From Dalí to Warhol: Joseph Cornell’s artist friends

Published 30 July 2015

Often misunderstood as an outsider, Cornell’s contacts read like a Who’s Who of the New York art scene. The curator of our exhibition introduces the gang.

  • Joseph Cornell did not draw, paint or sculpt, and declined opportunities to train in traditional artistic methods. Self-taught and reserved, he is often portrayed as an isolated outsider. In reality, through personal friendships and public exhibitions, Cornell was connected with Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, Pop and Minimalism. Over his successful 40-year career he astutely maintained his independence from any particular group, selling his works selectively, and championing a highly personal form of artistic expression. Here are just a few of the artists he counted among his friends and contacts.

    • Lee Miller, Joseph Cornell, New York

      Lee Miller, Joseph Cornell, New York, 1933.

      Vintage photograph. Joseph Cornell, New York Studio, New York, USA 1933’ by Lee Miller (96-2) © Lee Miller Archives, England 2015. All rights reserved.

      Lee Miller

      Lee Miller was an ex-Vogue model who had lived in Paris as the apprentice, muse and lover of the artist Man Ray, before returning to New York to establish herself as a photographer. Cornell befriended her through the Julien Levy Gallery, where they both exhibited in the early 1930s. In 1933 Miller made a series of striking photographic portraits of Cornell using props from his extensive collection of found objects – which offer a glimpse into Cornell’s often overlooked capacity for artistic collaboration.

      In 1937, Miller fell in love with the British Surrealist artist Roland Penrose and moved to London. She photographed the Blitz and later became the war correspondent for Vogue – the first female photojournalist to cover the war from the front lines.

    • Andre Breton

      Andre Breton

      Found in the collection of Centre national d'art et de culture Georges Pompidou, Paris. Heritage Images

      Andre Breton

      The author of the first Surrealist manifesto of 1924 and official leader of the movement, André Breton was more of an acquaintance than a friend to Cornell. During the early 1930s Cornell was strongly influenced by Surrealism and, perhaps in a bid to be noticed, sent one of Lee Miller’s photographs of his work, a bell jar object, to Breton, and inscribed it A Andre Breton En Hommage Joseph Cornell, 9 November 1933. It worked: in 1938 Breton included one of Cornell’s collages in the Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme in Paris.

      In 1942 Breton saw some of Cornell’s films during a visit to New York and he remained intrigued by Cornell’s very particular use of found materials in his box constructions. He commented in 1968 that Cornell “had evolved an experiment that completely reverses the conventional usage to which objects are put.”

    • Salvador Dalí, Myself at the Age of Ten When I was the Grasshopper Child

      Salvador Dalí, Myself at the Age of Ten When I was the Grasshopper Child, 1933.

      © Salvador Dalí. Fundació Gala-Salvador Dali, [Artist Rights Society (ARS)], 2015. Collection of The Dalí Museum, Inc., St. Petersburg, FL, 2015.

      Salvador Dalí

      Cornell admired Dalí; he owned the painting Myself at the Age of Ten When I was the Grasshopper Child (above) and knew of Un Chien Andalou (1929), the famous Surrealist film featuring an eye being slit open, by Dalí and the Spanish director Luis Buñuel.

      In 1936, Cornell was included the major exhibition Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, alongside the likes of Leonardo da Vinci and Picasso. The European avant-garde was in town for the opening, and a few days later Cornell premiered his film Rose Hobart – in which extracts of the Hollywood movie East of Borneo were interspersed with other film fragments. Upon seeing it Salvador Dalí reportedly flew into an envious rage, overturning the projector and claiming Cornell had stolen his ideas from his subconscious. Cornell was deeply affected by the incident and remained wary of showing his films. Some are only now coming to light, such as The Wool Collage, discovered in 2014 by curators at MoMA.

  • I do want to tell you that I think of you and the uncanny magic of the things you make.

    Mark Rothko to Cornell, 1959

    • Andy Warhol, Marilyn Diptych

      Andy Warhol, Marilyn Diptych, 1962.

      ©The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc/ARS, NY and DACS, London 2009.

      Andy Warhol

      Warhol and Cornell had a number of things in common: both were religious, lived with their mothers, collected compulsively and were passionate fans of the movies. Some of Cornell’s works from the 1950s, such as Untitled (Compartmented Box), seem to anticipate Warhol’s multiple silk-screen prints of celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe – whom Cornell also kept a dossier on and dedicated box constructions to following her death in 1962.

