Agency Purchased 1973 Learn more

Joseph Cornell Untitled (Owl box) c.1946-48 © Joseph Cornell. VAGA/Copyright Agency Purchased 1980 Learn more