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Cornell (Joseph) Letters to Susanna De Maria Wilson and other papers
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Collection Details
Table of contents What's This?
  • Descriptive Summary
  • Biographical / Historical Note
  • Administrative Information
  • Scope and Content of Collection
  • Indexing Terms

  • Descriptive Summary

    Title: Joseph Cornell letters to Susanna De Maria Wilson and other papers,
    Date (inclusive): 1963-1994, undated
    Number: 2014.M.30
    Creator/Collector: Cornell, Joseph
    Physical Description: 2.17 Linear Feet (3 boxes)
    The Getty Research Institute
    Special Collections
    1200 Getty Center Drive, Suite 1100
    Los Angeles 90049-1688
    URL: http://hdl.handle.net/10020/askref
    (310) 440-7390
    Abstract: Collection of thirty-three unpublished letters from Joseph Cornell to Susanna De Maria Wilson, one of his assistants and wife of the minimalist sculptor Walter De Maria.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 Harper's Bazaar , View, 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 Romanticism.
    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 of the 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 Fantastic Art, 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.

    Administrative Information


    Restricted. Contact the repository for information regarding access.

    Publication Rights

    Preferred Citation

    Joseph Cornell letters to Susanna De Maria Wilson and other papers, The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles, Accession no. 2014.M.30.

    Acquisition Information

    Acquired in 2014.

    Processing History

    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.

    Digitized Material

    The collection was digitized in 2017. Images are available on-site only: http://hdl.handle.net/10020/2014m30

    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: Series I. Joseph Cornell letters to Susanna De Maria Wilson, 1963-1968, undated; Series II. Other papers, 1963-1994, undated.

    Indexing Terms

    Subjects - Names

    De Maria Wilson, Susanna
    Cornell, Joseph

    Subjects - Topics

    Assemblage (Art)

    Genres and Forms of Material

    Collages -- United States -- 20th century
    Mail art -- United States -- 20th century
    Letters (correspondence) -- United States -- 20th century


    Cornell, Joseph