Joseph Cornell: artist/collector/archivist :erica moore

I’m not sure if Joseph Cornell is an appropriate choice for this assignment as I become increasingly confused about the discursive demarcations of terms (and their related concepts) that we are attempting to parse in this course. Cornell doesn’t simply gather things (collector). Nor does he simply gather things and then represent them as discrete groupings (artist collector). Nor does he simply create discrete objects (sculptor). Nor does he simply catalog items (archivist). He gathers things AND represents them as discrete groupings AND makes discrete objects AND archives ephemera. If there is a hierarchy involved in how these different roles are made manifest in his work, I propose that all of the other capacities in which he functions are contingent on him being, primarily, a collector. If Joseph Cornell had not engaged in the practice of collecting, his work would have been something entirely different, if it would have been, at all. 

In an essay that was written in conjunction with the exhibition Andromeda Hotel: The Art of Joseph Cornell, that was on display at the Katonah Museum of Art in 2006, Therese Lichtenstein wrote:

“Throughout his life, Joseph Cornell (1903-1972) cultivated an encyclopedic knowledge of art, science, cinema, ballet, literature, theatre, music, and history.  He was also a devoted collector and archivist.  All of these interests came together in the fantastic assemblages he produced between the 1930s and l960s.  By recombining found objects and reproductions from popular culture and mass media and arranging them in small boxes, Cornell not only preserved forgotten objects and fading icons but also gave them new life.  As viewers travel metaphorically into Cornell’s miniature worlds, they will participate in the magic and poetry of the everyday.”

Though his work circulates in the world of Art and its sanctioned venues and he is referred to as a Sculptor who utilized Surrealist sensibilities in the production of his Assemblages, and as a pioneer of American Avant-garde cinema, he was not trained as an artist.

Lichtenstein says, “For Cornell, the work of art is a revelation produced from the spiritual engagement with the everyday.” Cornell’s term for this everyday magic is “metaphysique d’ephemera”. Mary Ann Caws further explains: “The metaphysique d’ephemera [sic]… betokens the passion he devoted to the wandering portion of his days, tracking down the trivial elements in his boxes which he saw as linked to a greater philosophical system. He took the term from the nineteenth-century French Romantic poet and novelist Gerard de Nerval, who wanted to indicate the supreme importance of the smallest things once the imagination transforms them.”

 Like the Surrealists before him, Cornell was intrigued by the retrieval of the outmoded. He created quiet, evocative memorials that exist between the ephemeral and the permanent in a poetics of desire. Remnants of a culture are saved before they are forgotten. The past is alive in the present. His theatrical “shadow boxes” are reminiscent of nineteenth-century Victorian “toy theatres” and cabinets of curiosities. (Lichtenstein)

For a list of exhibitions, theater and upcoming events click here

The Smithsonian American Museum of Art held an exhibition from late 2006 through early 2007 titled “Joseph Cornell: Navigating the Imagination”. As a companion to the Art exhibit, the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art presented “Exquisite Surprise: The Papers of Joseph Cornell”.

“Exquisite Surprise” reveals Cornell’s sense of wonder through his private communications, personal musings and collected ephemera. Known mainly for his box constructions and collages, Cornell also was a filmmaker and graphic designer. In his personal papers, Cornell recorded on scraps of paper the intertwined sensations of seeing, feeling and remembering. His notes on the backs of envelopes, magazine clippings and wrapping papers illuminate his creative process. Deeply romantic, with wide-ranging cultural interests, he kept “dossiers” on people with whom he felt a special relationship-real or imagined- including actresses, singers, artists, ballerinas and writers. He also collected images from magazines and books, as well as prints, maps and artifacts as potential source material for his art. (Lichtenstein)

Featured in the exhibition are Cornell’s diaries, selected photographs and letters to him from George Brecht, Rudy Burckhardt, Roberto Matta Echaurren, Ray Johnson, Julien Levy, Mina Loy, Robert Motherwell, Dorothea Tanning and Fay Wray, and a sampling of source material that Cornell saved for his assemblages and collages. The Joseph Cornell papers were recently scanned in their entirety and are available online as part of the Terra Foundation for American Art’s five-year, $3.6 million grant to digitize 100 of the Archives’ collections. The public can view the entire collection online or through an exhibition kiosk at the Fleischman Gallery. The Terra Foundation offers the following description of the Joseph Cornell papers:


“This site provides access to the papers of Joseph Cornell that were digitized in 2006 by the Archives of American Art. The papers have been scanned in their entirety, and total 32,775 images.

The papers of Joseph Cornell (1903-1972) measure approximately 24.5 linear feet and date from 1804 to 1986 (bulk 1939-1972). The collection documents the life, work, interests, and creative activities of the self-taught artist, who was best known for his shadow box constructions, assemblages, and collages. Papers include correspondence, diaries, source material, notes, writings, photographs, printed material, two- and three-dimensional ephemera, art works, and books, as well as a limited amount of legal and financial records, and some miscellaneous personal and family papers. The collection also includes the papers of his sister, Betty Cornell Benton, relating to the handling of Cornell’s estate and the personal papers of his brother, Robert Cornell.”



Cornell is the most solid example I could come up with as being a synthesis of all of the modes of collecting (in both the vernacular and institutional sense) that we have discussed. He gathers objects, re-contextualizes them, assembles them to make “new” objects, and archives his process. Though I think that his work straddles the philosophical questions that we are attempting to deal with, the work is presented as Art and this perhaps narrows the scope of discussion that surrounds the products of his practice. I’m not entirely convinced that his boxes are the work, and everything else is ephemera that documents the process of his making, but that is often how they are presented. It is my opinion that the distinction of his boxes being the work has been imposed by the institutions that exhibit his objects. I think it could be argued that his archives are actually his work. 

To see the Peabody Essex Museum’s online interactive companion produced in conjunction with Cornell’s retrospective “Navigating the Imagination” click here


One response to “Joseph Cornell: artist/collector/archivist :erica moore

  1. Consider the title “Navigating the Imagination” in the same light as Richter’s “Atlas”. Navigating the artist-made world is a psycho-geography worth undertaking, and you’ve done it right in my humble opinion. Your elucidation of Cornell’s practices “as being a synthesis of all the modes of collecting” is spot on.

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