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The Bergman Collection
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Inspired by the chance discovery of a shop selling exotic pets on one of his forays into Manhattan, Joseph Cornell’s Untitled (Cockatoo with Watch Faces) forms part of the artist’s most celebrated series—the Aviaries. An abundant symbol of travel, women, youth and music, the Aviaries seamlessly emerge as the modern sanctuaries among the artist’s many portals into the Victorian world. While Cornell was an avid note taker and kept a series of journals throughout his career, no single series seems to be as fully documented as the Aviaries. Describing his approach to these refreshed and more modernistic constructions, Cornell’s diary reads: “original inspiration of the bird store, windows, simplicity of magic, pet shop.”
Project: large or small cage with mobile effects: swinging perches, swinging rings, pieces of bird-feed, etc., etc.; consider exotic colourings (notebook/scrapbook); try for effect of prolonged motion from mobiles; use of scraps or straight pieces of mirror; touches of jetsam; ”used woods; “ springs; inner chamber of arranged mirrors for accentuated effect of depth; for general notes: paste patches against white background, then repaint thick white from here develop. Directions: clean and abstract; “lived in” mussy aspect (J. Cornell, from his diaries, quoted in L. Roscoe Hartigan, R. Vine, R. Lehrman & W. Hopps, Joseph Cornell: Shadowplay Eterniday, New York & London, 2003, p. 126).
In 1949, Cornell made his debut at the Charles Egan Gallery with his first show devoted to the Aviary boxes for which he is best remembered. Aviary, as the show was called, consisted of 26 bird boxes from the late 1940s, hung on ledges of various heights to suggest birds in trees. Egan, whose 57th Street gallery opened in 1945, was to be a staunch supporter of Cornell, though the two were initially an odd pair as Egan primarily fostered the careers of Abstract Expressionists whose style would come to define the art of the 1950s.
Their partnership coincided with Cornell’s turn toward a more streamlined modernity, away from of his preference for the Victorian and Surrealism in favor of a more stark or abstract approach. Untitled (Cockatoo with Watch Faces), with its white-washed interior and gridded clock faces, typifies Cornell’s new approach to his miniature habitats. As Deborah Solomon explains, Cornell diverged from the “fairy-tale motifs that had engaged him throughout the 1940s...his Aviaries belonged to the era of Abstract Expressionism—with all that that implies about direct gestures and blunt truths” (D. Solomon, Utopia Parkway: The Life and Work of Joseph Cornell, 1997, p. 186). Untitled (Cockatoo with Watch Faces) is typical of the Aviaries made around the 1949 show with its spare interior, geometric composition and lack of sentimental decoration.
In his preface for the exhibition brochure, friend and editor of Dance Index magazine, Donald Windham, wrote that birds are “remarkable for the distances they travel, for their faculty, incomprehensible to man, of knowing the relations between remote places” (D. Waldman, Joseph Cornell: Master of Dreams, New York, 2002, p. 89). Indeed, Cornell was familiar with the symbolic meaning of birds. In opposition to the serpent, a symbol of the earth, the bird is the symbol of the heavens. Like butterflies, small birds symbolize the soul freed from its earthly bounds. Often representing angels because of their wings, the flight paths of birds were once thought to link the material world to the heavens. Furthermore, in Eastern culture, the innumerable blue birds in Chinese literature of the Han period are fairies, immortals, and heavenly messengers, symbolizing freedom.
Once a Surrealist in his own right, Cornell was very much familiar with the usage of the bird by his Parisian counterparts—particularly that of Max Ernst who developed an birdlike alter ego, Loplop, which he often included in his artwork. Joan Miró’s Object of 1936, which featured a stuffed parrot, stood next to Cornell’s Elements of Natural Philosophy in the American Artist’s first museum exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art’s Fantastic Art, Dada, and Surrealism in New York. Lastly, Cornell was familiar with Magritte’s painting of a birdcage in place of an upper torso and a head—intellect—in Therapeutic II, 1937. Indeed, for many artists the bird came to symbolize the spirit of mankind, and in particular that of women and children—a birdcage is used to symbolize a kept woman. However, for Cornell the exotic bird symbolized so much more. The parrot or cockatoo was his modern stand-in for the ballerina, whose unattainable beauty graced the stage in an alluring feathered costume in Swan Lake or the vocal magnificence of his favorite opera singers.
