Assemblage as Poetry

By Camille Brown
August 3, 2020

Installation of Joseph Cornell retrospective, 1967

Installation of the Joseph Cornell retrospective, 1967. Pasadena Art Museum.

Joseph Cornell’s first major retrospective was held from January 9 to February 11, 1967, at the Pasadena Art Museum (PAM). The critically acclaimed exhibition presented 74 of Cornell’s signature shadow-box collages—small, glass-fronted enclosures that house meticulously arranged found materials. It was the last show that the famed curator and museum director Walter Hopps organized at PAM (then located on North Los Robles Avenue), and it was seen as a fitting send-off for the man responsible for many of PAM’s groundbreaking exhibitions. The rapturous reception to this exhibition bolstered Cornell’s stature as one of the foremost innovators of American assemblage.

Cornell’s retrospective was praised for the artist’s lyrical and precisely constructed shadow boxes and for Hopps’s measured installation of the assemblages. Assemblage art, as the name suggests, is produced by collecting and assembling found objects or nontraditional materials into multidimensional compositions. While Cornell’s contemporaries and PAM favorites Bruce Conner, Edward Kienholz and George Herms created seemingly random and at times unsettling sculptures, Cornell’s shadow boxes are imbued with a delicacy that critics likened to poetry. Referring to Cornell as a “choreographer of objects” in a review of the PAM exhibition, the Los Angeles Times art critic rhapsodized that “an amazing combination of sensuosity and detachment informs Cornell’s art as he attempts to create visual symbols for the most ethereal aspects of nature.” Hopps responded to these aspects of Cornell’s works by placing them in darkly lined wall recesses, an unexpected approach that, as the New York Times reviewer observed, bestowed each work with “an exquisitely isolated and individual dignity,” reinforced by Hopps’s inclusion of an individual spotlight for each assemblage.   

Joseph Cornell (American, 1903–1972), Hotel du Nord (Little Dürer), c. 1950

Joseph Cornell (American, 1903–1972), Hotel du Nord (Little Dürer), c. 1950, assemblage, Norton Simon Museum, Museum Purchase with funds contributed by the Charles and Ellamae Storrier-Stearns Fund and Fellows Acquisition Fund, Art © The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Although Cornell made art in a variety of mediums, including film, the majority of his work took the form of shadow-box collages, each of which provides a glimpse into the artist’s private interiority and wholly unique iconography. Throughout Cornell’s oeuvre, themes such as astronomy, art history, hotels, animals, and fantasy regularly appear. The Norton Simon Museum’s Hotel du Nord (Little Dürer), lent by Cornell himself to the 1967 retrospective, combines many of the artist’s favored subjects. Two reproductions of works by the German Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer, most prominently his Self-Portrait at Age Thirteen, are pasted to the box’s interior and surrounded by seemingly unrelated objects, including a metal ring with a chain and two stamp-sized portraits of a boar and a griffin adhered to cylindrical blocks. Cornell’s anchoring of the object with Dürer’s portrait—which appears in a number of his boxes—can be tied to his fascination with both art history and astronomy. An astonishingly accomplished painter, draftsman and printmaker, Dürer collaborated to produce the first star map printed in Europe, a fact that may have appealed to Cornell, who regularly placed celestial maps into his assemblages. The object’s title, which he repeated in multiple works, references a hotel of the same name in Copenhagen where the 19th-century fairytale author Hans Christian Andersen regularly lodged. Cornell brought these disparate objects together to form a composition that remains evocative yet ambiguous, mixing his affinity for both the natural and mythical worlds.

Betye Saar (American, b. 1926), Vision of El Cremo, 1967

Betye Saar (American, b. 1926), Vision of El Cremo, 1967, assemblage, Palmer Museum of Art of The Pennsylvania State University, © Betye Saar

Cornell was an unlikely artist, self-taught and notoriously reclusive, but through his assemblages he moved across time and place, generating microcosms of his own making. His work has influenced countless artists, but perhaps none as consequentially as Betye Saar, recently honored with her own widely praised retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. In response to the 1967 PAM exhibition, Saar adopted shadow boxes for her own practice, populating them with her prints, family mementos and found materials such as jewelry, clocks and toys. Saar’s socially conscious assemblages expose and challenge racist stereotypes and regularly reference ideas of spirituality and mysticism also found throughout Cornell’s works. Robert Rauschenberg, too, was inspired by Cornell’s assemblage technique, noting that “the only difference between me [Rauschenberg] and Cornell is that he put his work behind glass, and mine is out in the world.” For Walter Hopps, Cornell “not only worked with things; he transformed them.” Approaching his shadow boxes as miniature stages, Cornell orchestrated quiet and curious stories that continue to influence and inspire artists today.

Camille Brown was the Norton Simon Museum Academic Intern for 2019-2020.