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Joseph Cornell (1903-1972)
Property from the Collection of Lee V. Eastman
Joseph Cornell (1903-1972)

Untitled (Soap Bubble Set: Lunar Space Object Series)

Joseph Cornell (1903-1972)
Untitled (Soap Bubble Set: Lunar Space Object Series)
signed 'Joseph Cornell'(in reverse on a paper label affixed to the reverse)
wood box construction--printed paper collage, gouache, seashells, glass, cork, marble, metal, clay
9¾ x 14½ x 3¾ in. (24.8 x 36.8 x 9.5 cm.)
Executed circa 1958-62.
Acquired from the artist

Lot Essay

Cornell's final series called Space Objects, or better known as Celestial Navigations, seek to encapsulate the cosmos within the intimate confines of his box constructions. By using reproduced images of planets, stars and constellations as the backdrops, Cornell revisits a format from the 1930s, made most famously by his Soap Bubble Set, 1938 in the Collection of the Museum of Modern Art. Untitled is an outstanding example of his series from the late 1950s.

"Cornell's final series of boxes, they have the trademarks of a 'late' style: they combine intense emotion with an outward austerity, while casting a glance at the heavens. The boxes are intended as a universe-inside-a box in the most literal way. Their walls are lined with cutouts from sky charts and constellation maps: painted cork balls suspended in space on horizontal metal rods suggest the movement of the planets. Metal rings dangle from the rods, evoking all at once the earth, a performer's bracelet, and the chains from which Houdini escaped. Below, the material world beckons with an assortment of symbols" (D. Solomon, Utopia Parkway: The Life and Work of Joseph Cornell, New York, 1997, p. 248.)

This assortment of objects within the stage-like space of Untitled--with the image of the moon as the backdrop--consist of two horizontal metal rods from which a metal hoop dangles a cork ball painted white balances on the rods. On the floor of the box is a cordial with a blue marble placed inside, a seashell painted white, a clay pipe in two pieces, and tips of nails on the floor painted white. The circular forms of the ball, the hoop, and the marble reiterate the roundness of the moon. Because the ball and metal hoops are not fixed, they are free to move across the rods, and thus, the appearance of the box somewhat changes with every new position.

In Untitled, the viewer is struck by the manipulation of scale and distance among the different elements in the box. In relation to the moon in the background and due to the confined space, the objects in front of it assume an exaggerated scale. The moon is neatly framed and seemed suspended between the fragments of navigational charts. This telescoping effect adds to the otherworldly quality of the box.

For someone like Cornell who never traveled beyond his hometown, the Celestial Navigations allowed him to imagine voyages to the farthest reaches of places possible. "Cornell took up the challenge of communicating the joy of beauty, the beauty of joy--penultimate, subjective abstractions--each time he made a box or collage. In the process he developed thematic paths toward his goal, enlisting as his principal guides the concepts of spirituality, exploration, chance, and play, as well as the passage of time, the cult of personality, the celestial, and the natural." (L. R. Hartigan, "Joseph Cornell's Dance with Duality," Joseph Cornell: Shadowplay Eterniday, London, 2003, p. 23.) Cornell's boxes traverse through space and time because of the artist's ability to compress and richly juxtapose objects and images to convey a sense of infinite possibility. Despite his cloistered life, Cornell was an avid voyager into spectral territories of the mysterious and the spectacular. He continuously invented parallel universes where the laws of this world are suspended; his box constructions are souvenirs of his imaginary journeys.


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