Joseph Cornell (1903-1972)
On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial int… Read more Works from the Collection of François and Susan de Menil
Joseph Cornell (1903-1972)

Untitled (Story without a Name—for Max Ernst)

Joseph Cornell (1903-1972)
Untitled (Story without a Namefor Max Ernst)
sixteen collages—printed paper collage on paperboard
each paperboard: 10 x 7 1/2 in. (25.4 x 19.1 cm.)
largest collage: 7 1/2 x 6 1/2 in. (18.9 x 16.4 cm.)
smallest collage: 2 1/8 x 2 3/4 in. (5.6 x 7 cm.)
(16)Executed circa 1934-1935.
Estate of Joseph Cornell
Castelli Feigen Corcoran Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1980
View, 2nd series, no. 1, April 1942 (illustrated).
J. Ashbery, "Cornell: The Cube Root of Dream," ARTnews, vol. 66, no. 4, Summer 1967, pp. 59 and 63.
D. Ashton, A Joseph Cornell Album, 1974, New York, p. 157.
D. Waldman, Joseph Cornell, New York, 1977, no. 65 (illustrated).
Joseph Cornell: Art and Metaphysics, exh. cat., New York, Castelli Feigen Corcoran Gallery, 1982, p. 3.
R. R. Hubert, "Patch and Paradox in Joseph Cornell's Art," Collage, 1983, pp. 168-172.
W. Spies, Max Ernst Collages: The Invention of the Surrealist Universe, New York, 1991, p. 266, no. 839.
D. Solomon, Utopia Parkway: The Life and Work of Joseph Cornell, New York, 1997, p. 131.
MATRIX/Berkeley: Twenty Years, Berkeley, 1998, n.p. (one collage illustrated).
J. Hauptman, Joseph Cornell: Stargazing in the Cinema, New Haven, 1999, p. 28
D. Waldman, Joseph Cornell: Master of Dreams, New York, 2002, p. 127.
J. Edwards and S. Taylor, eds., Joseph Cornell: Opening the Box, Bern, 2007, pp. 19 and 339, fig 10.2 (illustrated).
K. Hoving, Joseph Cornell and Astronomy: A Case for the Stars, Princeton, 2009, p. 18, fig. 1.11 (collage no. 10 illustrated).
M. Affron and S. Ramond, eds., Joseph Cornell and Surrealism, Charlottesville, 2015, pp. 95.
Joseph Cornell: Wanderlust, exh. cat, London, Royal Academy of Arts, 2015, p. 77.
A. Leppanen-Guerra, Children's Stories and 'Child-Time' in the Works of Joseph Cornell and the Transatlantic Avante-Garde, London and New York, 2017, pp. 59-64.
Berkeley University Art Gallery, Joseph Cornell: MATRIX/Berkeley 30, October 1979-January 1980, n.p. (four collages exhibited).
New York, Museum of Modern Art; London, Whitechapel Gallery; Kunsthalle Düsseldorf; Florence, Palazzo Pitti; Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris and Art Institute of Chicago, Joseph Cornell, November 1980-March 1982, pp. 284-285, pl. 36-51 (illustrated).
Washington, D.C., National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Joseph Cornell: An Exploration of Sources, November 1982-February 1983, pp. 12-13.
Kamakura, Museum of Modern Art; Shiga, Museum of Modern Art; Ohara Museum of Modern Art; Kawamura Memorial Museum of Art, Joseph Cornell, October 1992-May 1993, pp. 114 and 161-162, no. 42 (illustrated).
Salem, Peabody Essex Museum; Washington, D.C., Smithsonian American Art Museum; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Joseph Cornell: Navigating the Imagination, April 2007-August 2008, pp. 47, 294-295 and 365, no. 27, pl. 138 (illustrated in color).
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Lot Essay

In the sixteen-collaged works that comprise Untitled (Story without a Name—for Max Ernst), Joseph Cornell’s affinity for the Surrealist artist is illustrated in a series of beguiling vignettes. The characters and scenery from Victorian-era engravings collide in unexpected, dreamlike ways. In one, firefighters endeavor to put out a blazing building that has sprouted a colossal lily. In another, the figure of a young girl has become fused with the wreckage of a sinking clipper ship. These collages are the tactile result of Cornell’s first major encounter with Surrealist art, specifically Max Ernst’s book of collages called La femme 100 têtes, that Cornell saw at the Julien Levy Gallery in 1931. For Cornell, Ernst’s collages were a revelation. They demonstrated that art could be fashioned from simple everyday objects, rearranged and combined in fascinating new ways. Cornell set about creating a small series of photo-collages not long after his first introduction to Ernst’s work. The present set of sixteen were created over a two-year period that spanned the years 1934 to 1935 and are, perhaps, the greatest collages of Cornell’s career.

