Checking out contemporary 20th century authors

Joseph Cornell (1903-1972) was one of the most significant American artists of the 20th century and his collages and assemblages have become touchstones for several generations of artists.

“Joseph Cornell: Wanderlust” (Royal Academy of Arts) by Sarah Lea, Jasper Sharp and Lynda Roscoe Hartigan is the catalog of an exhibition that was presented last summer at the Royal Academy of Arts in London and is currently on view Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.

It provides a generous overview of Cornell’s work in a variety of media. He was a serious pack-rat, visiting the second hand and thrift shops of New York and collecting a variety of ephemera and cast offs—old maps, astronomical charts, historical ballet and avian images.

He combined these elements and more in two and three-dimensional collages and boxes that are visually arresting and totally compelling, truly cabinets of wonder comprised of what were once prized relics combined with cast-off and seeming simple things such as antique books, broken crockery and soap bubble pipes.

He was not the first, nor by any means the last, artist to use collage, but his appropriation and arrangement of found and collected objects was the exclusive focus of his creative efforts—he often referred to himself as a maker of things, rather than as an artist.

This handsomely produced volume provides on overview of his life and work as well as a generous selection of images with detailed annotations.

Another career overview worth checking out is “Noah Purifoy: Junk Dada” (Los Angeles County Museum of Art/Delmonico Books) by Yeal Lipschutz, Kristine McKenna and Lowery Stokes Sims.

The catalog of an exhibition mounted last year by LACMA, is the fist monograph on an artist who was largely overlooked during his lifetime—Purifoy passed away in 2004. He was an important figure in the both the Watts Towers Arts Center and the assemblage movement that came into prominence in the 1960s in Los Angeles along with artists such as Ed Keinholz, Llyn Foulkes and George Herms among many others.

Like many of the artists in this movement, Purifoy “mined” the urban landscape for its discards, junk and detritus to create whimsical and thought provoking combines.

One of his signature achievements was the creation of the Joshua Tree Outdoor Museum in the middle of nowhere in the California desert. This ongoing sprawl of works from found materials is documented through a series of great photographs by Fredrik Nilsen. The show and catalog document an artist worth knowing more about.

Kirk Robertson covers the arts and may be reached at


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