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My dissertation explores the power of engagement exerted on the viewer by the boxed constructions of Joseph Cornell. These boxes have fascinated me for many years, giving me an irresistible urge to satisfy my curiosity. I feel compelled to respond to the invitation to look into each boxed frame, and I am lured into the world within Cornell’s boxes. When I look into a Cornell box it is like seeing things again, but for the first time. I am forced to interact, to reassess what I see, yet I do so willingly. The lure feels like magic.

I have chosen this subject for my dissertation because I am intent on discovering where the power in Cornell’s boxes originates. Two basic questions arise about the power of curiosity that Cornell’s boxes evoke in the viewer: does the power come from the box, the device that Cornell used, or does the power come from what is in the box? What part does the viewer play in the equation? These are the main questions in my mind as I begin this study.

I am also curious to discover other artists who have used the device of the box to contain their work, as I myself have done, and so I will look at a selection of other artists who frame their work in a box, Betye Saar, Mariko Kusumoto, and Joseph Bennett. I will compare the motivation and intention of these artists, and look at the nature of the message that their work delivers. By looking at the work of these artists in comparison with the work of Joseph Cornell, I hope to find answers to my questions. I will explore these issues in five chapters.

In order to find out more about the power that comes from Cornell’s boxes, I believe that it is essential to look closely at the mind behind the work. The first chapter will look at Cornell’s formative years, and I will offer my view of the gradual coming together of seven particular circumstances in his life. The next will consider the effect of these special circumstances on Cornell’s work, seeking to identify the layers of meaning that Cornell displays in his boxes. I will look at the power of ‘the box’ as a containing device in chapter three, and will consider the effects that it creates.

The fourth chapter will look at three other artists who have used the box as a device for containing their work. I will identify the intentions, the motivation, the content, and the message of these artists. My concluding chapter will draw together all the main threads of the enquiry, and will present the results. All questions will be answered, and I will summarise the findings.

I have drawn my research from a variety of sources, electronic as well as published, from interviews, CD and DVDs, from my visits to galleries and exhibitions, and from correspondence.

Chapter 1: The Mind behind the Boxed Constructions: Seven Phases.

This chapter sets the foundation for understanding more about the power that comes from Cornell’s boxes. In order to discover the mind behind the work, I will examine the significant aspects of Cornell’s life, highlighting the particular circumstances that have shaped his ideas, and I will set this in the context of his time.

It is not within the scope of this study to describe Cornell’s life in minute detail, but nonetheless I consider it essential to look carefully at his formative childhood experiences. I will show that these experiences have a direct bearing on the enquiry, agreeing with Arthur Danto that:-

The life and art are reciprocal in that it is hard to imagine Cornell’s art made by someone with a life greatly different from his. This makes biography unusually relevant to critical appreciation in his case, one of the rare examples in which someone’s art is almost a transcription of lived experience–transfigured, to be sure, by a kind of magic that biography would have no way of accounting for. Should it bet in Italic?

(Little Boxes the cloistered life and fantastic art of Joseph Cornell. By Arthur Danto) page, book details?

Born in 1903, into an artistic and prosperous family in Nyack, New York, Joseph Cornell enjoyed a close-knit, affectionate family life. There were servants and nurse maids to help run an idyllic home life for the Cornell family, in a stylish area on the edge of the Hudson River.

Joseph’s energetic young parents, of Dutch origin, were musical and artistic. His well-educated mother had planned to become a kindergarten teacher before marriage, she wrote film scripts as a diversion, was an avid reader, and a pianist. Her husband was a textile designer, with a hobby of carving wooden toys and making furniture. (McShine, 1990: 92)

The impressionable Joseph would have absorbed much from this rich, artistic, and secure atmosphere. He was the first of four children: two sisters, Elizabeth and Helen, followed in the next two years, and then a brother, Robert, who arrived when Joseph was six. Robert, who was later diagnosed with cerebral palsy, was to become a central part of Joseph’s life.

These early days would later be recalled with affection and nostalgia by Joseph, who particularly remembered family holidays, trips to nearby Coney Island, the penny arcades, theatre visits, vaudeville shows, seeing Houdini at the Hippodrome, museum visits, family celebrations, listening to music with the family at home on Sundays, and numerous other happy family scenes.

Like his mother, young Joseph was an avid and inquisitive reader, enjoying fairy stories, the tales of Grimm and Hans Anderson, poetry, essays, and information books on a wide range of subjects. In the next chapter I will show how these early experiences, the first phase in the journey of the artist, have strong echoes in Cornell’s work.

Joseph’s world was badly disrupted at the age of thirteen when his father died of leukaemia. This must have been a horrific nightmare for Joseph, for as well as the grief and ongoing feelings of loss, his mother was soon compelled to relocate with her young family, to a vastly different and reduced lifestyle. Five months later, Joseph became a scholarship boarder at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, with yet another massive emotional adjustment to cope with. His curriculum choices were biased towards science yet also included four languages and literature.

Records indicate that Joseph was nervous, sensitive and he experienced nightmares and stomach ailments, which may well be attributed to the feelings of loneliness and loss that he was forced to bear. His headmaster suggested that Joseph should repeat a year since he needed ‘increased maturity’, but he left after four years and did not manage to gain his diploma.

There can be no doubt that Joseph retreated into an internal world at this time to escape from his torments, to a spiritual place that would become more and more real to him. Already a strong duality of feeling had set in, an inner spiritual world that was quite separate from the physical earthbound world. These lonesome experiences, in contrast to Joseph’s earlier happiness, set the foundation for the art that was to follow. I see this period as the second significant phase in the artist’s development.

