Sometimes those words, "acquired directly from the artist," exert an extra, almost magical and talismanic fascination and the work itself becomes part of a mythology. This is especially true of Joseph Cornell, a strangely sociable recluse, a travel-obsessed artist who seldom travelled, a cipher whose works often seem to unlock the enigmas of existence. Almost every piece of correspondence from Cornell was an artwork in itself. His creations formed a part of his intriguing, profoundly personal, hermetically-sealed universe, one in which Betty Freeman herself was briefly involved. Effectively he was cushioned from the outside world by the safety and seclusion of his home on Utopia Parkway, in Flushing, Queens, where he was living with his elderly mother and invalid brother Robert when Betty Freeman came to know him. Seldom venturing far from Queens except to forage for materials in the shops of New York, Cornell created a string of powerfully evocative works that act as miniature epiphanies, hinting at both the angst and the wonder of existence in our modern world, often racked by nostalgia, fuelled by his own elaborate personal mythology. Cornell, piecing together shards and fragments from the world around him, would create collages and assemblages that invoked some of the magic that lurks behind everyday existence; he was revealing a certain Surreal aspect to life, and his works condense his idea of complete happiness: "quickly being plunged into a world in which every triviality becomes imbued with significance" (J. Cornell, quoted in D. Solomon, Utopia Parkway: The Life and Work of Joseph Cornell, London, 1997, p. 92).
The two wood box constructions by Cornell in Betty Freeman's collection, The Birth of the Nuclear Atom and Sand Fountain, both manifest that strange poetic intersection between reason and imagination that is so distinctive and fascinating in Cornell's works. In The Birth of the Nuclear Atom in particular, Cornell appears to have tried to condense the magic of existence into some pseudo-rational, mock-scientific form. This work has the appearance of some form of bizarre instrument, with the backdrop of strange circles and constellations introducing an aspect of physics or astrophysics, like the diagrams on a scientist's blackboard. This work shares similarities with Duchamp's own projected machines, an impossible instrument for measuring the ineffable. Indeed, the discs and dials in the upper section even recall Duchamp's Rotoreliefs, the artist perhaps doffing his hat towards his mentor. The vaguely scientific drawings also recall a cold-war America, just learning to grapple with newly-nascent yet paralyzingly frightening nuclear technology.
In The Birth of the Nuclear Atom, the marbles in the glasses act as reminders of the Soap Bubble Sets. Cornell's fascination with science, as well as his adherence to Christian Scientist religious beliefs, both play their part in The Birth of the Nuclear Atom, in which he manages both to hint at the magic of physics, of the nuts and bolts of existence, and also categorise experience and the intangible, ungraspable wonders of life itself. It is telling, in this light, that Cornell owned a copy of C.V. Boys' 1896 book, Soap Bubbles: Their Colors and Forces Which Mold Them. This was a tome in which the author attempted to educate and indeed intrigue children by demonstrating the role that science has to play in such fleeting, everyday things as bubbles (see L. Blair, Joseph Cornell's Vision of Spiritual Order, London, 1998, p. 179). In Birth of the Nuclear Atom, Cornell explores similar ideas but through the filter of his own non-scientific perception. It is telling that similar aspects of science underpin the workings of these wood box constructions; both The Birth of the Nuclear Atom and Sand Fountain rely on gravity, involving moving parts, functioning as half-mute, Cassandra-like demonstrators of some ungraspable yet profound truth.