      Cornell confided his interest in meeting Warhol to a mutual friend, the writer and editor Charles Henri Ford – who in 1963, escorted Warhol and two other young Pop Artists, James Rosenquist and Robert Indiana, to Cornell’s home on Utopia Parkway in Queens. Cornell gave them a tour of his basement studio and the garage where he stored his box-constructions, before they all sat down for tea on the porch with his mother. Warhol returned at least once and bought one of Cornell’s late collages.

    • Marcel Duchamp's La Boîte-en-valise (Box in a Suitcase)

      Marcel Duchamp's La Boîte-en-valise (Box in a Suitcase)

      Pictured at Tapies. An Artist's Collection at the Antoni Tapies Foundation in Barcelona in June 2015. Photo credit: JOSEP LAGO/AFP/Getty Images

      Marcel Duchamp

      Cornell and Duchamp – by this time notorious for his ready-mades such as Fountain, an upturned urinal – met in 1933 at the opening of a Brancusi exhibition in New York. As the story goes, they talked at length about their favourite haunts in Paris, and at the end of the conversation Duchamp was stunned to learn that Cornell had in fact never been; he had constructed the city in his mind from prints, photographs and accounts he had read in guide books.

      After Duchamp moved to New York the two artists met regularly. In the early ‘40s Duchamp – who owned Cornell’s Pharmacy as well as a work from the Sand Fountain series – enlisted his help in making editions of his Boîte-en-Valise (above), a miniature museum of his oeuvre. In 1951, Duchamp wrote that: “Personally, I consider him [Cornell] one among the best American artists of today.”

    • Portrait of Robert Motherwell, 1962

      Portrait of Robert Motherwell, 1962

      The artist poses in his loft on East 86 Street surrounded by his paintings, 18 Feb 1962. © Fred W. McDarrah / Getty Images

      Robert Motherwell

      An American artist who was friendly with the Surrealist group, Motherwell was about to become a major figure in the Abstract Expressionist movement when he Cornell met in 1942. The pair had a shared passion for French poetry – but hit a bump in their friendship when Motherwell involved Cornell in the informal art school, Subjects of the Artist. In 1949 Cornell screened some films and music from his collection for the group, and Motherwell asked Cornell to say a few impromptu words to the audience. Unprepared and not willing to speak publicly, Cornell declined and resented Motherwell for creating the impression that he was shy and uncooperative. An unsent draft in Cornell’s notes reads: “When I have made by a conservative estimate 15-20 trips to your various addresses without getting a single reciprocation in my direction should I be thought of as the ‘shy’ one?”

      Even as their friendship cooled, Motherwell continued to praise Cornell, and later said in an interview: “My admiration for him was in seeing him as an individual, and for his total commitment and total realisation of his work.”

  • Your letter give me such an immense pleasure that you could not imagine, you could not even make one of your boxes about how good it feels to be your friend.

    Roberto Matta writes to Cornell

    • Letter from Dorothea Tanning to Joseph Cornell, undated

      Letter from Dorothea Tanning to Joseph Cornell, undated

      1945-1965. Joseph Cornell papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

      Dorothea Tanning

      Tanning had painted ever since she was a child and Cornell was drawn to her dream-like, figurative paintings. Tanning’s memoir Between Lives recalls her impressions of Cornell, whom she met at the Levy Gallery in the early ‘40s: “Sometimes at Julien’s, there was Joseph Cornell. Gaunt, pearl-pale, and surprised, he usually sat just a little apart, as I did. And, actually leaning to me, he spoke chaste, cobwebby things about my drawings.”

      The two artists formed a trusted, affectionate friendship based on their kindred feeling for romanticism and their interest in the theme of childhood. The pair corresponded for many years after Tanning and her husband Max Ernst (see next entry) moved to Arizona, Tanning once writing to Cornell: “our letters are far more the real barometer of our feelings than when we speak.”

    • Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning at home in the south of France, c.1955

      Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning at home in the south of France, c.1955

      The Surrealist painter, sculptor and writer Dorothea Tanning and her husband, the German painter, sculptor, graphic artist, and poet Max Ernst, relax on their courtyard at home c.1955 © Michael Ochs Archives

      Max Ernst

      Cornell was familiar with the works of the German Dada artist Max Ernst long before they met. Ernst’s 1929 collage-novel, La Femme 100 Têtes, was constructed from the types of 19th-century engravings that Cornell enjoyed collecting from second-hand book shops. Cornell was also inspired by Ernst’s other collage works that he saw first-hand in exhibitions at the Levy Gallery.