Joseph left school in 1921 and took on the responsibility of supporting the family, and also of caring for Robert, whom he adored. Being extremely shy, Joseph did not enjoy his first post as a textile salesman in Lower Manhattan, the place of “wondrous amusements” (ref)(little blue book?). (Schaffner, 2003: page) However, the city life seems to have been the catalyst to his development as an artist. Between appointments, Joseph could visit bookstores and galleries, or sit in cafeterias just thinking, reading, watching, and jotting down his many ideas. All forms of art and knowledge captured Joseph’s imagination, particularly ballet, literature, theatre, science, art, astronomy, history, cinema, and almost everything French. (McShine, 1990: 96) “His multifaceted curiosity was innate,” Hartigan writes. ( Here was the third phase in Cornell’s preparation for artistic expression, Joseph’s introduction into the rich artistic life of Manhattan.

Joseph Cornell has been described as an extraordinary artist yet he had no formal instruction in art. How could this be? Some clues from Joseph’s early years have already been identified, and now another indication emerges, for it was during these years, while working in Manhattan, that Joseph started his legendary collecting – of ephemera, prints, books, postcards, records, calendars, photographs, and found objects and items from thrift shops. At the same time, his interest in theatre, film, music, art, dance, and especially the movies, took off. Joseph had immersed himself in every possible cultural experience that he could afford, and had become familiar with the contemporary American art scene. (McShine, 1990: 96) I see this period of avid collecting as the fourth phase, leading Cornell onwards to his unique artistic and poetic expression.

In the mid 1920s, Joseph was introduced to Christian Science. Part of the appeal to him was its belief in the healing power of goodness, which later cured his own stomach problems. Joseph’s enthusiasm as a new and devout member caused his sister, Elizabeth, to convert, and she later remarked that it was Christian Science that led to Joseph’s striking art work. (Hartigan, Hopps, Vine, Lehrman, 2003: 37) Richard Vine describes the central belief of harmony and completeness in Christian Science as a vital link to Cornell’s work, which was about to make its entrance. (Hartigan, Hopps, Vine, Lehrman, 2003: 38) Mary Baker Eddy, ‘Discoverer’ and Founder of Christian Science, stated that ‘This scientific sense of being, forsaking matter for spirit, by no means suggests man’s absorption into Deity and the loss of identity, but confers upon man enlarged individuality, a wider sphere of thought and action, a more expansive love, a higher and more permanent peace. (McShine, 1990: 97)

Joseph was a devout member of the Christian Science movement until the end of his life, which required daily prayer and meditation, lecture and church attendance, and a belief in the healing power of God. This became an integral part of Cornell’s life, extending his interest into metaphysical thoughts and the world beyond.

An element of Christian Science belief is to uplift others, to emphasise the completeness of God’s plan. The idea of unity is an abiding element of Cornell’s work, and I see this as a crucial fifth stage in his awakening, ‘‘to inspire others to pursue uplifting voyages into the imagination.” (

In May 1929, the family moved again, buying the home where Joseph, his mother and brother would live for the rest of their lives. It was fittingly referred to as a ‘small frame house’ in Utopia Parkway, Flushing, the Queens area of New York. Soon after 1930, both of Cornell’s sisters married, and the next year, as the Depression set in, Joseph was one of the fifteen million people to lose his job. Was this was a lucky break for Cornell, who now had time on his hands? It is possible that he started making his early collages at this time, but there is no way of knowing. The period of unemployment could be seen as a sixth stage of opportunity, for now Cornell had time to further explore Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Long Island, with its galleries and museums, his beloved “sanctuary and retreat of infinite pleasures.” (

Although New York’s art scene did not have many galleries exhibiting modern art during the 1920s, when Paris was the fashionable art capital, the famous Julien Levy Gallery opened in November 1931. It very soon became the headquarters for Surrealism in America and it was here that Cornell first discovered Surrealist art and literature.

A short time after his first memorable visit, Cornell returned to the gallery with some of his own work, early ‘montages’ made from illustrations that were scissored out of nineteenth century books. Levy was thrilled and accepted Cornell’s work straightaway for the forthcoming exhibition, ‘Surrealisme’, in January 1932. This was a life-changing event for Cornell, and could be seen as the seventh phase, his launch as a young artist. (McShine,1990: 99)

‘..his is a slow process, a gradual accumulation of artistry mirroring his gradual accumulation of artistic material.’ (htpp://

The ‘artistic material’ that Joseph was accumulating came from a variety of sources. After the First World War, theatre, art, exhibition, and cinema were all popular distractions. The silent film industry was very popular in New York City with the first talking picture premiered in Broadway in 1926. There was great enthusiasm for the new technology – cars, air travel, and the telephone.

Cornell’s intense admiration of the French symbolist poet, Stephane Mallarme, and his growing love for the music of Claude Debussy, ranked highly among other influences. Both these artists, in their own field, attempted to catch the fleeting moment in word, sound, or image, and this would be soon be Cornell’s quest, as the next chapter will show.

This chapter has looked at Cornell’s formative years, and I have interpreted Cornell’s life up to this point as a seven phase journey, a route where unique elements are gathering power together, soon to find expression.

The next chapter will show how the memories, experiences and ideas of Cornell come together in his innovative boxed constructions.

(1712 including quotes)

Chapter 2: There is no Impression without Reflection

This chapter will identify the particular way that Cornell expressed his memories, experiences and ideas in his boxed constructions.

The title of this chapter is taken from a quote about personality types. It suggests:

‘Introverts find energy in the inner world of ideas, concepts, and abstractions. They can be sociable but need quiet to recharge their batteries. Introverts want to understand the world. Introverts are concentrators and reflective thinkers. For the introvert, there is no impression without reflection.’ (

This appears to exactly describe Cornell, a shy and reflective person from childhood onwards. Although he did not enjoy this description of himself, all accounts of his lifestyle declare it to be accurate.

‘…Introverts want to develop frameworks that integrate or connect the subject matter. To an introvert, disconnected chunks are not knowledge, merely information. Knowledge means interconnecting material and seeing the “big picture.” (

I believe that the seven particular conditions I identified in chapter one, magnified by Cornell’s introspective personality, produced his reflective and metaphysical view of the world. This is not to say that the seven conditions in themselves are unique. What is unique, I believe, is the combination, the foundation, the context, and the particular sensibility of Joseph Cornell, that caused the seven circumstances to lead to his unique artistic expression. His memories, experiences and ideas intermingled in his inner world, bringing a new clearer understanding of existence, that everything was connected. New associations were formed with richer deeper meanings and symbols, and a transformation occurred.

