Joseph Cornell

American (Nyack, New York, 1903 - 1972, Flushing, New York)

Joseph Cornell is best known for his box constructions. Made at a time when American art privileged large-scale abstraction, these collage-like objects are small, representational, and intensely personal.

Cornell was a self-taught artist with almost no formal training. He lived somewhat reclusively in Queens, New York, working a variety of day jobs and making his boxes at night in a basement studio. He roamed the beaches of Long Island and the thrift stores of Manhattan in search of cast-off materials, which he painstakingly assembled in glass-fronted wooden boxes. The resulting works have a strong sense of nostalgia. They often draw on fairy tales and mythology, though they also make reference to astronomy and the natural sciences, ballet, opera, and Hollywood films.


From June 3, 2013, through early 2016, SFMOMA's building on Third Street in San Francisco will be temporarily closed for expansion construction. Selected artworks in our collection are included in a range of off-site exhibitions during this period. We regret that the remainder of the collection will not be available for study during this time.

In the meantime, we invite you to explore a wide selection of our collection online. Please note that the information presented online is subject to revision. Please contact us at collections@sfmoma.org to verify artwork details.

This resource is for educational use and its contents may not be reproduced without permission. Please review our Terms of Use for more information.