Joseph Cornell: Things Unseen at Phoenix Art Museum showcases robust works by the late experimental filmmaker and assemblage artist.
January 25–April 4, 2021
Phoenix Art Museum
Nearly fifty years after his death, the assemblage artist and experimental filmmaker Joseph Cornell continued to surprise in a Phoenix Art Museum show that recently closed after a fourteen-month run. Things Unseen, a small but stout exhibition, showed off twelve two-sided collages, two shadow boxes, and more by the mostly self-taught American artist, who left the planet in 1972 at age sixty-nine.
Visitors to the tucked-away exhibition were greeted by two of Cornell’s early box constructions. The artist learned carpentry in order to construct his “shadow boxes” or “poetic theaters.” Untitled, Soap Bubble Set/Pipe/Figurehead—pieced together with a cork ball on a steel ledge, a clock face, and other materials—recalled a dream sequence that weaved in and out of the nautical and the celestial. Cornell, who drew major inspiration from the Surrealists, was prone to abstract and extensive titles for his pieces.
The midpoint of the show illustrated the bond Joseph had with his brother Robert, who was born with cerebral palsy. Two pieces by Joseph, who cared for his brother from age thirteen until Robert’s death in 1965, featured Joseph’s modifications of original drawings by Robert. According to the exhibition notes, other works in the show included Robert’s drawings of imaginary characters.
A bulk of the show displayed two-dimensional collages on paper mounted on board and encased in glass. Untitled (roller coaster in landscape) looked like an alternate take on Salvador Dalí’s The Persistence of Memory, while the bizarre Pour Mareelline Desbandes-Volmere could have been an advertisement for sheep and other farm animals seeking self-help. Gifts were reaped while snaking around the center-room displays: Cornell had assembled minimalist collages on the back of many of the artworks, aligning with the title Things Unseen and providing additional moments of Joseph Cornell entrancement.