A Cornell Education

Young children view an assemblage by Joseph Cornell alongside the artist during the opening of ‘A Joseph Cornell Exhibition for Children’ at the Cooper Union, New York in 1972.
The work was specifically hung with the average children’s eye level in mind.
Photograph by Denise Hare.

There have been ample examples of modern and contemporary artists attempting to channel childlike imagery and energy. Renowned twentieth century avant-garde artists, Jean Dubuffet and Juan Miro, are well known for their mature paintings that seemingly reflect various phases of early childhood artistic development (see: Louis, 2005). It is noted that each artist studied children’s drawings. Art historian Stephanie Chadwick writes, “The efforts of these early twentieth-century painters to infuse their art with the seemingly innocent expression of children’s drawing were so successful that they created an artistic revolution” (Chadwick, 2016). One reason for this, as Chadwick asserts, is that they saw children’s art as a means to liberate themselves from the confines of their academic backgrounds and the formal art scene at large.

While there are often standard generational demarcations among certain visual and literary content, arts writer and critic, Ben Street (2021), convincingly argues that “the question of what an art made for children might look like is perhaps a moot point: all visual art is potentially ‘for’ anyone.” Reflecting upon an exhibition of avant-garde art, the type that has been analyzed extensively within academically written books, provides circumstantial evidence to this point.

This is the case study of Joseph Cornell’s 1972 exhibition at Cooper Union, a private New York City college that is known for its strong visual arts department. The intended audience for the exhibition was not the college students, nor the professors, but local school aged children from the community. In an article published in the New York Times the day after the show opened, arts reporter, Grace Glueck (1972) wrote: “A real, adult‐type art opening occurred at the Cooper Union yesterday, but instead of champagne the guests sipped cherry soda and instead of canapés, they nibbled on brownies. The works on view — a group of boxes and collages by the celebrated artist Joseph Cornell —were displayed at a child’s eye‐level, no more than three feet off the ground.”

Joseph Cornell talks with children during the opening of ‘A Joseph Cornell Exhibition for Children’ at the Cooper Union, New York in 1972. Photograph by Denise Hare.

Cornell, a contemporary of Dubuffet and Miro, utilized a different approach to making art. Perhaps this was due to his artistic development, which was non-academic from the start. Cornell did not study art in school. He actually did not finish his senior year of high school. His personal style was not in line with evoking the childlike aesthetics of the aforementioned artists. However, Cornell made his art accessible to children by altering its presentation. There is a standard height for hanging paintings and displaying sculpture, which does not take into account the smallest of gallery visitors, but Cornell eschewed tradition by basing the installation of his work on the average eye level for children.

In addition to the conscious placement of his work, the materials and imagery within Cornell’s art are apt for children to develop a profound understanding of aesthetics. Cornell is influential for his contributions to the artistic style of assemblage, an art form and medium where three-dimensional and flat objects are arranged on or within a substrate. Collage is a very advantageous medium for early childhood learners to engage with. An overarching takeaway relayed through collage, is that everyday materials can be art. It prompts an unfettered exploration of materials, while also developing critical thinking (i.e. making judgements, discerning spatial relationships, noticing patterns and gaining concentration) and fine motor skills (i.e. arranging, gluing, cutting and tearing).

Joseph Cornell and a young visitor share a moment of deep reflection and mutual respect during the opening of ‘A Joseph Cornell Exhibition for Children’ at the Cooper Union, New York in 1972. Photograph by Denise Hare.

The final, and most essential element of Cornell’s exhibition, was the way he took on the role of a mentor during the show’s duration and fluidly interacted with curious and engaged students. The way that Cornell made connections with the young visitors and enthusiastically responded to their questions, was somewhat of an anomaly for the artist. He was otherwise known as somewhat of a recluse who socialized with other artists on occasion, but generally kept to himself, staying at home to care for his mother and his disabled brother. Photographs taken by Denise Hare during the opening, depict Cornell, who was 69 years old and would die a year later, looking almost as if he was one of the children’s peers.

Cornell was described as being someone who “retained an exalted vision of childhood. He regarded children as the royalty of the universe, and in his work they would one day surface as literal aristocrats” (Solomon, 1997). This quote from art historian Deborah Solomon’s biography on Cornell, references a series of assemblages known as Medici Slot Machines, in which he portrayed children as literal princes and princesses. Solomon (1997) continues: “Cornell had virtually nothing in common with these little Medicis–he wasn’t Italian, he wasn’t blue-blooded, and obviously he didn’t grow up during the Renaissance. Yet it isn’t surprising that he would be drawn to these patrician children, for he believed more than anything in the nobility of childhood.”

Cornell’s understanding of childhood and the importance of incorporating children’s participation within the cultural discourse, is a model that is carried on today through art museums designed specifically for children, such as New York’s Children’s Museum of the Arts, which “unites children and artists to create and share ambitious works of art with their communities and the world.”

These artful endeavors are important for the children because they are introduced to sophisticated aesthetic experiences and get to interact with artists on their own terms; while the adult artists get to embrace their inner child.

References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

All images are from a photo essay by Denise Hare in A Joseph Cornell Album by Dore Ashton (Viking Press, 1974).

Chadwick, Stephanie. “Dubuffet, A View of Paris: The Life of Pleasure,” in Smarthistory, September 11, 2016, accessed March 5, 2022, https://smarthistory.org/dubuffet-pleasure/.

Glueck, Grace. “Youths Laud Cooper Union ‘Adult’ Art.” The New York Times, 11 February 1972. https://www.nytimes.com/1972/02/11/archives/youths-laud-cooper-union-adult-art.html

Louis, Linda L. “What Children Have in Mind: A Study of Early Representational Development in Paint.” Studies in Art Education, vol. 46, no. 4, 2005, pp. 339–355. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25475761. Accessed 13 Jan. 2020.

Solomon, Deborah. 1997. Utopia Parkway: The Life and Work of Joseph Cornell, New York: Farrar Straus Giroux.

Street, Ben. “All art is for children – and great art can make children of us all.” Apollo, 1 June 2021. https://www.apollo-magazine.com/joseph-cornell-art-children/


  1. This is very intriguing, mainly due to my love of art history as a whole. Unfortunately I’m having trouble viewing this from my phone so I only got part of the way through it. I will be saving it though to finish the read from my PC as well as research a bit further . Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I fell in love with his boxes as a teenager. I was lucky enough to be able to spend considerable time contemplating them in an exhibit at a local museum. I would be just as happy to repeat the experience today, decades later!

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s