Using a variety of objects from his personal vocabulary of symbols, Cornell constructed his boxes. His work became a fusion of art, literature, poetry, sculpture, science, theatre, cinema, dance, wonder, and more. All of these threads combined to form a new medium of poetic imagery. His boxes contain fragments of what he sees as perfect in the spiritual sense, reassembled and purified to become physical memorials for his subjects.

The first Cornell box that I saw was Planet Set, Tête Etoilée, Giuditta Pasta (dédicace) 1950 at the Tate Modern in London. It was displayed at waist height in a large cabinet painted in bright white paint and covered with a clear glass panel. From the moment I entered the room I felt drawn to the work. It really was quite an emotional experience for me. I scarcely noticed the other art works surrounding it, such was the lure of the box. The power was even greater than I had imagined with its mysterious and poetic associations.

The display caption describes the work:

Giuditta Pasta, a nineteenth-century Italian opera singer. Cornell idolised a number of almost-forgotten stars of the ballet and opera, who epitomised for him the ideals of the Romantic era. The box includes astronomical charts and two balls balanced on rods, which suggest planets orbiting the sun. This astronomical theme may relate to a contemporary account, which Cornell kept among his cuttings, in which Pasta’s voice is described as evoking the beauty of the night sky. (

Pasta’s voice was described by her biographer, Henry Pleasants, as having ‘the ability to produce a kind of resonant and magnetic vibration, which, through some still unexplained combination of physical phenomena, exercises an instantaneous and hypnotic effect upon the soul of the spectator’. ( Quoted in Five Centuries of Women Singers, 2005, Greenwood Publishing Group, By Isabelle Putnam Emerson p 114 )

The ‘hypnotic effect upon the soul’ that Pasta’s voice induced is echoed in the hypnotic effect upon the soul that Cornell’s box induced in me at the Tate, London.

Viewing the dreamlike arrangements of objects in Cornell’s boxes, it is easy to understand how his work came to be associated with Surrealism, ‘the art of the absurd’, with its links to mixing the weird and the wonderful, dream and reality, the unconscious, and the uncanny, in a shocking sort of way. Surrealism was deeply influenced by Sigmund Freud’s theories of the unconscious. For the Surrealists the dream was ‘a source of pure imagination, an expression of the marvellous and the unexpected’. (

Although Cornell was inspired by the New York Surrealists, exhibited with them, and used the same sort of materials and ideas, Cornell’s work developed very differently. As I have shown, Cornell’s life was sharply focused on eternity, infinity, and another spiritual world rather than anything reckless and earth-bound.

This box, a tribute to Lauren Bacall, is based on the penny arcade games that Joseph loved as a child. Many of Cornell’s favourite associations can be identified. There is the Manhattan skyline and the game element: a wooden ball hurtles through the box, flicking past Bacall’s face, like a snippet of flickering film. As it rattles past, the viewer’s attention is drawn towards a snapshot review of Bacall at earlier stages of her life, perhaps signifying that film captures our childlike imagination. Bacall seems trapped in her childhood and her innocence behind the thick blue glass. Cornell was infatuated with Lauren Bacall and her looks, and, says Schaffner, reminded him of a Renaissance painting by Botticelli. (Schaffner, 2003: 95)

Cornell’s silent fascination with a series of women is another recurring theme in his work. This particular box is based on an afternoon at the movies. Cornell saw the film, To Have and Have Not, many more times and made copious notes that he would use later. In his personal notes he wrote: “… the penny arcade symbolizes the whole of the city in its nocturnal illumination – a sense of awe & splendour …overriding (its) violence in darkness”. (Tashjian, 1992: 122)

The Bacall Box is interactive and can be played as a game but it is silent, perhaps a reminder of the early movies. Cornell describes it as “a machine reminiscent of the early ‘peep show’ boxes …worked with a coin by plungers with an endless variety of contraptions.” (fullstops before or after “.?) (Tashjian, 1992: 125)

There are many layers of meaning and loaded associations in Cornell’s boxed constructions, generally reflecting back to his experiences. Many of his favourite themes appear in each box in one way or another – his nostalgia for childhood, his reverence for life, his idealisation of women, his encyclopaedic knowledge, his fascination with astronomy, his love of the expressive arts, his devotion to his brother, his familiarity with Manhattan, and his passion for French culture, all of these elements bound together and transformed by his beliefs about the nature of life and of infinity.

I believe that the unifying factor in Cornell’s work is his yearning to keep his memories fully present and alive. It is vitally important for him to revisit his cherished experiences and revel in the delight that they originally caused. Perhaps each box contained a vivid dream, an essential treasure, a piece of information, a remembered conversation, or a vital truth. Perhaps revisiting the work refreshed Cornell’s energy and insight and his relationship with his subject. I suspect that it is all of these.

By capturing a fleeting thought, a memory, an idea, a portrait, or a fragment of his imagination, Cornell expanded the two dimensions of a traditional frame into something greater to contain his whole experience. Somehow, Joseph Cornell found a way to combine all these aspects into one medium, and he ‘invented’ his novel frame.

The box construction was Joseph Cornell’s innovation. He generally made the boxes as gifts for particular individuals, people who had made an impact on him, sometimes people he had never met or who were dead. The memories were very much alive to him, however, in the works created around his subjects.

