Singular in its artistic format and densely layered in its use of elements and references, Joseph Cornell's boxes delightfully spark the imagination. Each hand-fashioned wooden box with a glass front reveals a miniature, fantastical world that is quite unlike the reality of the external world. Since the 1930s, Cornell had constructed boxes that evoke affinities with the Surrealist notions of chance, dreams, fascination with otherworldly beauty, and poetic association. In his hands, the humblest stuff from the five-and-dime store takes on the sheen of the most priceless of treasures. The variety of elements and media of Blue Sand Box--glass marble, glass goblet, sand, starfish--create an object within an object which is visually arresting and acts as a conduit to enchantment. "Cornell's interest in the ordinary and fleeting was so elevated that he named it the 'métaphysique d'éphermera,' suggesting that literal things can create an elaborate and subtle form of magic" (L. R. Hartigan, "Joseph Cornell's Dance with Duality," Joseph Cornell: Shadowplay Eterniday, London, 2003, p. 23). It is all the more emphasized by the plaster that surround the edges of the glass, acting as a framing device, and alludes to the grotto of mythological scenes of Renaissance and Romantic paintings.
This work is a wonderful example of Cornell's Sand Fountains series of the 1950s--a collection of box constructions that invites physical interaction with the viewer. Inside the Blue Sand Box is the makings of an hourglass. Cornell's hourglass is elaborately constructed: the upper chamber is shown from which blue-tinted sand trickles down to a cracked glass goblet held in place by some twine on a pedestal. As the sand fills the goblet, it spills over to the floor of the box. The colors blue and white are special to Cornell: the white is the color of purity and dreams, and he often uses this particular intense shade of blue to convey a nocturnal scene, or the infinite ocean. In this case, he references the latter as shown by the blue-colored sand and whitewashed starfish placed in the corner.
Lynda Roscoe Hartigan conjures up a vivid image of the artist handling his Sand Fountain box constructions: "Picture a tall man, with long tapering fingers on large hands, making small things--palm-size, lap-size, shopping-size. Imagine him listening to the tinkle of rolling glass marbles, opening a tiny drawer, tilting a Sand Fountain so its sand will shift. Cornell valued holding and carrying his boxes and collages, which meant that he chose to work on a scale that provided a proportional, synergistic relationship with the human body, whether for himself or an audience. Creating texture, sound, motion, and imagery within a box heightened the interactive wholeness that he hoped to achieve and deliver during the physical experience of his art." (L. R. Hartigan, "Joseph Cornell's Dance with Duality," Joseph Cornell: Shadowplay Eterniday, London, 2003, p. 22.)
Cornell's boxes have long fascinated his critics in terms of their origin. Cornell's first dealer, Julien Levy, theorized that the artist may have been influence by old French puzzle boxes. Another theory is that the boxes are based on toys Cornell made to amuse his younger brother who was an invalid. It is certain his meeting with Marcel Duchamp in New York during the 1940s affected him greatly. In fact, upon their first meeting, Duchamp gave Cornell a ready-made of a cardboard box bearing the moniker "Gimme Strength." In the mid-1950s, Cornell reciprocated the gesture and Duchamp acquired a Sand Fountain for his personal collection; they spoke of the Sand Fountain's affinities with the art of ancient Egypt and archeological excavations.
In his discussion of Cornell's Sand Fountains, Walter Hopps dwells on the integral component of time. "Cornell's focus becomes our focus in his Sand Fountains, testaments to time's character as both cyclical and fleeting. The ceiling of each Sand Fountain features a hidden chamber. Turning the box upside down drives all of the sand into the chamber. Returning the box to its upright position starts the flow of sand, usually white, blue, black, or ocher. Each example 'runs' like an hourglass for a precise, short interval of time as the sand fills a fragment of a cordial glass and then spills over onto the floor. As the flowing sand mesmerizes us, time passes before we know it. However, time never runs out in the Sand Fountains, which are chambers of time in motion as soon as their contents are recycled and the operation repeated." (W. Hopps, Joseph Cornell: Shadowplay Eterniday, London, 2003, p. 172.) As time is measured by the trickling of the sand, it can be constantly renewed. Each time the sand cascades down--amorphous and freely moving--it creates a new formation and the image through the glass fagade changes yet again.