Joseph Cornell (American-born, 1903-1972) is widely considered one of the seminal American artists of the 20th century. Cornell pioneered the assemblage medium through his boxed constructions and collages. He is best known for his “shadow boxes” made from found materials such as marbles, toys, seashells, and other paraphernalia obtained in souvenir shops, penny arcades, and trash heaps. His inventive tableaux are characterized by their dream-like imagery and focus on childhood memories. According to the artist: “Shadow boxes become poetic theater or settings wherein are metamorphosed the elements of a childhood pastime.” Today, Cornell’s work continues to inspire curiosity.
Cornell was a reclusive artist who was romantic, obsessive and shy. He never moved out of his mother’s house, yet his strange, exquisite art brought him fame and friendships with the art stars of his time, including Duchamp, Dalí and Warhol. Cornell did not receive a formal art education and is often depicted as an outsider as a result, though he was at the center of the artistic movements of the mid-twentieth century. His early collages appeared in the groundbreaking Surréalisme show at the Julien Levy Gallery in Manhattan in 1932, alongside Dalí and Duchamp, and his first shadow box, Untitled (Soap Bubble Set), was in Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism, a major exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1936. His contemporaries were quick to see the value of his work, and this persisted through the successive waves of surrealism, abstract expressionism, and pop art. His relevance and cultural impact continue in present times, with the Spring 2019 exhibition in Tokyo, Japan at Kawamura Memorial DIC Museum of Art and the 2018 Met exhibition Birds of a Feather: Joseph Cornell’s Homage to Juan Gris.
Cornell crafted the majority of his box-based assemblages between 1940 and 1955. These intimate, intricate dioramas were windows into his imagination. His early works used readymade cases, but he soon began to make the frames himself. He perfected his technique of aging the boxes with multiple layers of paint and varnish, leaving them to dry outdoors, or baking them in the oven. The practical procedure of constructing the containers was followed by his poetic assemblage process. He spent time collecting found objects and would combine a selection of items and images to convey subtle, transient feelings.
His work, Untitled, was executed between the years 1932-1940 and was small - only 1,5x 1,5 inches. The work is a petite hand-made circular box that is composed of cardboard. The box is covered in an orange, green, black and white marbled paper and is filled with melted metal fragments. The work is diminutive in size with a delicate composition that transforms the object into something precious. The discarded metal fragments are elevated by their presentation in this delicate box and they undergo a metamorphosis from found objects to valuable artifacts. The work’s scale being that of a jewelry box further reinforces this transformation of (synonym for discarded/trash) into a jewel-like piece, not only in appearance but in value as well. Cornell was a master of finding the sublime in everyday objects: his work elevated found objects to works of art capable of telling stories about fleeting emotional states. Each box and diorama he created offer a window into another world and Untitled is no exception.