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Joseph Cornell

Nyack, New York 1903

New York, New York 1972


A premier assemblagist who elevated the box to a major art form, Joseph Cornell also was an accomplished collagist and filmmaker, and one of America's most innovative artists. When his sister and brother-in-law, Mr. and Mrs. John A. Benton, donated a collection of his works and related documentary material in 1978, the NMAA [now the Smithsonian American Art Museum] established the Joseph Cornell Study Center.

Cornell was graduated in 1921 from Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts; from 1929 until his death, he lived in Flushing, New York. His art has been described as romantic, poetic, lyrical and surrealistic. Self-taught but amazingly sophisticated, he created his first collages, box constructions and experimental films in the 1930s. By 1940, his boxes contained found materials artfully arranged, then collaged and painted to suggest poetic associations inspired by the arts, humanities and sciences.

He believed aesthetic theories were foreign to the origin of his art but said his works were based on everyday experiences, "the beauty of the commonplace." An insatiable collector, he acquired thousands of examples of printed and three-dimensional ephemera—searching the libraries, museums, theaters, book shops and antique fairs in New York and relying on his contacts across the United States and in Europe. With these objects, he created magical relationships by seamlessly combining disparate images.

Cornell was an imaginative and private man who, mingling fantasy and reality, produced works outstanding not only for their originality and craftsmanship but for their complexity and diversity.

"Recent Acquisition." National Museum of American Art Calendar of Events (Washington, D.C.: National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, August 1986)