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Joseph Cornell letters to Susanna De Maria Wilson and other papers, 1963-1994, undated

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Cornell (Joseph) Letters to Susanna De Maria Wilson and other papers

Biographical / Historical Note

The American artist Joseph Cornell (1903-1972) was a pioneer and celebrated pratcitioner of collage and assemblage art, and experimental filmmaker. He was born in Nyack, N.Y. in 1903, the eldest of four children. Following his father's death in 1917 he moved with his family to Queens, New York, and then attended the Phillips Academy in Andover in Massachusetts, but without earning a diploma. Except for the years spent in Andover, Cornell lived most of his life in a small house on Utopia Parkway in a working-class neighborhood of Flushing, Queens, along with his mother and his younger brother Robert, who suffered from cerebral palsy. For many years he struggled to make a living and supported his family by working various jobs: salesman in the textile industry; door-to-door appliance salesman; working at a plant nursery; as a textile designer; and as a designer of covers and layouts for Harper's Bazaar, View, Dance Index, and other magazines.

Cornell was a self-taught artist. In 1940, he decided to devote all of his time to pursuing art, and set up a workshop in the basement of his house in Flushing. While spending most days at home, he continued to visit Manhattan to meet friends and look for materials. His artworks began to sell, but it was not until after the 1949 solo show at the Charles Egan Gallery that it began to sell for more significant sums.

In the 1950s and 1960s, although highly regarded as an artist, Cornell continued to lead a reclusive life. As caring for his mother and brother claimed more of his time, he hired assistants to help him organize material, make artwork, and run errands. One of his assistants was the wife of the American minimalist sculptor Walter De Maria, Susanna De Maria Wilson. Cornell's brother died in 1965, followed by his mother in 1966. Cornell died in 1972, a few days after his sixty-ninth birthday.

Cornell is best known for assemblages made of objects found in bookshops and thrift stores and arranged eclectically in simple shadow boxes, usually fronted with a glass pane. He also created flat collaged works and experimented with film. The underlying principle of Cornell's art relies for its appeal on the use of dreamlike irrational juxtaposition, inspired by Surrealism, and the evocation of a sense of nostalgia, inspired by 19th-century Romanticism.

Cornell was introduced to Surrealism in the early 1930s when he began frequenting the Julien Levy Gallery, which during the 1930s and 1940s was an important venue for surrealist and avant-garde art, photography and experimental film. His work was first exhibited as part of the Surrealisme show at the Julien Levy Gallery in 1932. He made his first glass-fronted box in 1937, which was included that same year in the Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

Cornell was also an avid collector of books, prints, postcards, and printed ephemera. In the mid-1930s he began collecting movies and movie stills and embarked upon various film-related projects, including a trilogy of collage-films. In the mid-1950s, he began to incorporate film-related material into his other artwork.

Cornell's art often reflects his preoccupation with women whom he encountered both in his fantasy life, such as actresses and ballet dancers, or in real life, and various other interests, such as his captivation with birds. Besides surrealism, his art was also influenced and informed by French symbolist writers, the philosophy of American Transcendentalism and the Christian Science belief and practice. Throughout his life he came into contact with and befriended well known figures of the art, dance, and literary world; including several artists of the surrealist, abstract expressionist, and pop art movements.

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