Joseph Cornell: Worlds in a Box

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Joseph Cornell, Palace, 1943© The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation/VAGA, NY/DACS, London 2015

A new show celebrates an artist who never moved beyond the bounds of the city, yet who created unfathomably beautiful miniature universes of unbounded imagination

Who? "Armchair voyager" was the term that American artist and sculptor Joseph Cornell used to describe himself. It's an apposite one, as peering into the small assemblage, glass fronted shadow-boxes he has become famous for take viewers on a journey of discovery from Renaissance Italy to the celestial planes. Born in Nyack, New York in 1903, Cornell was almost an entirely self-taught artist and despite being fascinated with "the other" – other worlds, other cultures, other times and other people – Cornell himself never left America. Indeed, apart from a short period studying at an academy in Andover he never even travelled beyond the New York city area, spending most of his life in the working-class area of Flushing in a small, wooden house on Utopia Parkway with his mother and brother.

Cornell could be considered a latecomer to art; he began his practice in 1931 at the age of 28 after he saw the emerging media of collage during visits to art galleries. He began making his shadow-boxes from found-objects and trinkets that he acquired from trips to dime stores and second-hand shops; initially constructing the assemblages within pre-made boxes, but after a neighbor gave him some instruction in carpentry, he started to fabricate the boxes himself. The shadow-boxes are small, obsessive and intimate, offering a particularly personal insight into the artist’s interests, expressions and emotions.

What? The subjects of his shadow-boxes were wide ranging. They include astronomy, celestial navigation, Medici royalty, birds – particularly parrots, cockatoos and owls – and ballerinas, such as nineteenth-century prima donna Fanny Cerritoa. The New York Times called Cornell “a poet of light; an architect of memory-fractured rooms and a connoisseur of stars, celestial and otherwise.” His three dimensional collages grew from his love of collecting ephemera and are comprised of marbles, toy balls, luggage labels, mesh netting and postcards. Anticipating the work of YBA Damien Hirst, in 1943 Cornell created Pharmacy, a box consisting of four rows of five glass jars mimicking a miniature apothecary in which tonics for the soul and the imagination made from shells, feathers and butterfly wings are housed within minute jars. Inspired by Mondrian, from the 1950s the style of Cornell’s boxes shifted taking on a more abstract and geometric aesthetic.

Why? Friends with Marcel Duchamp, with whom he regularly corresponded during their lifetime, Cornell is frequently associated with Surrealism. But this broad brush fails to recognise his contribution to and participation in a number of different art movements including the history of American Realism and Pop Art from Andy Warhol to Jeff Koons and Robert Ruaschenberg. A new exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts features 80 works by Cornell including the assemblage boxes, as well as collages and films, some of which have never before been seen outside of the USA. This is the first major exhibition in the UK to be devoted to Cornell in over 35 years and offers a rare chance to see first-hand the immaculate detail of Cornell’s impressive tour de force.

Joseph Cornell: Wanderlust is at the Royal Academy of Arts from 4 July — 27 September 2015.