JOSEPH CORNELL (1903-1972)
JOSEPH CORNELL (1903-1972)
JOSEPH CORNELL (1903-1972)
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JOSEPH CORNELL (1903-1972)
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A Century of Art: The Gerald Fineberg Collection
JOSEPH CORNELL (1903-1972)

Untitled (Medici Variant)

JOSEPH CORNELL (1903-1972)
Untitled (Medici Variant)
signed 'Joseph Cornell' (on a paper label affixed to the reverse)
wood box construction–wood, tinted glass, paint, nails, marbled paper and printed paper collage
18 5/8 x 11 1/4 x 4 3/8 in. (47.3 x 28.6 x 11.1 cm.)
Executed in 1954.
Private collection, acquired directly from the artist
ACA Galleries, New York
Private collection, United States, 1991
Dickinson, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner
New York, Dickinson, Beauty Shared: A Collector's Vision, April-June 2019, pp. 20-21 (illustrated).

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Lot Essay

"Cornell was a voyager, travelling through space and time to dimensions of the imagination and the spirit."
Robert Lehrman

Untitled (Medici Variant) (1954) is a captivating shadow box from one of Joseph Cornell’s most important series: the “Medici Slot Machines.” Set in an antiqued, beaded wooden frame, the construction centers around the image of an androgynous youth from a painting by a French follower of Caravaggio—it was attributed to the master himself until 1958—set behind a pane of cobalt blue glass. Wooden bars flank the portrait to form another internal frame. A surround of film-strip-like panels, glazed in the same deep blue, repeat the boy’s face on a smaller scale. Cornell has painted a grid onto the blue glass, recalling the lead lines of a window or the crosshairs of a shooting gallery. The box is enclosed by a final pane of clear glass. Its internal walls are faced with marbled blue paper; a shallow drawer at its base can be opened to reveal the same lining. The “Medici Slot Machines”, which Cornell began making in 1942, took his boxes’ formal and emotional impact to new heights. Combining evocations of the penny arcades and shopfronts of his youth with images of innocence from a more distant past, they ache with nostalgia and mystery. Other examples featuring the iconic “Caravaggio boy” are held in major museum collections, including Caravaggio Prince, Medici Slot Machine Variant (circa 1950, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.) and Untitled (Compartmented Box) (1954-56, Moderna Museet, Stockholm).

Cornell, who lived most of his adult life in a small home on Utopia Parkway, Queens, with his mother and brother, left behind a body of work that stands alone in the twentieth century. His boxes assemble found images, objects and ephemera to create dreamlike miniature worlds. They invite a childlike sense of wonder while also stirring profound themes of longing, memory and imagination. Cornell’s sensibility was informed by his wide reading in spiritualism, cosmology and, especially, Romantic and Symbolic poetry—particularly the nineteenth-century French poets Gérard de Nerval and Stéphane Mallarmé. A shy man often pictured as a recluse, he in fact drew actively upon his surroundings, wandering the antique shops and second-hand bookstores of New York City for inspiration and materials, and engaging with many of the most influential figures of his day. His contacts ranged from the Surrealist circle of Max Ernst, André Breton, Marcel Duchamp and Salvador Dalí to the Abstract Expressionists Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning and Robert Motherwell; Andy Warhol visited his studio in 1963, accompanied by James Rosenquist and Robert Indiana.

The first American exhibition of Surrealist art, Newer Super-Realism, was held in November 1931 at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut— the same museum, coincidentally, had recently acquired the “Caravaggio boy” painting that Cornell would use some two decades later. The show included works by leading European Surrealists including Dalí, Ernst, Giorgio de Chirico, André Masson and Joan Miró, among others. In January 1932, many of them were exhibited again at the Julien Levy Gallery on Madison Avenue, where Cornell saw them. With no training in painting or draftsmanship himself, he was particularly struck by Ernst’s collage technique, which offered a way into the poetic juxtaposition and recombination of found images. After some early cut-out works directly inspired by Ernst, Cornell developed his box constructions over the following decade. They became static theatres, staging allusive objects—clay pipes, shells, cork balls, watch-springs—among fragments of text, maps and printed pictures. Many paid tribute to idealized female stage presences, incorporating keepsakes and letters from ballerinas and movie stars. He mastered the delicate joinery of their wooden frames.

With the “Medici Slot Machines”, Cornell moved away from the sometimes dense Victoriana of his early boxes towards a restrained grandeur and gravitas. The works revolve around four different paintings of children from the Renaissance, Mannerist and Baroque periods—some depicting actual Medici family members, others not—by Bronzino, Pinturicchio, Sofonisba Anguissola, and the present work’s Caravaggio. They conjure the essence of a long-lost European world that was far from Cornell’s own horizons yet central to his artistic imagination. While many feature moving elements and poignant, toylike props such as jacks and marbles, their arrangements are streamlined and balanced. Their various layers and compartments create psychic intrigues of concealment and revelation, and have been compared to the play of windows, mirrors and curtains in the paintings of Johannes Vermeer, which Cornell had admired at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. This formal rigor enhances the emotive punch of the works, which, like all of Cornell’s art, are ultimately about the irretrievable loss of passing time.

Peering into glass-panelled boxes to inspect their contents is not unlike looking through a telescope in order to bring the distant closer.Lynda Roscoe HartiganCornell’s use of the mechanically-repeated picture, as seen in Untitled (Medici Variant), was a true innovation, far predating Andy Warhol’s desire to paint “like a machine” using the screenprint. Cornell availed himself of commercial photographic and Photostatting services—an early form of the photocopy—to reproduce his source images on a variety of scales. He often bought useful items such as watch-faces en masse when he came across them in second-hand stores, and gathered his materials in labelled cardboard boxes in his basement. This practice extended to his photographic sources: one box in his archives, labeled “Medici Slot Machine” and “Medici A lot Material Caravaggio, Etc.”, contains multiple differently-sized versions of the “Caravaggio boy” image, as well as the page of an early Wadsworth exhibition catalogue from which these reproductions were derived.

Unlike the often rather painterly application of Warhol’s silkscreen, Adam Gopnik observes, Cornell’s hand was that of “a true appropriator”: for all his preoccupation with the past he was a radical technician, and in fact “the first entirely camera-and-object-driven artist to enter the museums” (A. Gopnik, “Sparkings,” The New Yorker, February 9, 2003). Cornell’s “Medici” appropriations allowed him to work in series, plumbing the reservoirs of feeling evoked by his chosen images. He staged and restaged them not only within individual boxes but across multiple works, creating instalments in a large, continuous and intimate narrative. Equally remote from the kitsch of Pop and the Surrealist delight in shock and horror, Cornell’s reproduced and juxtaposed images are not ironic or subversive, but deeply sincere. They are reliquaries of daydream, melancholy and magic. Sealed behind glass, the boy in Untitled (Medici Variant) gazes out from the sapphire twilight like a saint, or perhaps a prisoner. He opens his mouth as if to speak; he is on display, but forever beyond reach.

"Cornell’s boxes look like dreams to us, but the mind that made them was always wide awake". Adam Gopnik

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