Joseph Cornell was not a sculptor, a draftsman, or a painter. This internationally renowned modern artist never had professional training. He was first and foremost a collector. He loved to scour old book shops and secondhand stores of New York looking for souvenirs, theatrical memorabilia, old prints and photographs, music scores, and French literature.
Cornell was wary of strangers. This led him to isolate himself and become a self-taught artist. Although he expressed attraction to unattainable women like Lauren Bacall, his shyness made romantic relationships almost impossible. In later life his bashfulness verged toward reclusiveness, and he rarely left the state of New York. However, he preferred talking with women, and often made their husbands wait in the next room when he discussed business with them. He also had numerous friendships with ballerinas who found him unique but too eccentric to be a romantic partner.
By collecting and carefully juxtaposing found objects in small, glass-front boxes, Cornell created visual poems in which surface, form, texture, and light play together. Using things we can see, Cornell made boxes about things we cannot see: ideas, memories, fantasies, and dreams.
He was a kind of magician, turning everyday objects into mysterious treasures. In "Homage to the Romantic Ballet", plastic ice cubes become jewels when set in a velvet-lined box, souvenirs of a famous ballerina's midnight performance on the frozen Russian steppe. A small glass jar filled with colored sand is transformed into powdered gold from a Mayan temple, carefully preserved in Cornell's Museum.
A symbolist, Cornell used the found materials that inhabit his boxes—paper birds, clay pipes, clock springs, balls, and rings—to hint at abstract ideas. A metal spring from a discarded wind-up clock may evoke the passage of time; a ball might represent a planet or the luck associated with playing a game. Although his constructions are enveloped in nostalgia—the longing for something that happened long ago and far away—their appearance is thoroughly modern.