Cornell's most characteristic art works were boxed assemblages created from found objects. Many of his boxes, such as the famous Medici Slot Machine boxes, are interactive and are meant to be handled.
Joseph Cornell was wary of strangers. This led him to isolate himself and become a self-taught artist. Although he expressed attraction to unattainable women like Lauren Bacall, his shyness made romantic relationships almost impossible. In later life his bashfulness verged on the point of being considered reclusiveness, and he rarely left the state of New York.
His last major exhibition was a show he arranged especially for children, with the boxes displayed at child height and with the opening party serving soft drinks and cake. Rose Hobart is a short, 19-minute experimental film created by the artist Joseph Cornell, who cut and re-edited the Hollywood film East of Borneo into one of America's most famous surrealist short films.
When Cornell screened the film, he projected it through a piece of blue glass and slowed the speed of projection to that of a silent film. The original soundtrack is removed, and the film is accompanied instead by "Forte Allegre" and "Belem Bayonne", two songs from Nestor Amaral's "Holiday in Brazil," a record that Cornell had found at a junk shop.
The film was first shown in 1936 at Julian Levy's New York City gallery in a matinee program featuring short films from Cornell's collection. This took place around the same time as the first surrealism exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. Salvador Dalí was in the audience, but halfway through the film, he knocked over the projector in a rage. “My idea for a film is exactly that, and I was going to propose it to someone who would pay to have it made,” he said. "I never wrote it down or told anyone, but it is as if he he stole it from my subconscious, my dreams!"
After the Dalí incident, Cornell did not show the film again until the 1960s, when, at the behest of Jonas Mekas, it was screened again for a public audience. When the first print was made from Cornell's original in 1969, Cornell chose a 'rose' tint instead of the normal blue.