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Joseph Cornell (1903-1972)
Joseph Cornell (1903-1972)

Untitled (Soap Bubble Set with Sun)

Joseph Cornell (1903-1972)
Untitled (Soap Bubble Set with Sun)
signed inversely 'Joseph Cornell' (on the reverse)
wood box construction with glass, gouache, wood, clay, metal, printed paper collage and colored sand
9½ x 16 x 3½ in. (24.1 x 45.6 x 8.9 cm.)
Executed circa 1965.
Allan Stone, New York
His sale; Christie's, New York, 12 November 2007, lot 666
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner
New York, Allan Stone Gallery, Joseph Cornell, October-December 2002, no. 17 (illustrated in color).

Lot Essay

Executed in 1960, Untitled is filled with a strange atmosphere of playful melancholy. The broken bulb of the pipe, the exposed driftwood, even the sand, all convey the sense that this is a dusty, long-forgotten tableau. Yet the ball and sand also invoke the penny arcade games that had made such an impression on Cornell during his youth. Like several of his greatest boxes, Untitled invites the viewer to participate in its appearance, shifting the sand. In this work, the playfulness is increased by the presence of the Dutch clay pipe, made not for smoking, but for blowing bubbles. The glass and the ball may even echo the bubbles that the pipe once made. They form a strange, hieratic constellation, a deeply personal cosmogony, like some new, domestic, odds-and-ends astrolabe; this context is emphasised by the picture of the anthropomorphized image of the sun. This is a game with a purpose. Untitled presents the viewer with objects that, through their juxtaposition, convey games of lives long past, the ungraspable memories of our childhoods and of Cornell's own idyllic youth in Nyack. Each object conveys time's fleeting nature and the intangible nature of nostalgia, including the sand which could come from an egg timer, and the implied bubbles, long since burst. And each object, while recalling the fun and play of the penny arcade, also recalls the tradition of the memento mori, of Dutch still life paintings, with which the pictorially erudite Cornell was very familiar. In this light, Untitled emphasizes a poetic awareness of fragility, of mortality.

The pipe may well be one of those that Cornell had purchased two decades earlier at the World Fair. Writing to Charles Henri Ford shortly before the 1939 World Fair opened, Cornell expressed his immense joy at finding that it was going to be held in Flushing, on his own turf, news literally too good to be true: "I have been going by the old garbage dumping grounds for twenty years, and thought it just a plaisenterie when I read in the papers that the Fair site would be established there" (J. Cornell, quoted in D. Solomon, Utopia Parkway: The Life and Work of Joseph Cornell, London, 1997, p. 96). Not only would the variety and juxtapositions of a Cornell box and his cellar be appearing in immense scale in the form of the Fair, but his love of travel would be assuaged: many nations had pavilions showcasing their culture, meaning that the exotic nations that he had hitherto known only second hand through guidebooks, maps and his friends were now on his doorstep. In the inclusion of the pipe in Untitled, and the link to his awe at seeing the international pavilions at the World Fair, Cornell brings another dimension to this work's strange, potent and poignant nostalgia.

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