Joseph Cornell

Book Reflection:

Joseph Cornell: Master of Dreams by Diane Waldman

Diane Waldman met Cornell while doing research for the thesis she was writing about his work and formed a lasting friendship with him. She was one of the first people to write about his life and work and her deep understanding of him is evident in this insightful book. I would highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in Joseph Cornell or the art of assemblage.

When I started this project, in which I planned to make assemblages inspired by the work of Joseph Cornell, I was only vaguely familiar with his life and art. After reading this book I have a greater understanding and appreciation for his passions, his oddball character, and his prolific career.

One of the key concepts that I took away from this book is that his family was absolutely the most important thing to Cornell, and after the death of his father, and the marriages of his two sisters, his life revolved around caring for and spending time with his brother, who was diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy, and his mother. He never moved out of his family’s house or got married which could possibly have been a result of the responsibility he felt to his family, among other personal issues. Most of his work was heavily influenced by his feelings of nostalgia for his happy childhood and his devotion to his family. He even used his brother’s drawings in several of his constructions. My work is also focused around my childhood and family life, a deeper connection to Cornell’s work than simply the format of assembled boxes.

I was also very interested to learn about his personality. He was thought of by many as a bit of a recluse, but in fact he had many friends in the art world as well as dancers and actresses. He also liked to interact with groups of children and show his box constructions to them, many of which resembled arcade games or had a whimsical nature that appeal to kids.

His religion was another major factor behind his work. He was a strong believer in Christian Science, a religion in which it is understood that the entire universe is spiritual. Even though my boxes don’t have any religion associations, I like to think that the way in which I have approached the art of assemblage focuses on the importance of everyday objects. In my constructions, I want the objects placed within to hold a spiritual significance, similar to the beliefs that Cornell tied into his works.

My work also involves the incorporation of photography, something that Cornell was more interested in than I had realized prior to reading this book.  Some of the objects in his assemblages mimic those of early still lives by Daguerre and his famous Medici Series uses repeating images and photos covered with tinted glass to give the look of Daguerreotypes. As the author says, the fact that photography is sort of a middle ground between science and art makes it a very good fit for Cornell to work with and I feel the same way about it. Part of what draws me to black and white film photography is the process and the science behind it. I believe it adds a certain layer to the images that can’t be achieved with digital photography.

The seemingly most consistent element to Cornell’s work, and what makes it so relevant to my own explorations of nostalgia, is that, as stated by Waldman, his methodology is “an attempt to preserve memory through intense accumulation of objects and ephemera that speak to the artist”. In my own, very amateur way, I am also trying to preserve memory and a sense of wonder and nostalgia through the assemblage of artifacts in a thoughtful and very personal manner.

120 thoughts on “Joseph Cornell

  1. I understand,I have to make a poster about him and this is all of the info I need.I think this is a amazing book reflection and you studied hard to do this.

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  3. Out of the fantasies that enriched an often reclusive life, the enigmatic American artist Joseph Cornell (1903-1972) created a world of enchantment with his famed shadow boxes and collages. Using common objects like glasses, marbles, and mirrors, Cornell’s work evokes the strangeness of the familiar and the odd familiarity of the strange.Respected art historian and friend of the artist Diane Waldman probes the elusive imagery that marks Cornell’s work. Interviews with Cornell and his family and access to the artist’s papers inform her text. This richly illustrated book, now available in paperback, is one of the few to cover his entire career.
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  4. During his lifetime, Cornell’s eccentric habits did not exactly serve to burnish his artistic reputation. In the heyday of Abstract Expressionism, critics dismissed his boxes as “toys for adults”, a category near the bottom of established art-world hierarchies. Cornell had to wait for the advent of Pop Art in the 1960s, which returned realism and still-life to avant-garde art, before his achievement was fully recognised; he was given a retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 1967. Today, in a dramatic reversal, installation and assemblage are ubiquitous; they can seem like the default media for a generation of artists intent on lending their work a caffeinated hit of real life. Cornell’s work has never been more relevant than it is right now.

  5. Joseph Cornell was an American artist best remembered for his Surrealist assemblage works housed in shallow wooden boxes. Cornell produced works which incorporated found objects arranged in narrative dioramas, featuring Victorian-era dolls, photographs, bottles, and other small trinkets.
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