In 1941, Cornell was asked to submit his work to an upcoming issue of View magazine—an important American journal dedicated to Surrealist art published between 1940 and 1947—that would be dedicated to the work of Max Ernst. At that time, Cornell grouped the collages together into their present arrangement. Since then, they have been widely discussed, exhibited and reproduced, making them a hallmark of Cornell’s early career. Delicate, clever and dreamlike, this important selection of sixteen collages demonstrates Cornell’s facility with Surrealist technique, while paying homage to Ernst himself.

Extrapolating on the Surrealist technique for combining ordinary objects within unexpected arrangements, Cornell builds upon Ernst’s photo-collage repertoire in the sixteen-part Untitled (Story without a Name—for Max Ernst). Arranged within miniature tableaus, Cornell has cut apart and spliced the magazine clippings and Victorian-era engravings that he collected from antique shops, which he repositions in strange new relationships. Beautiful but monstrous creatures of colossal proportions are featured alongside smartly-dressed children. In one collage, an immense bird has been trapped by the rings of a distant planet. In another, a boy’s head floats through the air on a flying saucer with wings of a bird. Elsewhere, fires rage and the oceans swell, in dramatic tableaux that verge on the Victorian-era fantasies of Jules Verne or Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Already at this early date, many of Cornell’s most significant themes are recorded. Hot air balloons, planets, birds in flight and airships relate to his interest in astronomy, whereas the prevalence of Victorian-era children connect with the artist’s bucolic youth in Nyack, New York. Further still, the abundance of flora and fauna demonstrate Cornell’s interest in the early life sciences, particularly the classification of specimens within glass collection frames.

Working at his kitchen table in his family home at 3708 Utopia Parkway in suburban Queens, New York, Cornell allowed his imagination to unfurl as he culled through the newspapers, books and magazines of his growing archive. He was careful, meticulous and precise in his methods, cleverly disguising the transitions between one source and the next. He did this by selecting prints that displayed a similar color, tone and technique, even measuring the line-weight of each engraver’s hand. This allows for a seamless fusion of images, making for a wholly integrated presentation that takes on the authority of scientific engraving or book illustration. “These fabulous landscapes somehow look natural, integrated, adjusted. Even at their most violent or fantastic they have... a romantic tenderness which is all the more moving for its context,” the poet John Ashbery has written, having described the present work as “marvelously delicate and witty. One keeps returning to verify certain details, but remains tantalized: the spirit of the work flickers everywhere but stays as elusive as memory” (J. Ashbery, “Cornell: The Cube Root of Dreams,” Art News, Summer, 1967, p. 63).

Cornell would have placed great importance on the sixteen collages that he selected for the April 1942 issue of View magazine, since the artist identified with many of the European emigrées that found themselves in New York during the war years. Cornell was in fact a contemporary of Abstract Expressionist artists Willem de Kooning, Clyfford Still and Barnett Newman, but he felt a strong affinity toward the older generation of European artists. Rather than distance himself as the Abstract Expressionists did, he allowed the strength of European past masters to influence the direction of his work. Having met many of the Surrealists through his dealer, Julien Levy, Cornell felt free to assimilate their pictorial techniques. Untitled (Story without a Name—for Max Ernst) can be seen as the pictorial illustration of the Surrealist intent. As the artist Paul Nougé described, the Surrealist artist endeavored to represent the “bewildering object and the accidental isolating the object... breaking off ties with the rest of the world” (P. Nougé, quoted in D. Waldman, Joseph Cornell: Master of Dreams, New York, 2002, p. 21).

Cornell exhibited his work for the first time in January 1932 at Julien Levy’s gallery in an important early exhibition of Surrealism that included Ernst, Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dalí. Titled Surrealisme, this landmark exhibition inaugurated the movement in New York, and Cornell designed the exhibition announcement at Levy’s suggestion. Cornell would go on to exhibit regularly with Julien Levy for the duration of the 1930s, and became lifelong friends with several of the artists exhibited there, chief among them Marcel Duchamp. Cornell is even credited with being the first American patron of Salvador Dalí, having acquired a small work by Dalí in 1932. Though he would publicly distance himself from the Surrealists in 1936, the movement nevertheless had a profound and lasting impact on his art, allowing him to subtly integrate aspects of his own Victorian childhood within dreamlike tableaus that verge on the sublime. “Cornell’s boxes embody the substance of dreams so powerfully that it seems that these eminently palpable bits of wood, cloth, glass and metal must vanish the next moment, as when the atmosphere of a dream becomes so intensely realistic that you know you are about to wake up” (J. Ashberry, op. cit., pp. 57-8).

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