Created in 1950-52, Joseph Cornell's Untitled (Windows) presents the viewer with a microcosm, a miniaturised fragment of a building contained within a box. The windows are represented by the mirror and by the criss-crossing frames. This work is curiously reflexive: Cornell's boxes appear as poetic windows into the artist's mind and soul, and here, the act of looking through the glass at the contents is made all the more specific by the framing of the 'panes'. The glass frontage that appears in Cornell's boxes here becomes the focus of attention, opening onto a realm that is curiously empty but that, through the inclusion of the mirror, becomes active with the infinite potential of the artist's and viewer's imagination. It is a tribute to the importance of the Windows works that another example is in the Menil Collection, Houston.
During the early 1950s, two great new themes appeared as series in Cornell's works: the Aviaries and the Hotels. In both, the influence of fairytales and Surrealism receded, replaced by something more personal, a whimsicality in a different, more intimate register. In particular, the themes of these buildings and of the birds of the Aviaries both implied travel, tourism, the exotic. Untitled (Windows) shows a grand, glazed edifice, and as such appears closely related to the Hotel works of the same date.
The travel in Cornell's life was largely limited to his imagination. He was an armchair Grand Tourist. Cornell's domestic situation, and in part his own character, resulted in a remarkable lack of travel during his lifetime. Aside from his school days and forays to New York or Long Island, he was essentially rooted to his home in Flushing, where he tended to the ever increasing needs of his aging mother and invalid brother. This relative confinement resulted in Cornell becoming a seasoned traveller of the mind. His Hotels are filled with a cool exotic sense, as though they were converted palaces on the shores of some European lake. In Untitled (Windows), while the woods and other extraneous detailing of the Hotels (which lend them a more specific context) are absent, there is nonetheless a very strong sense of the life behind the windows, of the different rooms, of the tiny worlds that lurk just out of our gaze and our grasp. Beyond the glass lies a universe of impenetrable mystery, and it is all the more pertinent that the background reflects only ourselves-- Untitled (Windows) is a penny arcade device made to work subjectively, functioning in reaction to what we ourselves bring to it, in our imaginations and curiosity. The magic and the mystery happen largely in our own minds, with Cornell's box as the process's ingenious catalyst.
The deliberately formal panes in this work appear designed to recall the skyscrapers of Manhattan, which Cornell would often visit, making forays to the diners, thrift stores and bookshops from his own home in Flushing. This, then, is perhaps some Midtown hotel, rather than Europe's exotic, distant palaces of wonder. In this sense, Untitled (Windows) appears linked to Cornell's own everyday ruminations, to the wanderings and wonderings of the enigmatic artist. Cornell was as fascinated by the city during his adulthood as he had been as a child, riding on the El, looking at all the houses, all the windows, all the scenes of secret human drama. His diaries often refer to his sense of epiphany on seeing a certain light effect, his rapture at glimpsing some fleeting chance occurrence, some fortuitous magical everyday moment. One entry from the early 1950s even records his sense of the equivalency between views from his home in Flushing, the cabin he visited in Westhampton and the view through opening subway doors. They are all, like Untitled (Windows), miniaturised revelations, seen through glass.
Both the Hotel and the Aviary series were marked by the introduction of a more restrained, pared back aesthetic to Cornell's works. This is also highly evident in the lattice-work which forms the windows in Untitled (Windows). There is a geometric crispness, a near-Mondrian sense of restriction, control, emphasis on the vertical and the horizontal. Geometry's language is a language of reason, but as ever in Cornell's work, his is an arcane, parallel system that disrupts this precision by adding the imagination's infinite. There is a hieratic, poetic internal logic to the world of Cornell and of Untitled (Windows) alike. A Christian Scientist, Cornell was fascinated by the idea of higher learning and higher being, of gradually attaining true spiritual knowledge. He had aspirations towards transcendence which were intensified by the intense range of his own personal moods. It is in part the yearning for a higher level of understanding, to penetrate the veil, to comprehend the immaterial, that has brought about this work's ordered, codified appearance. It is an intriguing paradox that Cornell, a follower of a religion that taught that the material world is an illusion, accumulated so compulsively so much of the material around him. Yet that clutter that filled his home in Flushing and that is contained in so many of his boxes is poignantly absent in Untitled (Windows), making this all the more pristine and crystalline an embodiment of the immaterial. This mirrored box contains almost nothing, the mirror existing as an illusory reflection of the material world in front of it.
Perhaps the mirror doubles as a barrier to the attainment of spiritual knowledge; perhaps the fact that it reflects its viewer, that nothing can be seen beyond, reinforces the sense of loneliness and solitude that sometimes plagued the artist. In formal terms, the mirror emphasises the rigidity of the overbearing structure, by repeating it again, forming illusionary cuboids of space within the framework. This also heightens the strangeness-- there is something of Lewis Carroll's Looking Glass about these windows, which reflects the viewer, and even creates an illusory cage within which to hold us. At the same time, the fact that the mirror is there, and has further details of the windows' beading upon it, emphasises the narrative content of Untitled (Windows)-- Cornell does not allow abstraction to dominate, instead ensuring that the roots of this work remain in the representation of a series of windows in some grand old miniaturised building of the mind.