There is a strong aspect of entertainment in Cornell’s boxes. Infused with a childlike sense of wonder and fantasy, he retained his ability to see the world through the eyes of a child. Edward ‘Skip’ Batcheller, a great nephew of Joseph’s, offers valuable insight into the Cornell home that he remembers visiting as a boy. He describes Cornell as a benign eccentric man who lived timelessly, and says that he was very spiritual, and often seemed to be ‘in another world’. Cornell would take naps as he needed, living and working through day and night with no regard for the clock. Above all, Skip says, Joseph’s brother, Robert, was the primary source of his inspiration. Joseph took the responsibility of amusing and entertaining his brother very seriously, as his notes show. The two brothers would sometimes work alongside each other on constructions, and playfulness or amusement was a vital ingredient.

(Hartigan, L.R., (2003) The Magical Worlds of Joseph Cornell [CDROM] Thames & Hudson, New York) (correct form of referencing?)

Skip says that the Cornell house was cluttered with art, piled high with saved publications, jottings and notebooks. It was like ‘a laboratory for boxes’ – they were everywhere, the garage, the yard, his sisters’ homes, and in their sheds.

I find it significant that Skip describes Cornell’s boxes as always being ‘on his mind’. Like special friends, it appears that Cornell needed to interact with his boxes, to refer to them as if they could communicate back to him, in a shared dialogue from another world. This helps me understand why Cornell sometimes asked for a box to be returned, as if he were going back to add an afterthought to a conversation or to include a newly discovered aspect of meaning that had since occurred to him. Because he had compiled so much information in his dossiers and collections and had worked on ideas and images long before commencing the work, Joseph was already deeply immersed in the world and ideas of his subjects. I imagine that the boxes were like meeting places for the intimate memories he had shared with his subjects, in a spiritual sense. To him, the immortalised celebrity of each box was somehow still alive and living in the miniature world that Joseph had constructed for his chosen star.

Yet, despite the great benefits of the box device that Cornell ‘invented’ to contain his poetic expression, he also recorded frustration with its form. Even that expanded frame was not always sufficient to contain all the threads of meaning that he wanted to convey. The disappointment was expressed as …” (an) intense longing to get into the boxes this overflowing, a richness and poetry felt when working with the boxes but which has often been completely extraneous in the final product.” (Caws, 1993: 188-194) ( page no.?)

(CAWS, M, Ed., 1993, Joseph Cornell’s Theater of the Mind: Selected Diaries, Letters, and Files, New York, Thames & Hudson, 188-194.)

Cornell placed great importance on dreams. Richard Feigan, an art dealer who knew Cornell well, described him as being ‘on another planet’.

(Hartigan, L.R., (2003) The Magical Worlds of Joseph Cornell [CDROM] Thames & Hudson, New York) (correct form of referencing?)

Could he mean hypnagogic, a word sometimes used in regard to Cornell’s visionary work, or is Cornell communicating as in a whispered prayer, transformed or transported onto a different spiritual plane?

The definition of hypnagogia helps us to understand this state:

‘An individual may appear to be fully awake, but has brain waves indicating that the individual is technically sleeping. Also, the

Individual may be completely aware of their state, which enables lucid dreamers to enter the dream state consciously directly from the waking state.’ (

Cornell’s urge to download his feelings into his boxed constructions suggest that he had special links set up between his imagination and the unseen world, as if engaged in urgent and ongoing conversations. Leila Hadley Luce, interviewed on this subject, says ‘He travelled in his mind. He encompassed places. He absorbed them. It’s like being in a dream world, but very, very real’. (Hartigan, L.R., (2003) The Magical Worlds of Joseph Cornell [CDROM] Thames & Hudson, New York) (correct form of referencing?)

Walter Hopper, a respected American artist, describes Cornell’s work as ‘sublime’, saying that ‘something very special and transcendent was going on here’. (Hartigan, L.R., (2003) The Magical Worlds of Joseph Cornell [CDROM] Thames & Hudson, New York) (correct form of referencing?)

This chapter has acknowledged the huge power evoked by Cornell’s boxed work. I have shown that great power arises from Cornell’s special way of communicating his experiences, his memories, his ideas and his dreams. His work is visionary, and has a timeless quality, taking no account of whether a particular person is alive or dead for it made no difference to his appreciation of their relationship with him. Cornell’s unique ability to connect different branches of knowledge into one focused creation prompted the invention of his new device, the box, to contain his multi-dimensional work. The next chapter will look more closely at the device of the box. (2097 inc. quotes)

Chapter 3: The Power of the Box: Free-Form Contemplation

This chapter will look at the power of ‘the box’ as a containing device, and will consider the effects that it creates. I will show how the box frame can separate the artist’s work from its surroundings into an experience within its own world. I will try to establish whether the framing box has a bearing on the way the viewer focuses upon it in a spirit of curiosity. This will take us to consider the nature of curiosity.

‘ virtue of its very presence

the box makes an announcement: I contain

something valuable. In concealing, the box reveals.

(Gunter, 2004: 6)

The box, as opposed to a two dimensional frame, encloses space for storing, protecting or displaying one or more objects. Tony Lydgate calls this ‘a contradiction’, in the sense that the box reveals, by hiding. Straight away, the nature of the box sets up the enquiry, ‘What is in here? Who has put this in here, and why?’

A box can usually be opened and closed, and it has depth and space, whereas a frame shows everything at once, the flat or textured visual material that it is designed to enhance and border. Everything within a two-dimensional frame is immediately evident: there are no internal walls to inspect, no surprising variation in what it may contain, no mysterious recesses to discover, no drawers to open, no room for sculpture or for a third dimension. The frame is fitting for a standard two dimensional image, but the box is innovative and exciting with its third dimension and its opportunity for interaction. It introduces novelty and is very different and separate. Curiosity is evoked by the viewer wanting to know and check what is contained within. An open question is set up in the mind, and a range of associations present themselves in the imagination. The box can instantly evoke curiosity.

Containing art in a boxed frame offers the artist extra freedom, both aesthetic and creative. The box has more surfaces that can be decorated, both inside and out, the space can be used to contain fascinating three-dimensional scenes, it can be left empty, or filled with historic, nostalgic, personal, or other types of material. The artist has freedom to create intrigue and mystery by the arrangement of his objects within the space of the four walls, and the effect can be altered by using some or all of the planes.

