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Archives: Joseph Cornell and Surrealism in New York

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Joseph Cornell and Surrealism in New York 

October 18, 2013 - February 10, 2014 Museum of Fine Arts - Lyon

The exhibition Joseph Cornell and Surrealism in New Yorkfocuses on the work of Cornell, the American pioneer of collage, montage, and assemblage art, in the decades of the 1930s and the 1950s. These years span both Cornell’s emergence and maturation as an artist and the heyday of surrealism in the United States. Surrealism launched Cornell as an exhibiting artist. It was also the cultural milieu that shaped and molded him through the first half of his career. The exhibition presents key works by Cornell as well as images by other major artists, such as Salvador Dalí, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, and Man Ray, to evoke that surrealist environment in New York and to trace Cornell’s course through it. This is the first exhibition focusing on Cornell to be hosted by a French museum since the touring exhibition from the Museum of Modern Art in New York visited the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris in 1981.
While Cornell has been the subject of large monographic exhibitions in the USA, Joseph Cornell and Surrealism in New York is the first to place this great American master within the larger international context of Surrealism. More specifically, it centers on surrealism’s catalyzing effect on Cornell’s art. Surrealism activated the development of Cornell’s signature working method: collage and the related procedures of montage, construction, and assemblage. And it was to surrealism that Cornell owed his basic conception of the visual image as the product of poetic juxtaposition. With this in mind, the exhibition explores the diversity and interconnectedness of Cornell’s artistic practices and formats. These include, of course, the two-and three-dimensional formats for which he is best known: collages, found object pieces, and shadow box constructions containing found objects. The other major strands of Cornell’s achievement also receive in-depth examination: the artist’s engagement with photography, his ground-breaking work in collage film, and the open-ended and non-linear archives of printed materials that he called his «explorations.» Juxtapositions with key works by other artists—Marcel Duchamp, Salvador Dalí, Alberto Giacometti, Mina Loy, René Magritte, Lee Miller, Man Ray, Yves Tanguy, among others- elucidate his activity in the context of surrealism.
The conjunction of Cornell with New York Surrealism sets up a number of key themes for the exhibition. One such theme is Cornell as urban archivist, who explores a specific milieu, the city and its outlying suburbs, and turns his discoveries into art. Another is the encounter between the home-grown and the foreign. Here the issue is not only Cornell’s association with members of the community of French exiles and expatriates living in New York, but also very importantly, if on a more abstract level, his attachment to (and use of) manifold aspects of European culture.
The most fundamental theme for the exhibition, however, is what aligned Cornell most profoundly with Surrealism: a great sensitivity expressed and explored on the level of artistic practice to the phenomenon of the “curiosity,” meaning objects (natural and fabricated, familiar and fantastic) which do not by normal convention belong to the realm of the fine arts, and an intense exploration of the devices, technologies, and instruments (frequently amazing or spectacular in their own right) that organize, preserve, and convey such things to the eye.