Please note that this work has been requested for inclusion in the forthcoming exhibition Joseph Cornell: Wanderlust at the Royal Academy of Arts, London and the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, July 2015-January 2016.
Evolving his boxes into both impossible and imaginary museums, Cornell's series of Medici Slot Machines emerge as an archeology of poetry. Cornell himself thrived on and trapped such frozen moments throughout his life and his work. Haunting the second-hand bookshops and the diners of New York and Queens, he had infinite experiences seeing the world through a window, recording the fleeting apparitions of beautiful girls, birds, stars and even his friends in his diary, distilling the essence of that experience into his work. For Cornell's Medici Slot Machines has as much of the shop front as it does the museum. Just beyond our grasp, on the other side of a plate of glass, is the bold image of a Renaissance youth staring back at his viewer. The grid in front of him lends the impression that we are merely striding past a window, his glance the relic of a frozen moment.
Executed in 1943, Medici Slot Machine from the celebrated eponymous series, is considered by many to be his greatest works, adapting three different Renaissance portraits as their sources, in this case Pinturicchio's Portrait of a Boy from the Gemldegalerie in Dresden. Although Cornell was known to have almost never traveled beyond the bounds of New York, he was an inveterate traveler of the mind. He was enchanted and obsessed by ideas of the travel of bygone years, in the same way that he was obsessed by the ballerinas of prior centuries. In this sense, his accumulation of materials for his boxes resembled the souvenir-gathering of the Grand Tour. Here, Cornell himself brings the magpie tendency of the romantic imaginary traveler of yesteryear to his box, filling it with snippets of different works and maps, subliminal and seemingly random scatterings of thought, interrelation, memory and association. This is a very personal museum of the mind.
The importance of these fragments is a secret and elusive code that hovers only just beyond our grasp. Cornell's boxes have an infinitely gentle poetic sensibility, creating strange relationships through the juxtaposition of various elements. Each element, arranged in the box according to a scheme that defies our rational analysis or comprehension, appears to be imbued with almost talismanic power, with rich associations, especially for the artist. Cornell has been quoted as saying that his idea of perfect happiness was 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). There is no better way than this to explain the infinite absorption and engagement of Medici Slot Machine. While the significance may remain ineffable, it is precisely its aching closeness, its elusive yet palpable appearance presented behind glass that makes this box so engaging.
It has been postulated that the images of these Renaissance youths chimed particularly with Cornell's own perception of the rarified early years of his childhood in Nyack, where his father (who died while Cornell was still relatively young) was an impressive man-about-town and his mothers family was the great, established patriarchal driving force there. It may be through this that Cornell grew with a sense of his own personal expectations and therefore identified with these Renaissance figures. Pinturicchio's picture in particular had resonance for Cornell, as photographs of his studio show a reproduction tacked to the wall. The boys haunting and defiant face within the case of the box appears stranded. He has been captured in a single yet, to him, infinitely significant moment. As the viewer contemplates Medici Slot Machine, a gap between our world and the world of the boy is bridged. And yet it is not the Renaissance sitter himself who is the subject, but Cornell's own interpretative characterization of him. Like the ballerinas whom he mythologized, bending them and their lives to new meanings and new legends, the Medici Slot Machine has been dressed in new robes, given a new and unique mythology through Cornell's use of his image.
As well as childhood being overtly referenced through the image shown in Medici Slot Machine, it is referenced through the penny arcade aspect of the box. The sense of wonder and transcendence that is so central to Cornell's work is made all the more potent through this reminder of these entertainments from his childhood, echoed even in the architecture and construction of the box. These arcade slot machines would dispense views or entertainments on the insertion of a coin, entertaining the child for a brief moment. In his art, Cornell recaptures this sense of momentary entertainment, presenting his subject matter in a manner that recalls childhood, recalls awe and recalls sheer, innocent fun. In many ways, Cornell's view of the world was similar to that of a child, and it is this that he manages to capture in his art, stating that a Medici Slot Machine was something that might be encountered in a penny arcade in a dream (J. Cornell, quoted in D. Solomon, Utopia Parkway: The Life and Work of Joseph Cornell, London, 1997, p. 139).