Joseph Cornell


1903, Nyack, New York
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.

Audio Stories

Enter Cornell’s magical worlds with scenic designer Erik Flatmo

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All these little worlds, theyre inviting you in. The one with the Pink Palace… 


SFX: Audio animation/soundscape for pink place – as if we are listening through time and have entered his imagination. 



The blue one with the owl… 


SFX: Audio animation/soundscape. Mysterious nighttime sounds, crickets, wind, owl  



People say Joseph Cornell was very childlike. He loved ice cream. And candy. He obsessively created these collages and tiny worlds, nonstop, for most of his life. He also loved the ballet. So we thought wed bring in a professional 



Hi, my name is Erik Flatmo. I design scenery for operas, plays, and dance projects. 


SFX: Erik keeps talking under narration – about proscenium arches and framing devices 



According to Eric, Cornell uses a device that he sees in theater all the time. Its kind of a frame within a frame that draws you deeper into the world inside. Its called a portal. You can see a good example in the box with the Pink Palace.  



The blue and the sparkles makes it very magical.  


SFX: Whimsical interlude from the Pink Palace soundscape 



Cornells workshop was crammed with hundreds of odd little things he collected. See if you can find some of them. Cordial glasses, marbles, watch faces, old photographs… 


Every object in this world has you know coded social and cultural and historical value and you can’t disassociate that.  


NARRATOR (continuing the list):  

…pages from books, birds, ballerinas, mirrors, rusty keys… 



You sort of want to have this arsenal of fun little objects to you that will unexpectedly be in service of that one thing that you’re trying to represent.  


NARRATOR (continuing the list): 

…wooden balls, tree bark, lightbulbs, postage stamps, paper fans, newspaper clippings… 


SFX: Musical interlude – fades 

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