Clip & Save: Joseph Cornell (1903-72), Medici Slot Machine, 1942. Box Construction: Stained Hinged Wood Box with Glass Pane Containing Painted Glass, Metal Jacks, Photographs, Printed Papers, Wood Cubes Wrapped in Printed and Colored Metal; 15 1/2" X 12 1/4" X 4 3/8". (Art Notes)

Article excerpt

the artist

Joseph Cornell lived most of his life in the New York borough of Queens with his widowed mother and handicapped brother. Until he was 37, he earned a living for the family doing various poorly paid jobs that were usually boring. Even when he became well known as an artist, he was unable to earn enough money from his art and had to find work as an illustrator and as a magazine layout artist.

For many years, the only place Cornell could work was at the kitchen table in his home. This was troublesome, because he continually had to clear his materials away for meals and other needs. As a result, he found the best solution was to work during the night when everyone else was asleep. Not until he was over 40 did he make a small studio in the basement next to the furnace, where he could work without interference.

Cornell was very uncomfortable with other people and kept away from artists' parties and gallery openings. His most satisfying way of communicating with other people was through letter-writing with other artists and poets. He also kept a daily journal of everything that happened to him. Cornell also loved to read and knew a great deal about composers, singers, dancers and poets--especially those who were important in history. Anything French was of special interest.

The dreamlike ideas of Surrealism fit perfectly with Cornell's artistic ideas, although he didn't begin making art until he was 32. His first box--the art form that made him famous--was constructed in 1936. No one knows for sure why he chose to make shadow boxes. It was a popular pastime in the mid-19th century; and his work resembles the paintings of Americans William Harnett (1848-92) and John Peto (1854-1907), who painted very realistic still-life pictures of ordinary objects.

The materials for his boxes were collected while wandering about New York City. These source materials were then carefully filed away at home where he could find them. The boxes themselves were cut from ordinary pine lumber, but Cornell was not a good carpenter so the frames usually do not fit well. He would first stain and varnish a box and then line the insides with prints, wallpaper, velvet, mirrors or pages of old books.

He would complete it with small objects and scraps related to popular culture that he had collected, including dolls and small toys, coins, postage stamps, small bottles, wine glasses and lengths of thin chain. This kind of art is called "assemblage" because an artist arranges objects to create a work of art. When he needed color, he used regular house paint. Some boxes included pieces that were not glued down and could be moved about, while others had moving parts similar to those in pinball machines.

Joseph Cornell really had two separate artistic lives. Most people knew him because of one of them, but not both. Artists usually knew about his Surrealistic boxes. Photographers knew about his experimental movies and his collection of silent movies. …