Two dimensional framed art in a gallery might be affected by neighbouring work, whereas work in a box invites the viewer to come close, excluding all neighbours while privately inspecting and interacting with its contents. There may be a sense of the voyeur peering into a private window, adding excitement to what is perceived in the box.

Since Cornell, many artists have used the box form in an individual way to encase their artwork. I will look at some of this work in the next chapter.

Throughout history, boxes have been a basic and necessary part of civilization. Ornate boxes were used by early man for carrying and storing a variety of valued items. In ancient Egypt, the dead were buried in highly decorated boxes. Ancient Egyptian boxes have been found containing cosmetics, jewellery, writing tools, and even slippers. One, made for an Egyptian lady in 1800 BC, was decorated with gold fittings and carnelian stones. Precious boxes are still crafted today.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, Cabinets of Curiosities held strange and wonderful collections that had been gathered by explorers, the rich and the noble. Initially these were elaborate rooms where an assortment of exotic items was displayed, to inspire awe and to evoke wonder and curiosity. The collections were categorised according to the owner’s wishes, and reflected the collector’s personal ideas of how to impose order on objects from the natural world. In time, these diverse collections developed into actual cabinets, and later the contents became the precious items now in our museums, which still inspire wonder, awe, and curiosity today.

The adult Cornell vividly remembered his fascination with collections and exhibits in polished wooden cases and frames as a boy. Years later he amassed his own personal ‘Wunderkammer’ in the cellar of his home in Utopia Parkway, a vast collection of objects, dossiers of information, jottings and notebooks, that chronicled his feelings and ideas.

To appreciate the sense of awe and wonder that vast collections inspire, and in preparation for this study, I visited the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, which was opened in 1683, the nearby Pitt Rivers Museum, The British Museum in London, which opened in 1759, and The Natural History Museum in Tring, Buckinghamshire. All buildings house remarkable collections that, once private, have now been gifted to the nation. The vast number of collections of so many species and artefacts evoked a deep sense of wonder in me, and I noticed people of all ages displaying intense curiosity and amazement as they gazed at the exhibits. Cornell savoured his childhood sense of awe and wonder all through his life and we see reminiscences of these nostalgic memories in many of his boxed constructions.

Joseph Cornell, Untitled (a Butterfly Habitat), 1940

Religious groups use special and decorative boxes to contain their most holy objects. Catholic churches have a box containing relics of a particular saint built into the altar, known as the sepulcrum. A locked tabernacle on the altar contains the sanctified host. An air of awe, mystery, and reverence is linked to these special boxes.

Our most treasured possessions, jewels, money, curios and keepsakes, are often protected in special boxes. Boxes with hidden compartments were very popular in Victorian times, fuelling the feel of mystery and concealment. It isn’t just the box that can evoke feelings of excitement and curiosity but the associations that have been attached to it in earlier years. Consequently, once an animated attachment has been fixed to a box or a particular container, the ‘magic’ might last indefinitely.

Again in Victorian times, we learn of the Penny Arcades, the mechanical fun ‘box’ machines:

‘Curious, quaint, beautiful and bizarre: devious mechanical marvels of mahogany, oak, iron and brass occupied side shows, bars, guest houses, arcades and piers from before the turn of the century. Their attraction is broad. Diverse in form and theme; a whole social milieu is captured in lively period images and pop-art graphics, giving both historic and aesthetic appeal.’ (

After putting a penny in the slot, there was a handle to pull, a ball to shoot, or a scene to watch, and the chance to win another go or have your penny returned. The fun was in operating the machine with its many and various ingenious functions rather than winning the prize. Joseph Cornell used his memories of these fun slot machines, adding a layer of nostalgia, chance, or history to his tribute. His penny arcade pieces, like the original Victorian machines, were designed to be used as a game, adding a visual and a sound quality. It is highly likely that Cornell devised his penny arcade pieces to amuse his brother, Robert, with whom he shared a very close bond.

In mythology, the popular tale of ‘Pandora’s Box’ suggests intrigue. Pandora was given a box by the gods and told not to open it, but her strong curiosity got the better of her. She opened the box (it was actually a jar) and out flew several illnesses and undesirable things, just leaving Hope behind.

Another box that has inspired contradiction and curiosity is the telephone box. It is a private space on a public street, a box where you can be seen but not heard. It is an anonymous space yet often is used for deeply personal conversations. When researching the subject of boxes and curiosity, I discovered a humorous angle, called the ‘Medicine Chest Caper’. It is said that people feel an irresistible urge to open a bathroom cabinet when visiting another’s home. To exploit this urge, pranksters fill the cabinet with ping-pong balls to booby trap their over-curious visitors. Here is another instance of the power of curiosity with a box, when the imagination or the inquisitive mind becomes engaged with the nature of its hidden contents.

But what is curiosity? To me, curiosity is a pleasant state of persistent inner questioning, along with an urge to discover possible answers. It is when my inner mind starts to contemplate and say ‘I wonder’ and ‘why?’ It also contains an element of wonder and excitement. Curiosity makes my mind scan through associations that already exist in my own experience, trying to find a link with what I am seeing in order to make sense.

Einstein expanded this view when he said:

‘The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvellous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery everyday. Never lose a holy curiosity. ‘


Einstein is suggesting that curiosity is a sacred gift, an insatiable appetite to explore creation. This fits perfectly with Cornell’s own Christian Science view, that life is an endless discovery of the meaning and unity of life.