      Ernst moved to New York in 1941 and married Dorothea Tanning in 1946. They visited Cornell at Utopia Parkway, accompanied by two other couples. Cornell gladly invited the women to see the garage where he stored his artworks, but refused the men, instead providing them with books by one of his favourite writers, the French romantic poet Gérard de Nerval (1808-1855), to keep them occupied while they waited.

    • Letter from Roberto Matta to Joseph Cornell, undated

      Letter from Roberto Matta to Joseph Cornell, undated

      Joseph Cornell papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

      Roberto Matta

      The Chilean architect turned Abstract Expressionist painter Roberto Matta met Cornell through the Levy Gallery in 1942, and visited him for an overnight stay at Utopia Parkway sometime that year. A few years later Matta moved to Italy, but he kept up a correspondence with Cornell into the late 60s in which their genuine affection is evident. One letter from Matta that Cornell saved begins, in his imperfect English: “Caro, caro Jojo, your letter give me such an immense pleasure that you could not imagine, you could not even make one of your boxes about how good it feels to be your friend. How are you, your mother, Robert, please give them my love. My life in Italy is very quite [quiet]. I work very much and I have discovered that like an apple tree is there to give apples a man is alive to give himself a SOUL, but a very real soul, that is to awake in oneself the highest sense of life, such a sense of life that death could not destroy.”

  • Our letters are far more the real barometer of our feelings than when we speak.

    Dorothea Tanning writes to Cornell

    • Yayoi Kusama with Joseph Cornell in New York, 1970

      Yayoi Kusama with Joseph Cornell in New York, 1970

      Courtesy Yayoi Kusama Studio, Inc

      Yayoi Kusama

      Kusama was introduced to Cornell by an art dealer in early 1964. This unlikely pair quickly developed an intimate bond. Kusama was in her thirties, struggling with very little income and Cornell, who felt great compassion for the vulnerable, gave her a number of his works to sell.

      He declined many offers to learn traditional artistic methods, but in his later years Cornell’s fascination with the female figure (of which he had little experience, having never been sexually active) led to an interest in life drawing. Kusama posed for him at Utopia Parkway – but her presence was not welcomed by Cornell’s mother. When Kusama left New York they kept in touch by phone and correspondence, Cornell showering her with gifts of collages. Kusama has since described their relationship as passionate yet platonic.

    • Willem de Kooning, Untitled

      Willem de Kooning, Untitled, 1958.

      Oil on paper, mounted on Masonite, mounted on wood. 23 x 29 1/8 inches (58.5 x 74 cm). The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice, 1976. 2015 The Willem de Kooning Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

      Willem de Kooning

      Cornell’s relatively brief contact with Willem de Kooning was nonetheless significant. De Kooning’s first solo show at the Egan Gallery in 1948 established his reputation as a leading painter in the New York art scene. In 1949 Cornell joined the Egan Gallery and it was during his debut exhibition there, entitled Aviary, that he first met de Kooning.

      Cornell noted: “…thoughts about working on the bird boxes with their ‘architecture’ (of which de Kooning made a point yesterday at the gallery) – a real burst of inspiration.” In another diary entry from 1951, Cornell mentioned running into de Kooning in town: “talked about 2 hrs […] Einstein, time, space etc. – nightmare – Holland.” De Kooning’s native country interested Cornell, as both his parents were of Dutch descent. In 1952, Cornell paid De Kooning a visit at his studio, accompanied by the art critic Harold Rosenberg, who coined the term “action painting.”

    • Mark Rothko , Red on Maroon

      Mark Rothko, Red on Maroon, 1959.

      Mixed media on canvas. 266.5 x 239 cm. Tate © Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko/DACS 2014.

      Mark Rothko

      Rothko and Cornell were born in the same year, but Cornell had a pliable notion of history. Once asked who his favourite abstract artist of his time was, he initially responded “What do you mean ‘my time’?” After an explanation, he replied “Rothko’s paintings are very beautiful.”

      Around 1949, the two met by chance on West 57th street at an Automat (a cafeteria with food and drink dispensed by coin-operated machines). Cornell later visited Rothko’s studio, and once made a gift of a book to Rothko’s daughter, about the 15th century artist-monk Fra Angelico, whom Rothko greatly admired. Rothko wrote to Cornell in 1959: “I wish I could approach your genius for expressing to people how you think about them and about what they do. […] I do want to tell you that I think of you and the uncanny magic of the things you make.”

  • Joseph Cornell: Wanderlust is in The Sackler Wing at the RA from 4 July — 27 September 2015.

    Sarah Lea is the curator of Joseph Cornell: Wanderlust.

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