Joseph Cornell (1903-1972)
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Joseph Cornell (1903-1972)

Untitled (Star Game)

Joseph Cornell (1903-1972)
Untitled (Star Game)
box construction—wood, glass, paint, printed paper, blue sand, shell and marble
2 5/8 x 12 3/4 x 11 x in. (6.7 x 32.4 x 28 cm.)
Executed circa 1948.
Estate of Joseph Cornell
Castelli Feigen Corcoran Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1976
"Art: Souvenirs," Newsweek, vol. 87, 1 March 1976, p. 81 (illustrated).
D. Waldman, Joseph Cornell, New York, 1977, no. 75 (illustrated).
New York, Leo Castelli Gallery, Joseph Cornell, February-March 1976, n.p., no. 37 (illustrated).
New York, Museum of Modern Art, Joseph Cornell, November 1980-January 1981, p. 291, pl. 187 (illustrated).
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Lot Essay

This unique, six-pointed, star-shaped creation that Cornell made around 1948 is one of only two known star-shaped boxes in his oeuvre. It contains the tiny objects of fascination that the artist held so dear—those that sparked revelry or contained a hidden, almost talismanic, significance. Paramount among these were the seashells, spirals, colored sand, toy marbles and blocks of wood that feature as kinetic moving parts in many of his box constructions. Untitled (Star Game) is likely based upon the small, hand-held Victorian “dexterity games” that demanded the skill of those that played them, in lining up miniature metal balls or other wooden tokens within a winning arrangement. Seemingly simple, Cornell’s Untitled (Star Game) connects with the more complex themes that fascinated him throughout his life—especially the games, toys and symbols of his youth. The star itself is a significant personal motif, as it relates to the artist’s fascination with the heavens, astronomy, and control over a boundless and infinite universe.

In Untitled (Star Game), Cornell has integrated the geometric design of the six-pointed star in his game, where six objects have been aligned within each of the six segments. The viewer’s participation is a crucial component in Star Game, where the tactile quality of holding the box and tilting its contents ushers forth a rush of visual and auditory delights. The sound of the rolling marble across glass, the delicate whisper of colored sand, and the metallic tinkle of the blue ring as it spins around its axis, all contribute to the “ineffable joy” Cornell sought to express.

As an insular artist consumed with his own dreams and reveries, Cornell had long been fascinated with games, toys and the ephemera of childhood. Beginning in 1932, Cornell created his series of jouets surrealistes, or “surrealist games” that were inspired by these vintage Victorian toys. These delicate, hand-held creations were indebted to Duchamp’s readymades, such as his Bicycle Wheel of 1913, which is credited for its incorporation of physical movement within a work of art. It also displays visual affinities with Duchamp’s Why Not Sneeze, Rrose Sélavy, of 1921, in which small white cubes have been filled within a metal cage. Duchamp included a thermometer in the cage that was meant to measure the coldness of the metal cubes, which, he said, was designed to provoke the viewer’s sneeze. Cornell was also intrigued by 17th-century Wunderkammer, also known as “cabinet of curiosities,” which sought to illustrate a miniature recreation of the world in all its foreign and exotic delights. So too did the importance of childhood learning, with its colored blocks, mathematical games and simple rules and objectives, equally apply.

The viewer’s physical interaction with the object in Untitled (Star Game) is a tactile one, involving skill, chance, and the importance of play. Rather than simply appreciate Cornell’s creation from a distance, the viewer is required to pick it up, tilt it from side to side, and interact with all of its moving parts. Cornell designed Untitled (Star Game) along with the following series of Sand Boxes and Sand Trays to be played with, and this feature distinguishes his work from that of his peers, eliciting a simple joy that still registers today as when it was originally created. This sentiment was expressed in a handbill for a 1939 exhibition of Cornell’s work by his friend, the art and film critic Parker Tyler, who wrote: “Cornell shows that toys can be created and presented to the adult world as legitimate objects. These are creative toys, these princely and poetical contrived objects of Joseph Cornell...with all the power of Pandora’s chest in their mysterious, but beautiful and untrivial machinery” (P. Tyler, 1939; reprinted in L. Blair, Joseph Cornell’s Vision of Spiritual Order, London, 1999, pp. 102-103).

Untitled (Star Game) might also be understood as the artist’s response to the atrocities of the Holocaust. Although he was too old to be drafted, Cornell nevertheless felt called to join in the war effort, and he worked briefly in an electronics plant in Long Island City, in 1943. He routinely sent care packages to Europe, and at some point he struck up a tender friendship with a teenage girl living as a refugee in a German prisoner-of-war camp. “During the war years, when food was scarce, he had started sending care packages abroad to people whose names he had acquired from listing in The Christian Science Monitor. He responded to their predicaments with a disarmingly selfless empathy. Of all his correspondents, Cornell was surely most font of Sonja Sheremietjew, a Polish teenager living as a refugee in a German camp… Sonja dreamed of moving to New York to open a flower shop, and Cornell assured her he would make every effort to bring her to the States. The care packages he sent her were singularly imaginative parcels. In addition to such staples as powdered milk and crackers, he enclosed objects meant to amuse, for instance… a Shirley Temple movie mag” (D. Solomon, Utopia Parkway: The Life and Work of Joseph Cornell, New York, 1997, pp. 178-179).

Untitled (Star Game) may be Cornell’s way of eliciting control over an irrational universe, where random acts of violence seemed to obliterate the arts, literature, music, dance and poetry that were so dear to him. In Untitled (Star Game), Cornell creates a rational system of order, in which each of his six elemental units have been safely enclosed behind glass panes, and yet, they are subject to disarray at a moment’s reach. This remains a central feature of his work, having deep roots in the ordered world of his own childhood: “Cornell’s approach to the universe was one of innocent wonder, in which he saw nature unfolding in all its strength and fragility, revealing itself through the seasons in an unending series of events… Cornell establishes his deeply reverential view of the universe as a mirror of mysterious truths…” (D. Waldman, Joseph Cornell: Master of Dreams, New York, 2002, p. 29).

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