The allure of Cornell’s mysterious boxes has been well documented, and it is possible to identify some sources of his attraction to using the box frame for his work. Beyond the peep shows and shadow boxes of his youth, Cornell’s writing shows that he was fascinated with shop window displays. His jottings reveal that he would spend time contemplating the completeness they could offer as he absorbed the contents of the displays, sealed in their own world. (Caws, 1993: 165)

The view seen from one’s seat in a theatre or cinema gives the impression of looking into a box, or a window, and this is similar to Joseph’s experience of travelling into town on ‘The El’, the elevated railway, where he could peer into the windows and glimpse strangers’ private lives being played out in the public gaze. This feeling is carried over to the viewer of a Cornell box. Peering in could induce exciting, strange or disturbing feelings, even perhaps, a voyeuristic sensation. Hartigan says that ( (Correct way?) ‘Cornell equates art with the experience of life itself, as just another window upon the world.’ (NEED to check page reference) (Hartigan) quoted on (

The objects in a Cornell box are sealed behind glass, concealed by shadows, filtered, hidden, and cropped. The glass pane acts as a fourth wall in his miniature theatre, showing the contrast between his two worlds, of chaos and of order, safety and danger. As a teenager, Cornell had shared his fear of infinite space with his sister. To young Joseph’s fear of large empty spaces, a defined space would have brought comfort and solace. The box conveys a sense of security, definition and order, rather than chaos or undefined space. Containment denotes safety.

“Whether expressed by the frame of a box or a collage, his intent was similar – directing us to a highly defined space or field of vision for free-form contemplation.” (NEED to check page reference) (Hartigan) quoted on (

This chapter has looked at the different ways boxes have been used historically, showing how an air of mystery and wonder has often been linked to the box’s purpose. I have shown how the form of the boxed frame, coupled with a sense of curiosity, generates intrigue in the viewer. The viewer feels a need to peer inside, and an expectation of discovery and anticipation is set up in people’s minds from an early age, from memories of gifts, treasures or novelties in boxes. I have also mentioned how experiences from Cornell’s early life are echoed in his boxed constructions. It has become clear that the device of the box is powerful in evoking a sense of curiosity because of its general and its particular associations in every mind, from childhood onwards.

Chapter 4:Enlarged Individuality (improve this title)

This chapter will look at other artists who have used the box as a device to enclose their work and it will identify the intentions, the content, and the effects of this work in comparison to the work of Cornell.

The three artists whose work I will explore are Betye Saar, Mariko Kusumoto, and Joseph Bennett. These artists are all living and working today and they have all used the box device to frame their work. Each artist has a different intention and different results, which I will contrast with the work of Cornell.

I will first look at Betye Saar, an American artist born in 1926, who is well known for her shadow box constructions that deal with the memory of racism in her country. Betye, who comes from a mixed heritage of African, Irish and Native American, felt very angry about the way that black people were perceived. She began to focus on using derogatory images of black people in her work. A famous example of this work is “The Liberation of Aunt Jemima”, exhibited in 1972. This was a wooden box displaying a black smiling mammy, holding a rifle in one hand and a broom in the other. ‘Aunt Jemima’ is a recognizable trademark for advertising pancake flour in America. Betye Saar’s message in this box “was about the way African-American women were treated as sex object, as domestic soldier. And it was about this particular woman’s revolt to be free of that image.” (

The Liberation of Aunt Jemima, 1972.

Betye saw a Joseph Cornell exhibition in 1968 and was greatly influenced by his assemblages, although the beginning of her passion to create recycled art occurred when she was a young girl visiting her grandmother in Watts. She remembers seeing Simon Rodia sculpting the Watts Towers during the period of 1921-1951. Seventeen interconnected structures were built, the tallest over thirty metres high, and they were filled with found objects. Betye remembers the experience vividly, saying “I’ve seen corn cobs in there, I’ve seen tools. It’s like, the cement is wet, what can we put in here?” (

Another influence on Saar’s work was the American artist, Romare Bearden, whose first collages appeared in the 1960s, at the time of the Civil Rights Movement. Bearden also used found materials to create collages which carried powerful messages about African-American life. Betye’s motivation to create art works was anger at the racism issues: Bearden’s work helped her to define her message, and Cornell’s to find the medium and the form.

The intentions of Saar’s boxes are about declaring her reactions to the experience of racial issues in her country. Saar uses a mixture of images and symbols from different cultures and religions, bringing a spiritual dimension to her work. The pieces speak of cultural differences, stereotypes, and the liberation of African Americans.

Like Cornell, symbols and visual metaphors are a central role in Saar’s work, although hers are rooted in her physical environment. The content of her boxes are collections of materials such as photographs, advertisements, toys, fabrics, figurines, household objects and musical instruments, bought from flea markets and junk shops. Betye uses nostalgic bric-a-brac to portray her broad social messages, particularly in the choice of real fabrics that have been worn by the real characters she is championing. Here is a link to Cornell, who took great pains to obtain significant mementoes of his subjects to use in his tributes.

Like Cornell, Betye Saar revisited her earlier themes, particularly with The Liberation of Aunt Jemima, for what the artist calls “unfinished business.” In the revisited work of 1998, Workers and Warriors: The Return of Aunt Jemima, Betye refines her message and expands on her previous approach. Using vintage washboards, as if each is a window, the pieces have been collaged with “Black Collectibles” from the 1940s to 50s ‘- debasing images of slavery-era black women often sold to tourists in southern areas of the United States’. The message is still the same, if not more muted than her original piece, aiming to shock the public and cause radical changes in the perception of black Americans. (Insert)

Cant find workers and warriors image… have you seen it?

Betye Saar essentially wants the viewer to be seduced by the beauty and the mystery of her work, to draw her viewers closer. The frames are the perfect medium for her to gather her viewers close up to her message. Then, once she has captured the attention, the focus sharpens so that the story hiding inside the box can be discovered. Her powerful statements about race, stereotyping, and gender cannot be missed. By concentrating the viewer’s eye into the frame, Saar is able to hold the viewer’s attention while all the elements of her message are absorbed and hammered home.

Betye often invites interaction by creating puzzles for her viewers to decode which, like the playful elements in Cornell’s boxes, is a shared similarity. Unlike Cornell, Betye’s concerns are very much of this world rather than the metaphysical themes of Cornell’s, although her energy appears as immediate, heartfelt, and strong, and her passion is evident.