In fact, Cornell gives an account of the genesis of the parrot and cockatoo boxes in the draft of a statement called “Parrots, Pasta and Pergolesi”: “magic windows of yesterday...pet shop windows splashed with white and tropical plumage, the kind of revelation symptomatic of city wanderings in another era” The association of birds with bel-canto singer Guiditta Pasta and the composer Giovanni Battista Pergolesi is a natural one, and there are stories of cockatoos able to imitate arias and even entire operas. Cornell continues: “The ‘context’ ‘atmosphere’ or whatever the mot juste in which these feathered friends came into being is a warm and rich one... scintillating songs of Rossini and Bellini and the whole golden age of bel canto...” (D. Ades, The Transcendental Surrealism of Joseph Cornell, K. McShine (ed.), Joseph Cornell, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, 1980, p. 37).
Coursing through Joseph Cornell’s work is a recurrent attention to the preservation and contemplation of past, present and future. Amassing a time capsule of images and ephemera in his basement studio on Utopia Parkway, the artist became the heroic guardian of the past, who was determined to reintroduce its pleasures through his uniquely modern and timeless sensibilities. The meticulous use of gridded clock faces in Untitled (Cockatoo with Watch Faces) signals this obsession with time without alluding to any one period of time. A strong sense of the present emanates from Cornell’s efforts to capture ‘fleeting impressions’ and the ‘spontaneous unfoldment’ of images, while his emphasis on childhood and memory represents his belief in extending the past into the present and the future” Lynda Hartigan has eloquently stated. “Ultimately, his descriptions of time as ‘eterni-day’ and the ‘metaphysique d’ephemera’—the lasting and passing—reflect his estimation of time’s multiple dimensions and effects in his projects of beauty and insight (L. R. Hartigan, Joseph Cornell: Navigating the Imagination, exh. cat., Peabody Essex Museum, 2007, p. 335).
And yet, despite the artist’s affinity to both past and future, the anthropomorphization found within Untitled (Cockatoo with Watch Faces) very much relates to Cornell himself. The garden at his home on Utopia Parkway in Flushing boasted a quince tree, flowering vines, bird bath, wooden armchair and bird feeding table. He took daily delight in feeding his avian visitors, making notes of their performances in his diaries. These often contained personifications that are at once elaborate and revealing, and indicate his fascination and identification with birds. “Starling glistened bright in the sunshine atop the garage, reminding me of the 16-18 or so strutting in the backyard last week fighting for the bread, pecking in the grass,” Cornell recalled in his diary during the summer of 1951. “This morning the lone bird a shining symbol in his glistening black coat, last week the flock evoking the ‘congresses’ of Indian Summer before the trees were cut down. Whistlings of a jocose nature and all the atmosphere these birds bring with their absurd comical struttings and vocal bustlings” (J. Cornell’s diary, 6 August 1951, from the Archives of American Art, reproduced at www.aaa.si.edu).
Indeed, the caged bird also recalls the artist, limited in his movements, unable to fly the coop, trapped on the material plane in Flushing. With his longings and desires to escape the confines of his own cage, it seems palpable that within his Aviaries, Cornell condenses his autobiographical frustrations at the limits on his life: his obligations to his aging mother and brother, Robert. At the same time, his adherence to Christian Science may be reflected in this sense of entrapment on the illusory physical plane as opposed to the infinite freedom of the imagination, of the ineffable and, ultimately, of the spiritual. Cornell’s cages are infinitely delicate yearnings for release.
The foreign lands that were so much the focus of Cornell’s poetic dreams and desires, and from which this bird appears to have come, were in his imagination, and were all the more lyrical and universal for it. They appeal directly to the viewer’s own imagination and to a sense of childlike wonder. The strange clocks, broken music box, and plethora of disjointed springs and watch parts of Untitled (Cockatoo with Watch Faces), emphasize this, creating the impression of some strange, arcane game of strategy. The glass impedes our involvement in this game, crucially begging the question: who is playing? Is this a game in which the bird itself is involved? Is the artist competing with the bird? Is the artist the bird? Is time with us or against us? Untitled (Cockatoo with Watch Faces) is rich with magic and mystery. Its composition and juxtapositions imply a narrative, an internal logic, but it is one that hovers tantalizingly out of reach. This is an insight into the strange, whimsical and poetic alternative dimension of Cornell’s own personal world, in which different rules have been codified and crystallized, evoking an entire universe of the fantastical, the wonderful, and the unattainable.