A Brief History and Influences

Assemblage & Pop Art
Abstract Expressionism reached its height as a movement in the 1950s. Among its most notable features was an emphasis on the act or process of making a work of art. This emphasis was of major consequence to a number of artists who, in the mid- to late 1950s, began to produce assemblage art. While assemblage differs from painting in that it is basically a three-dimensional rather than a two-dimensional medium, it is also distinct from conventional sculpture as it is formed in an additive process rather than shaped or carved from a monolith. It also diverges from collage, to which it is otherwise directly related, since it moves away from the plane and actively intrudes on the space of the spectator. Further, as initially conceived, collage–and, more specifically, papier collé–was intended to play on issues of illusion and reality. While assemblage can also incorporate painting and drawing, thereby negating what belonged to the plane of painting–the plane of illusion–and equating it with the space of sculpture, its primary characteristic is its tangibility. As with collage, assemblage introduced a wide new range of materials and forms, and, perhaps most important, it brought into play a whole new body of work that could not be strictly codified as belonging to the domain of either painting or sculpture. Assemblage traded on both, expanding on the three-dimensional possibilities of a two-dimensional medium and on the concept of the found or constructed object as it was first recognized by such pioneers of collage, the readymade object, and relief sculpture as Braque and Picasso, Tatlin and Archipenko, Duchamp and Ernst. It became the basis for the innovatory work of a postwar generation of Americans and Europeans.1
Joseph Cornell
The word “object” often appears in the titles of Cornell’s three-dimensional works during the 1930s and early 1940s. A nod to the Surrealists’ use of the phrase object trouvé (found object), his word choice also reflects the fact that his inspiration for making art came appropriately from objects themselves. As Cornell collected all sorts of ephemera in the 1920s, the idea of becoming an artist had not occurred to him, yet by 1931 he had shifted effortlessly from simply collecting objects to making them himself. The challenge, he discovered, was finding a medium conducive to his natural talent for arranging unexpected, expressive combinations.

Early Objects
Lack of formal art training actually freed Cornell to experiment with a variety of formats and containers during the 1930s and early 1940s. At first he transformed palm-sized, lidded paperboard boxes – originally designed for pills and jewelry or as scientific specimen cases – with paper cutouts and bits and pieces such as beads, toys, and pins. In search of greater scale and complexity, he turned to small antique wood chests. Many of these chests came with bottles and ready-made chambers, which Cornell put to new use, filling them with colored sands and liquids, coral, shells, costume beading, clippings from maps and books, and wood and rock fragments. The result was a group of boxes that suggest poetic cabinets of curiosities.

During the 1930s Cornell also began designing glass-paned boxes. Initially he relied on prefabricated paperboard boxes in which he mounted figurative cutouts behind glass. After mastering carpentry and woodworking techniques around 1936, he started making his own wood box constructions. Cornell called these early constructions “poetic theaters” and “shadow boxes.” Familiar with Victorian miniature toy theaters, he adapted the format to stage highly theatrical scenarios and tableaus.2


1Collage, Assemblage, and the Found Object, Diane Waldman,
©1992 Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers, New York

2 Joseph Cornell: Shadowplay…Eterniday
©2003 The Voyager Foundation, Inc.