‘Souvenirs of a quest’ — four works by Joseph Cornell

Three object-filled boxes and one collage from The Collection of François and Susan de Menil invite the viewer to step into the artist’s magical, mysterious universe

Deep in the basement of his family home at 3708 Utopia Parkway, in the Flushing area of Queens, Joseph Cornell created some of the landmark works of modernist art. Cornell was a shy, solitary man who, in his 69 years, barely left New York. He spent much of his days caring for the ill mother and brother he lived with, yet in his small basement — usually at night — he found refuge and set to work.

The artist is best known for his glass-fronted wooden boxes which contain a surreal combination of objects bought from local junk shops, antique stores and book stalls. In her biography, Utopia Parkway: The Life and Work of Joseph Cornell, Deborah Solomon wrote that ‘the objects inside his boxes were not just random assortments of materials but souvenirs of a quest’.

On 15 November three of Cornell’s boxes and one collage, from The Collection of François and Susan de Menil, will be offered in the Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale  at Christie’s New York.

Joseph Cornell (1903-1972), Medici Slot Machine Object, executed in 1942. 15½ x 12 x 4⅜  in (39.4 x 30.5 x 11  cm). Estimate $4,000,000-6,000,000. This lot is offered in Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale on 15 November 2018 at Christie’s in New York © The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial FoundationVAGA, NYDACS, London 2018

Joseph Cornell (1903-1972), Medici Slot Machine: Object, executed in 1942. 15½ x 12 x 4⅜ in (39.4 x 30.5 x 11 cm). Estimate: $4,000,000-6,000,000. This lot is offered in Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale on 15 November 2018 at Christie’s in New York © The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation/VAGA, NY/DACS, London 2018

Medici Slot Machine: Object, from 1942, comes from arguably the finest set of boxes of Cornell’s career: the ‘Medici Slot Machine’ series. It features the beguiling image of a young Italian aristocrat in fine robes — the reproduction of a Renaissance portrait of Massimiliano Stampa, the third Marchese di Soncino, by Sofonisba Anguissola, to be precise. Around it, Cornell has assembled maps, jacks, colourful balls, a wooden die, and a compass mounted to a metal coil which quivers when it picks up vibrations.

It is a typically intimate and dreamily evocative Cornell work, whose precise meaning, if it has one, is impossible to pin down.

Joseph Cornell (1903-1972), Object, executed in 1940. 11⅛ x 8¼ x 2½  in (28.2 x 21 x 6.3  cm). Estimate $800,000-1,200,000. This lot is offered in Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale on 15 November 2018 at Christie’s in New York © The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial FoundationVAGA, NYDACS, London 2018

Joseph Cornell (1903-1972), Object, executed in 1940. 11⅛ x 8¼ x 2½ in (28.2 x 21 x 6.3 cm). Estimate: $800,000-1,200,000. This lot is offered in Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale on 15 November 2018 at Christie’s in New York © The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation/VAGA, NY/DACS, London 2018

Object (above), meanwhile, is an example from the first and longest-running series of box constructions of Cornell’s career: the ‘Soap Bubble Set’ series. Here, he presents a clay pipe, from which images of free-floating, white seashells can be seen emerging. A dark, velvet backdrop calls to mind celestial bodies orbiting a night sky. Again we’re introduced to a magical, mysterious, Cornellian universe.

Joseph Cornell (1903-1972), Untitled (Star Game), executed circa 1948. 2⅝ x 12¾ x 11 in (6.7 x 32.4 x 28  cm). Estimate $600,000-800,000. This lot is offered in Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale on 15 November 2018 at Christie’s in New York © The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial FoundationVAGA, NYDACS, London 2018

Joseph Cornell (1903-1972), Untitled (Star Game), executed circa 1948. 2⅝ x 12¾ x 11 in (6.7 x 32.4 x 28 cm). Estimate: $600,000-800,000. This lot is offered in Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale on 15 November 2018 at Christie’s in New York © The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation/VAGA, NY/DACS, London 2018

The third box coming to auction is Untitled (Star Game)  (1948), a rare star-shaped box in Cornell’s oeuvre. Six objects fill six segments, and the viewer is invited to tilt or shake the work, and duly usher forth a host of sounds, from a marble rolling across glass to the metallic tinkle of a ring spinning around an axis.

Where did Cornell get the idea for his boxes from? Many have cited Victorian toy theatres or cabinets of curiosities; others, the penny slot machines that were popular in his day at Coney Island and Atlantic City. What one can say with greater certainty is that Cornell’s art was so rich that it featured elements of Surrealism, Pop Art, Abstract Expressionism and the Duchampian readymade.

Joseph Cornell (1903-1972), Untitled (Story without a Name — for Max Ernst), executed circa 1934-1935. Smallest collage 2⅛ x 2¾  in (5.6 x 7  cm). Estimate $400,000-600,000. This lot is offered in Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale on 15 November 2018 at Christie’s in New York © The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial FoundationVAGA, NYDACS, London

Joseph Cornell (1903-1972), Untitled (Story without a Name — for Max Ernst), executed circa 1934-1935. Smallest collage: 2⅛ x 2¾ in (5.6 x 7 cm). Estimate: $400,000-600,000. This lot is offered in Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale on 15 November 2018 at Christie’s in New York © The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation/VAGA, NY/DACS, London 2018

A fourth work in November’s sale is the collage Untitled (Story without a Name — for Max Ernst) — evidence of Cornell’s ability to create imaginative combinations beyond the box format. Magazine clippings and Victorian engravings were cut apart and spliced together in unexpected, new arrangements; in one section, firefighters try to put out a blazing building that has sprouted an enormous lily.

Sign up today

Christie's Online Magazine delivers our best features, videos, and auction news to your inbox every week

Subscribe

Cornell himself said that the ideal art work invites viewing with ‘the eyes of a child, fresh with wonder’. The four pieces acquired by François and Susan de Menil certainly achieve that.