The second artist I am going to look at is Mariko Kusumoto, born in Japan and brought up in a four hundred year old Buddhist temple where her father was a priest. Mariko’s boxes are made from old wood, polished metals and found objects, which are replicas of the materials, colours and textures in her childhood temple. Mariko creates multiple doors and compartments in her constructions, and fills them with highly detailed miniature worlds that reflect her childhood memories of living in the temple. She describes her intentions: “I am striving to create a world of shadows, light, silence, spirituality, and my personal memories.” (

Another of Mariko’s sources comes from her fascination with the Tansu box, a tall dark wooden box found in the temple, with multiple drawers and compartments. This must have seemed a gigantic chest of drawers to a young girl and Mariko describes it as being dark with hidden secrets lurking inside the drawers that invoked a thrill for her as she set about her regular task of polishing it. It seems that Mariko wants to recreate the sense of wonder and excitement that she experienced each time she looked inside the Tansu box, her main motivation being nostalgia for what she has lost.

“I could never anticipate what would appear from the darkness. I had mixed feelings of excitement and fear whenever I opened it. It was a great wonder box to me. The darkness inside the tansu stirred up my imagination.” (

When I look at Mariko’s boxes, I sense the same darkness and hidden secrets that I imagine her to have seen as a child, although her boxes are much smaller. Perhaps the small scale draws the viewer over to look within, to open each compartment and look inside to the magical world of memories that she has created.

There is a childlike thrill in Kusumoto’s art, as with Cornell’s, with the invitation to play, touch, and cooperate. “Most of my pieces are interactive… the viewer must keep opening things to see the secrets inside or push, pull, or wind up something to see movement or hear sounds.”


Iroha Uta (interior), 2003 Photo: Lee Fatheree

From Mariko’s description of her inspirations, we learn that she is recreating elements from her past for which she has a nostalgic longing. The absence of the familiar childhood home, the temple with all the curious artefacts it held, has intensified her feelings of being Japanese amongst the diverse cultures in the United States. ‘As time goes by, my memories become stronger and more vivid. This feeling is the inspiration of my artwork today.’ ( Here are echoes of Cornell’s nostalgia, to recreate a poignant and happy memorial to childhood memories, although Cornell’s yearning for the past is part of his belief that everything is connected. Again, the three dimensional frame is the essential medium for Kusumoto, who wants to envelop her viewer in the mystery, darkness, space and atmosphere of her miniature world. By using the device of the box, the viewer can soak up the spiritual atmosphere that Mariko has designed without any outside interference. As with Betye Saar, the intention of Kusumoto’s work is planted in the physical world, reliving the sense of nostalgia for her experiences as a child in Japan and searching for new understanding in the noisy western world with its diverse cultures.

My third comparison is Joseph Bennett. A self taught American artist, Bennett began his creative career in 1999 creating boxed assemblages. He uses found objects such as rusty metal, aged wood, photos, and toys. He has said that he was heavily influenced by Joseph Cornell and that the experience of seeing Cornell’s boxes in a 1968 exhibition changed his life.


For Bennett, the Intention of his boxes is to reinvent discarded objects, transforming them into newly discovered loved objects. He gives them a new lease of life, and ‘falls in love’ with their beauty. He says ‘ I believe that this body of work began during childhood; standing in front of my father’s workbench and admiring all that lay before me – tangled wire and rust, heavy metal and bits of color, dusty cabinets hiding treasures beneath faded cobwebs’.


Unlike Cornell, Joseph Bennett’s reasons for making his boxed assemblages do not seem to come from a deep inner yearning for spiritual expression. Rather, he simply finds joy in presenting discarded objects in a new light, as a purely aesthetic exercise. With his lifelong partner and inspiration, Eli Hans, Bennett is involved in the interior design and transformation of homes so as ‘to create an aesthetically pleasing environment that supports life goals in a perfect balance of form & function.’ ( This accords with his Artist’s Statement, of transforming discarded items into newly loved pieces.

Configuration? Details?

Configuration is ‘an attempt to ‘think outside the box’ and add color and movement to my work. This piece … continues to be my lover Eli’s favorite piece.’ (ref Bennett’s blog). I can see the strong influence of Cornell in this piece but I cannot detect either a development from it or a personal angle. Bennett’s work is predominantly an aesthetic activity but is linked to a desire to retain discarded items. He says that he sees his work as a form of art-activism, saying ‘It’s a passive way of teaching about not consuming so much … I want people to appreciate things that they would otherwise throw away.’ ( Bennett is involved in a campaign to alleviate world poverty for which exhibiting his work raises money.

I notice that Bennett has dedicated some of his work to Cornell. He has also dedicated a piece of art to a famous public performer, Joseph Beuys, which is a very Cornellian thing to do. Many of the found objects used in Bennett’s work are the same or very similar to those used by Cornell, as are the overall designs and compositions, although I sense a more cluttered feeling in Bennett’s pieces. These are my personal responses to Bennett’s work, after having a brief e-mail correspondence with him. (REF) (Joseph Bennett recently sent me an image of a new piece that has not yet been displayed, although he has made no direct comments about this piece so far. INSERT and describe?)

This chapter has taken a close-up view of the work of three artists who have all used the boxed device to frame their work. Each has a different emphasis and message, with very different subject matter, materials, and intention. In every case, the artist has felt an urge to expand the space that contained their message by using the box frame. Whether an intricate metal sculpture with multiple doors and compartments like Kusumoto’s, or bric-a-brac, fabric and black figurines like Saar’s, or found objects that have been liberated into a new existence like Bennett’s, the boxed frame has played its part in transforming the materials into works of art that powerfully engage the viewer. I have compared the intentions, motivations, and effects of these three artists with the work of Cornell.

The final chapter will pull all the threads of this study together, and will reconsider the various elements of the power of Joseph Cornell’s boxed constructions.


