Vernacular Modernism: Joseph Cornell and the Culture of Populism in American Art


Luce/ACLS Dissertation Fellowships in American Art


Institute of Fine Arts


Beginning in 1931, Joseph Cornell created a body of work notable for its rarified sophistication and enduring popularity. This dissertation considers the alignment of elite taste and common appeal in Cornell’s sculptures, collages, and films from the 1930s and 40s. Cornell’s emergence as an artist was engendered by the interwar culture of populism, which struggled to create a modern art that was at once demotic and avant-garde. He became a key participant in several episodes whose populist roots remain largely unrecognized, including the vogue for American folk art, the early exhibition history of The Museum of Modern Art, the transatlantic migration of Surrealism, and the period popularity of Neo-Romanticism. In reconstructing the social, historical, and artistic context that informed Cornell’s art and shaped its reception, this project also traces a strand of populist cultural production that transformed the ambitions and public presentation of American art in the twentieth century.