Joseph Cornell was born in Nyack, in the state of New York, on the 24th of December 1903. Certainly peculiar and significant is the fact that he lived all his life in a house situated in Utopia Parkway. There does exist a real correspondence between his everyday life and his "artistic" life, from his childish and adolescent collections up to his mature works, the works of an artist who loved metamorphoses. His 1909 collections began with Sandwich glassware together with his first surrealistic objects, bottles in which he put marbles, pieces of paper... In his mature works, these objects will form the cosmology of the various "Soap Bubble Sets", the first of which was exhibited at the Moma in 1936. That year Cornell wrote to Alfred Barr that he, in his subconscious, did not share the theories of the surrealists though he was a fervent admirer of most of their work. Aged 22, Cornell discovered the Christian Science through the writings of the founder, Mary Baker Eddy: nevertheless his works revealed, in their essence, nothing mystic issuing from the vestry of that church, but rather his celestial planimetries make us just think of Keplero, Galileo or Copernico because in Cornell the passion for science coincides with that of an artist who re-creates the world.
In Joseph Cornell’s works, Fernando Huici has noticed that images of children and adolescents are frequent, so as to testify that only at the adult age man can really have his adolescence available to himself and live it as he likes. The idea of reducing the world to a show-case filled up with symbolic objects is typical of a child, yet an artist revisits his childhood setting certain objects or toys free from a specific meaning and allotting them another. In 1918, Cornell’s father dies leaving his family in debts: they sell their house in Nyack and Cornell’s mother knits jumpers and bakes cakes to make both ends meet. It is more than likely Cornell created his first objects just to amuse his cadet brother Robert, affected with palsy in his legs. Cornell was really fond of his brother, and at his death in 1963 he paid homage to his memory by integrating some of Robert’s drawings with his collages. The heteroclite elements on his boxes make him, as we would say today, into a virtual "traveller". Cornell, after becoming a real traveller as seller of fabrics, discovers the Julian Levy Gallery. We owe to Julian Levy his first surrealist exhibition in New York, in 1932. Cornell takes part in the exhibition and is the author of the catalogue- cover, thereby becoming the first American surrealist. In her book Diana Waldmann assumes that Cornell passed from a flat dimension to the boxes after seeing a work by Dalì,"Les Plaisirs Illuminés" of 1929: three boxes in a sequel on which three different actions are displayed. The first of his surrealist objects is shown at the Julien Levy Gallery in 1932 : it is a glass bell under which a feminine hand holds a fan with some roses. The surrealist vision of Cornell finds an echo in Breton and his poèmes-object, such as Nadja: in this work, dated 1929, the poetic text and the real objects form a harmonious whole, something more than visible. Cornell’s boxes before being a show, are a field of possibilities situated at the origin of different planes of knowledge and real life. The anecdote concerning the ballerina or, for instance, Blériot is the plot that connects his works as in the poèmes-object by Breton who said about Cornell, in his Genèse et Perspective du Surréalisme, written in 1939, that Cornell himself, at the boundaries of a stereotyped vision, had meditated an experience that would upset the conventional usage of the objects. Another person close to Cornell in the surrealistic universe was the Czech poet Heisler who in his object-books substituted the word by the object itself, and according to whom the prerogative of a verb was to echo itself. Together with Duchamp, and in a sense with Meret Oppenheim, one may say that he was a member of the so-called New Realism, being the French correspondent of the Pop Art in New York. Cornell is an enchanter, and this is why the 1959 International Surrealism Exhibition in New York was entitled "Surrealism Intrusion in the Enchantors’ Domain".
From 1935 up to 1955 Cornell’s works show themes that seem to anticipate the passage from the surrealist object to certain forms of assemblage. In 1967 Diana Waldmann writes in her monograph on Cornell that he, in his interest devoted to the past, announces Robert Rauchenberg whom he has certainly influenced. Like Cornell, Rauchenberg combines the past with the present, perceiving a rectangular vision of space that he derives from cubism. The banal and sophisticated juxtaposing illusion and negation of depth is similar in both of them, yet Cornell being troubled by the past, endeavours to integrate it with the present, whereas for Rauchenberg objects linked to the present have pre-eminence. It seems that Warhol himself is indebted to Cornell for the repetitive formula of Campbell cans, of Coke bottles and the portraits of Marilyn Monroe: as from the forties, in fact, Cornell produced the portraits of the "Medici", the Penny Arcade and several works of "serial" kind. In 1891, Jean le Gac found similarities between Cornell and artists like Louise Nevelson, Warhol, Arman, Christo, Donald Judd and Boltanski. As far as Arman and Boltanski are concerned, they totally lack the poetic sublimation of Cornell’s works. Cornell’s works, with their straining sands, aviaries and hobby horses between the Renaissance and the robot era are the concretisation of a metaphysics apparently frivolous but in reality grave.