This concluding chapter seeks to summarise the findings of the study and arrive at a new understanding of how Cornell’s boxed constructions exert their powers of engagement on the viewer.

Throughout this study, I have kept my initial questions in mind. In my introduction I asked where the power of engaging with a Cornell box originates: does the power come from the box or from what is in the box? What part does the viewer play in the equation?

As I studied each element of the enquiry, many answers began to emerge. Firstly, concerning the power of engagement with the viewer, I found that a spirit of curiosity is fundamental to making the first connection. Curiosity is a natural, energetic and active human state that seeks answers. The idea of ‘what can be in this box?’ sets up a chain of expectation, priming the curious viewer to want to know the answer, and so that person is likely to accept the invitation to look inside.

This willingness to engage leads the viewer to enter into a relationship with the artist by investigating the work further. Once glimpsed, some sort of connection has been made. What follows may be a brief encounter, or it may be a deep and lingering fascination for what is discovered within. A spirit of playfulness and an open mind connects the viewer with the scene inside the artist’s ‘window’, and the message of the artist then becomes available for free association.

At this point, the interested viewer may be seeking to understand the intention of the artist, or simply enjoying the flashes of memory and the personal associations that the work induces with no interest in the artist’s message at all. The essential point is that an engagement has occurred. The viewer has accepted the challenge or the opportunity to find points of contact, to be reflective, or to revisit personal memories which may resonate from the contents of the box. In summary, curiosity is the key, and the inquisitive viewer feels compelled to cooperate.

Concerning the power of the box itself, this study has shown that from childhood onwards, boxes are an integral part of everyday life, with associations of excitement, fun, awe, intrigue and joy. In this sense, the box as a device has an appeal all of its own. Even if the box were empty it is likely that a curious person would still need to look inside, just to be sure that nothing was being missed. The box, with its depth and space, carries the opportunity for more senses to come into play than a conventional two-dimensional frame, which is an added bonus. The more senses that are excited in the viewer, the greater will be the impact on the imagination. My conclusion about the boxed frame is that it has a special appeal of its own for all the reasons discussed, evoking the curiosity that is essential to capture the viewer’s interest.

What is contained in the box is the third element of the enquiry. The contents of the box may have an instant appeal that transfixes the viewer, or the curiosity may be short-lived and easily satisfied by a quick uninvolved glance. The reaction of the viewer will depend on a variety of factors, such as one’s interest in topical issues, one’s sensory reaction to what is viewed, one’s tolerance of enigmas, one’s appreciation of the particular colour and form used, and other similar considerations. Clearly, some scenes will resonate more with one person than another, as with all personal preferences. A deeper understanding of a particular artist’s imagery and symbolism would enhance the experience of appreciating that body of work. This is especially true of Cornell, whose rich symbolism and imagery is multi-layered.

The study looked at the work of three artists who have used the box as a containing frame for their work, with a range of intentions, style, and message. It was shown that Bennett uses his frames to design an aesthetic experience for the viewer, Saar wants to publicise the burning political issues of racism and gender in order to provoke reaction and social change, while Kusumoto is externalising her inner feelings of nostalgia and longing, to keep alive and savour her childhood memories of Japan. These artists have used the physical space of the frame to create an earthly message, a display that inspires their viewers with here-and-now social, personal, and political issues.

Cornell’s work was shown to be on a different level, since he did not primarily create his constructions with a viewer in mind. Creating his pieces arose from a strong compulsion to rearrange and reinterpret earthly experiences so that they were aligned with a purpose beyond earth, almost as in a vision or a prayer. In this way of connecting to unseen things, Cornell linked in to a potent energy which, even if not comprehended by the viewer, still exerted an uncanny power over him. His work expressed man’s connection with infinity, the world beyond earth – which Cornell believed was an illusion. His many threads of poetic knowledge were woven together and transformed into layers of meaning that lead the viewer back to contemplate the source of creation through the elements and symbols of his work. In Cornell’s case, the boxed construction was surely the only possible frame that could contain all the elements of his multi-faceted vision.

Summarising all the points that have emerged from the study, it is clear that there is a strong link between the attitude of the viewer and the device of the box. Curiosity is the link between the two. The box has its own power because of our associations from childhood onwards. The viewer cooperates with this power by demonstrating the human characteristic of anticipation, curiosity, and a yearning to be entertained.

At the start of the study, my intuition was that Joseph Cornell exerted a unique power of engagement with his viewer because of the special nature of his poetic imagery in the boxed constructions. Now, at the end of the enquiry, my hunch has not altered but it has expanded. I now believe that the power is a shared force. I believe that the power originates from all three areas, from the box itself, from the latent curiosity and the willingness to cooperate on the part of the viewer, and also from the contents within the box. The last factor is the one that decides how long the viewer remains spellbound and connected to the work in the box.

The starting point for Cornell’s work was his life experience, his perceptions, and his continued wonderings. I believe that the seven phases I identified in his early life are the key to his unique and powerful artistic expression, as this study has shown. Ken Johnson, writing in The Boston Globe, says:

‘…the feeling one gets with Cornell is that being boxed in – whether by familial circumstances or by neurotic shyness – is what led to the cultivation of an extraordinary lively and adventurous inner life. He didn’t think outside the box; rather, he thought deeper into the box by transforming its interior into a space of infinitely elastic possibility. Every box sculpture he made represents the triumph of a wide-ranging imaginative vision over the deadening captivity of external, terrestrial existence’. (Quoted from The Boston Globe , see print out)

The trio of curiosity, the device of the box, and the unique message of Cornell, indeed exert a great power of engagement with the viewer, which I now understand to be the human quest for knowledge and understanding.

I conclude with Cornell’s own words:

“All things are interrelated. As above, so below. We are fragments of an unutterable whole. Meaning is always in search of itself. Unsuspected revelations await us.”

(SIMIC, C) where from?

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Cite this page

Joseph Cornell Box | Arts Dissertation. (2017, Jun 26).
Retrieved September 19, 2023 , from

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