Joseph Cornell (born Nyack, New York on 24 December 1903 – died Queens, New York on 29 December 1972) was an American sculptor, collagist, & film-maker, who is generally credited with being the first artist to elevate shadow-box assemblage to the status of high art, becoming one of its greatest practitioners. Cornell’s work also exerted a pervasive if subtle influence on the graphic and decorative arts that continues to this day.
Cornell did not study art-making formally, but in common with many boys raised in late Victorian times, he received elementary training in simple manual arts according to the Kindergarten principles of the German educator Friedrich Froebel (Cornell’s mother was trained as a kindergarten teacher). Cornell also learned to make simple toys and decorations from how-to manuals like The Boy’s Own Book, a 19th-century encyclopedia of pastimes, games, and crafts, which among other things taught how to make simple shadow boxes from scrap wood and plate glass.
After spending the 1920s working in New York City as a wool fabric salesman and educating himself at night, Cornell discovered the collages of Max Ernst and the other Surrealists, and began producing his own collages of 19th-century wood engravings. He credited the inspiration to create boxed constructions to a chance encounter one day with a shop window displaying a collection of navigational compasses:
“I thought, everything can be used in a lifetime, can’t it, and went on walking, …I’d scarcely gone two blocks when I came to another shop window full of boxes, all kinds. … Halfway home on the train that night, I thought of the compasses and boxes, and it occurred to me to put the two together.”
Perhaps it’s closer to the mark to say that Cornell’s happy discovery of the boxes and compasses rekindled his boyhood urge to tinker, and harnessed it to create his mature artwork. His subsequent relationships with the European Surrealist expatriates in New York not only inspired him but also gave him a context in which to exhibit his collages and assemblages.
For further information and links about Joseph Cornell, see the Wikipedia article on him: