Thursday, January 1, 2009

Joseph Cornell at SF MOMA


Joseph Cornell 

photo from

 (this exhibition took place in 2008)

\ˈsü-və-ˌnir, ˌsü-və-ˈ\
French, literally, act of remembering,
something that serves as a reminder

Step into the past, back to your grandparents’ golden years. Travel back in time. Go to see “Joseph Cornell: Navigating the Imagination” at SF MOMA.

Joseph Cornell (American, 1903 – 1972) loved to collect trinkets, souvenirs and other cherished ephemera like theatre programs and ticket stubs, small toys, magazine photos, corks and marbles. He loved to find special little objects, especially during his wanderings around Manhattan. He built shadow boxes and small curio cabinets to house these collections of small items. Other bits found their way into collages, along with layers of romantic images from magazines and the pages of books.

The scenes and assemblages created by Cornell bring to mind the collections of small children. One box houses marbles and jacks; another, clay pipes for blowing soap bubbles. Some of his creations are toys, puzzles and games meant for entertaining children, and are influenced by the Victorian penny arcades that Cornell had visited as a child.

The shadow boxes become miniature worlds, which the viewer imagines entering and inhabiting. Some are set up like theatre stages (Cornell loved theatre and ballet productions). Some, especially those featuring cutout images of birds, seem more like dioramas at the natural history museum. Others are little treasure chests.

Motion and time are part of Cornell’s work, and films are among his creations as well. Some of his boxes are filled with colored sands that shift and spill when the box is turned and moved. It’s all meant to be interactive, the viewer using not only sight, but all senses and states of awareness. Surprise, discovery and delight are meant to be part of the experience.

Joseph Cornell


photo from

The assemblages seem deceptively innocent and playful, but Cornell was also fascinated with science, astronomy and the order of the universe. His simple compositions often illustrate mathematical or physics principles. He has created microcosms of our world, in which marbles represent planets in motion, and bracelets represent the orbits of heavenly bodies. 

He described his own sublime inspiration: 
The expansiveness of the heavens, the song of nature, the breezes, the fragrances of the grasses—like a great breathing—deep, harmonious, elemental, cosmic.

Cornell’s friendship with Marcel Duchamp influenced his work as well, and Cornell was part of the Surrealist movement. Though Cornell’s work also offers surreal juxtapositions and touches of humor and whimsy, it lacks the mood of postwar nihilism prevalent among the European Surrealist movement. In contrast, Cornell’s work is as full of charm and sweetness as the faded, cherished keepsakes stored in a grandmother’s trunk. 

For Cornell, things—even miniscule and seemingly meaningless detritus like corks, bits of newspaper and toy jacks—possess a spirit making them worthy of safekeeping and contemplation. Captured in these tiny shrines, he honors the ephemera of every day life and pays tribute to the past and its well-worn, well-loved souvenirs.