The artist Joseph Cornell spent almost every day of his life in New York City, but he’s becoming an honorary Virginian. The foundation he left behind has given millions to causes in the Commonwealth, and this spring his work will be shown and discussed in Charlottesville and Richmond.
Six years ago, as the curator of modern art at the University of Virginia’s museum, Matthew Affron proposed a show of Joseph Cornell’s work. Known as the American surrealist, Cornell had no formal training and rarely traveled, but Affron says he was an avid reader and a fan of all things French.
“In his head, in a way, he traveled widely, and the exhibition is partly about this kind of paradox -- about this artist who was invested in French culture and artists like Marcel Duchamp and Max Ernst.”
Cornell is best known for placing small objects and photographs in boxes – combining images and artifacts in mysterious, intriguing ways. These worlds in a box delighted the neighborhood kids and his disabled brother Robert.
“Toys and games that make images move. He was someone who was very interested in the history of cinema. He was a great collector of film.”
Working with a leading art museum in France, Affron began to plan the show. He knew it would be a challenge. “A Cornell exhibition is especially complicated because of the fragility of the boxes. The famous shadow boxes always have different kinds of objects inside them, sometimes fixed, sometimes mobile, and then the front surface of the boxes always has at least one pain of glass.”
But he had an important ally – the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation – which is worth more than $70 million. Some of its board members live in Charlottesville, and they’ve made generous contributions to the university and its museum -- including several boxes and collages by Cornell. They’re part of the show that also features important works by Salvador Dali, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst and Man Ray -- artists who influenced Joseph Cornell and regarded him as one of their own.
On April 3rd, the museum will host a public symposium on Cornell in Charlottesville, and on the 4th, a scholarly gathering at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond.