Biographical / Historical Note
Scope and Content of Collection
Title: Joseph Cornell letters to Susanna De Maria Wilson and other papers,
Date (inclusive): 1963-1994, undated
2.17 Linear Feet
The Getty Research Institute
1200 Getty Center Drive, Suite 1100
Los Angeles 90049-1688
Collection of thirty-three unpublished
letters from Joseph Cornell to Susanna De Maria Wilson, one of his assistants and wife of
the minimalist sculptor Walter De Maria. The letters feature poetic and philosophical
musings on various topics as well as practical information about the artist's work and
document aspects of Cornell's relationship with De Maria Wilson. Besides the textual
content, the aestethic composition of the letters, comprising multiple envelopes frequently
contained within each other, collaged elements and the inclusion of objects, produces a
layered reading and viewing experience. The letters are as much a collection of collage work
and mail art as they are archival documents.
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Language: Collection material is in English.
Biographical / Historical Note
The American artist Joseph Cornell (1903-1972) was a pioneer and celebrated pratcitioner of
collage and assemblage art, and experimental filmmaker. He was born in Nyack, N.Y. in 1903,
the eldest of four children. Following his father's death in 1917 he moved with his family
to Queens, New York, and then attended the Phillips Academy in Andover in Massachusetts, but
without earning a diploma. Except for the years spent in Andover, Cornell lived most of his
life in a small house on Utopia Parkway in a working-class neighborhood of Flushing, Queens,
along with his mother and his younger brother Robert, who suffered from cerebral palsy. For
many years he struggled to make a living and supported his family by working various jobs:
salesman in the textile industry; door-to-door appliance salesman; working at a plant
nursery; as a textile designer; and as a designer of covers and layouts for
Dance Index, and other magazines.
Cornell was a self-taught artist. In 1940, he decided to devote all of his time to pursuing
art, and set up a workshop in the basement of his house in Flushing. While spending most
days at home, he continued to visit Manhattan to meet friends and look for materials. His
artworks began to sell, but it was not until after the 1949 solo show at the Charles Egan
Gallery that it began to sell for more significant sums.
In the 1950s and 1960s, although highly regarded as an artist, Cornell continued to lead a
reclusive life. As caring for his mother and brother claimed more of his time, he hired
assistants to help him organize material, make artwork, and run errands. One of his
assistants was the wife of the American minimalist sculptor Walter De Maria, Susanna De
Maria Wilson. Cornell's brother died in 1965, followed by his mother in 1966. Cornell died
in 1972, a few days after his sixty-ninth birthday.
Cornell is best known for assemblages made of objects found in bookshops and thrift stores
and arranged eclectically in simple shadow boxes, usually fronted with a glass pane. He also
created flat collaged works and experimented with film. The underlying principle of
Cornell's art relies for its appeal on the use of dreamlike irrational juxtaposition,
inspired by Surrealism, and the evocation of a sense of nostalgia, inspired by 19th-century
Cornell was introduced to Surrealism in the early 1930s when he began frequenting the
Julien Levy Gallery, which during the 1930s and 1940s was an important venue for surrealist
and avant-garde art, photography and experimental film. His work was first exhibited as part
Surrealisme show at the Julien Levy Gallery in 1932. He made his first
glass-fronted box in 1937, which was included that same year in the
Dada and Surrealism
show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
Cornell was also an avid collector of books, prints, postcards, and printed ephemera. In
the mid-1930s he began collecting movies and movie stills and embarked upon various
film-related projects, including a trilogy of collage-films. In the mid-1950s, he began to
incorporate film-related material into his other artwork.
Cornell's art often reflects his preoccupation with women whom he encountered both in his
fantasy life, such as actresses and ballet dancers, or in real life, and various other
interests, such as his captivation with birds. Besides surrealism, his art was also
influenced and informed by French symbolist writers, the philosophy of American
Transcendentalism and the Christian Science belief and practice. Throughout his life he came
into contact with and befriended well known figures of the art, dance, and literary world;
including several artists of the surrealist, abstract expressionist, and pop art movements.
Restricted. Contact the repository for information regarding access.
Joseph Cornell letters to Susanna De Maria Wilson and other papers, The Getty Research
Institute, Los Angeles, Accession no. 2014.M.30.
Acquired in 2014.
Isabella Zuralski processed the collection and wrote the finding aid in 2015. The scope and
content notes for the collection and for the first series are largely drawn from curatorial
notes by John Tain.
The collection was digitized in 2017. Images are available on-site only:
Scope and Content of Collection
The collection includes letters from the American collage and assemblage artist Joseph
Cornell to one of his assistants, Susanna De Maria Wilson; a small quantity of printed
ephemera and notes related to the screenings of films drawn from Cornell's personal
collection; and a few letters and notes by others.
Series I. consists of thirty-three letters by Cornell, which document diverse aspects of
his working relationship with De Maria Wilson. In terms of aesthetic composition, the pieces
of mail are generally strongly visual in their orientation, and some envelopes even seem to
have had stamps affixed with care and for deliberate effect. Furthermore, Cornell adapted
the collage and assemblage technique to the sequential mode of reading in the epistolary
format, so that the outer envelopes frequently contain multiple envelopes that are then
wrapped in tissue paper, stitched or clipped together. Often, these items are collaged with
stamps, seals, foil stickers, and small photographs. Several small objects are enclosed with
the letters: a bird call whistle, pressed grass, a toy plastic mirror, a piece of perforated
metal, and rusty nails. Cornell's method of collage and assemblage thus produces a layered
experience of reading and viewing. As a group, the letters exist as much as a collection of
work on paper or mail art as they are archival documents.
Included with this series is the painted wood box in which De Maria Wilson stored Cornell's
letters at her home. Cornell saw the box in a Manhattan store and asked DeMaria Wilson to
purchase it with money he gave her.
Series II. includes a small group of printed ephemera and notes related to the historic
1963 screenings of films drawn from Cornell's personal collection, held at 9 Great Jones
Street, the space run by Walter De Maria and Robert Whitman; and a few letters by others
written after Cornell's death.
Arranged in two series:
Joseph Cornell letters to Susanna De Maria Wilson, 1963-1968, undated;
Series II. Other papers, 1963-1994,
Subjects - Names
De Maria Wilson, Susanna
Subjects - Topics
Genres and Forms of Material
Collages -- United States -- 20th century
Mail art -- United States -- 20th century
Letters (correspondence) -- United States -- 20th century