Back to top

Focus On: Joseph Cornell’s Shadow Boxes

Miami— May 3, 2021— This month, we are delighted to Focus On Joseph Cornell (American, 1903-1972). Widely considered one of the seminal American artists of the 20th century, Cornell pioneered assemblage art through his boxed constructions and collages made from found materials. Generally referred to as “shadow boxes,” the resulting pieces are dream-like miniature tableaux that inspire the viewer to see each component in a new light.

Cornell’s work has been described as romantic, poetic, lyrical, and surrealistic. Self-taught, but amazingly sophisticated, in his distinctive small wooden boxes encased in glass, Cornell juxtaposed familiar but unrelated objects, pasted papers, and reproductions. Marbles, butterflies, scraps of wallpaper, birds, toys, seashells, and other bric-a-brac found or obtained in souvenir shops, penny arcades, and trash heaps were artfully arranged, then collaged and painted to portray his visions of tangible and imaginary worlds.

Cornell often used the shadow boxes—or memory boxes or poetic theaters as he called them—to address recurrent subjects of interest such as childhood, space, and birds. They represented an escape of sorts for their creator, who never traveled out of New York and was famously reclusive.

In 1936, he participated in “Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism” at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York. For that exhibition, he created Untitled (Soap Bubble Set), his first shadow box. He continued to create shadow boxes, often in series. Among these were the Soap Bubble Set series; the Pharmacy series that looked like miniature apothecaries or cabinets of curiosities; the Medici series, that featured reproductions of Italian Renaissance portraits; and the Aviary series, boxes that focused on birds and showed a stylistic shift toward abstraction. In 1965, his brother died, and the following year his mother died too, sending Cornell into a deep depression. His production of boxes fell off dramatically in that decade, and he worked increasingly in college as he neared the end of his career.

Cornell was an imaginative and private man who, mingling fantasy and reality, produced works that are outstanding not only for their originality and craftsmanship but for their complexity and diversity. He enjoyed a career spanning five decades, exhibiting in major New York City galleries alongside some of the most prolific avant-garde artists of the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. During his life—and well beyond it—artists, scholars, and countless Cornell acolytes have lauded the power of his vision. Today, the artist’s works are held in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Tate Gallery in London, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., The Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, among others.
To learn more about available works by Joseph Cornell, please contact us.

Photo: Portrait of Joseph Cornell by David Gahr, 1967.