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
Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale at
Christie’s New York.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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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.