Cornell never left the United States and hardly ventured beyond New York City, yet through collecting he travelled freely to foreign places and distant times. A life-long autodidact, his remarkable archive eventually numbered tens of thousands of found objects, pieces of paper ephemera and diary entries, thousands of books and magazines and hundreds of music records and films.
In 1941 Cornell organised the cellar of his Utopia Parkway home in Queen, New York, as a studio, with a small window looking out onto ground-level, a workbench, table and shelves that eventually accrued a range of whitewashed containers – shoeboxes, biscuit tins – labelled with scrawled handwriting, usually in midnight-blue paint.
Cornell sometimes referred to his studio as a “laboratory” and the notion of experiment underpins his working methods, which have an empirical, trial-and-error quality. However, despite his reverence for science, Cornell also believed that reason had its limits and his modus operandi when making was an intuitive one. His classification system marries the practical with the imaginative; distinctions of similarity and difference are drawn, but the tiered structures of scientific taxonomy are absent. Indeed, works of this period confirm Cornell’s self-conscious play with the rational language of museums.