Joseph Cornell

Joseph Cornell, Sculptor, Dies; Noted for His Work With Boxes (New York Times, Sunday, December 31, 1972)

Joseph Cornell, the shy reclusive sculptor who won fame for his poetic constructions in small boxes and for his collaged, died Friday of a heart attack at his home in Flushing, Queens. He was 69 years old.

In his boxes, Mr. Cornell juxtaposed ingeniously objects and images that, according to Hilton Kramer, of the New York Times, “harbored a complete hermetic poetry.” He included in his constructions prints of birds, enravings from the Old Masters and images of heavenly bodies.

Yet he did not remain a special taste, but became a modern classic, Mr. Kramer said. His work is credited with influencing artists who work in assemblage, pop art and primary structure. He exhibited widely and received many awards for his constructions and collages.

This year he opened an exhibition of this work at Cooper Union with children under 14 as the guests of the premiere. His work was also on view at the fifth Documenta exhibition in Kassel, West Germany.

In 1970 his work was exhibited in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and in 1967 at the Pasadena Art Museum and Guggenheim Museum here. He had also had many one-man shows in galleries here and had exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum, the Carnegie Institute and in Paris.

In 1968 he received the Creative Arts Award Megal of Brandeis University and the Award of Merit of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, each accompanied by a $1,000 stipend, and he was a medalist in sculpture in India’s first Triennale of Contemporary World Art at New Delhi.

A tall, gaunt man, with steely gray hair, aquiline nose and pale blue eyes, the artist, who received $5,000 for an average box and $15,000 for an outstanding one, liked to wear an old sweater and slacks and moccasins.

In the white-shingled blue-trimmed house he had lived in since 1929 he kept dossiers filled with newspaper clippings, photographs and memorabilia interested him, including astronomy, tropic plumage and Renaissance painters.

Mr. Cornell was born on Christmas Eve, 1903, in Nyack, N.Y., a descendant of old Dutch families. He attended Andover. As a young man he sold woolens until the Depression wiped out his job.

Although he never studied art formally, he became interested in surrealism when he saw samples of it at the Julien Levy Gallery in 1931. He returned to the gallery in a few weeks and left a small package on Mr. Levy’s desk, saying nothing. It contained a half-dozen collages in which Mr. Cornell had cut and rearranged old engravings to create magical scenes. When Mr. Levy staged a major surrealist show a few months later, he included several of Mr. Cornell’s works.

In 1932 Mr. Cornell exhibited his first boxes. He got the idea for them when he passed an antique shop one day and saw a pile of compasses in the window. “I thought,” he recalled, “everything can be used in a lifetime and I went on walking.

“I’d scarcely gone two blocks when I came on another shop window full of boxes of different kinds. Halfway home on the train that night, I thought again of the compasses and boxes, and it occurred to me to put the two together.”

Until the late 1940′s Mr. Cornell frequented New York art circles. In the 1950′s he acquired a reputation as a recluse, but he was always at home to selected visitors.

Surviving are two sisters, Mrs. Elizabeth Benton and Mrs. Helen Jagger.