An obsessive and eccentric collector of the tangible fragments of life, Joseph Cornell possessed a natural talent for arranging mundane objects in unexpectedly poetic and evocative combinations. A true alchemist, he injected metaphysical dimensions into everyday banalities. Redolent of Surrealism in their open-ended juxtapositions and of Dada in their invocation of found objects, Cornell's boxes reflect a singular vision. Deriving from his renowned Celestial Navigation series, Untitled features an oddball collection of trinkets amidst compendia of data, thereby evincing both the hand of a magician and a scientist at work.
From his earliest collages to his latest boxes, Cornell's work is rife with countless references to the sun, moon, planets, stars, and space. Cosmology constituted one of the artist's fundamental interests: he frequented the Hayden Planetarium, subscribed to its periodical, and owned over thirty books on astronomy. Cornell was fascinated by the evolution of different models of the universe and included engravings and photocopies of pre-Kepler world systems in his work.
Constellations - star maps of the night sky - had particular resonance for the artist. They were one of the most potent of human inventions, fixed long before man had discovered the laws governing the movement of the planets. Stars provided sailors with a system of nocturnal navigation and birds with directional sense during their epic migrations. Cornell harbored dreams of voyage; although his domestic responsibilities towards his elderly mother and invalid brother did not afford him the opportunity to stray far from the axis between his home in Utopia Parkway, Flushing and Manhattan, his peripatetic intelligence filtered allusions to travel. His interest in celestial systems also served as a metaphor for grappling with the spiritual realm; he often included charts and diagrams that proffered some semblance of order to the unknown.
Untitled features a map of the stars that is affixed at the center rear of the box. The Cartesian grid, bowed to suggest the space that is implied on two-dimensions (both in art and cartography), captures man's imposition of order on the natural. Similarly, the compilation of scientific data flanking this constellation, bespeak man's desire for empiricist documentation. Prominent in his boxes between the 1940s through the 1960s are the references to trade winds, ocean currents, longitude and latitude, solar and lunar eclipses and even migratory bird patterns based on the alignment of the star and planets.
A metal rod attached near the top of the box features two movable wooden dowels. Set against the backdrop of the celestial map they are suggestive of planetary and astral movement in three dimensions. A drilled hole in the white dowel on the right serves as both a planetary orb and ocular observational device. The dowel on the left features an obsolete planetary map, probably culled from an illustration from one of Cornell's many books on astronomy. Appearing like suspended planets, the colored marbles in the five cordial glasses at the base of the box extend the idea of the dowels.
Beneath the shallow nocturnal diorama behind the glass top is a long drawer that contains another night sky/star map. Lined in deep blue, the drawer features two silver ball bearings, a colorless glass marble, a clear, irregular crystal and a sprinkling of white sand. Suggesting a galaxy, this drawer becomes most evocative when tilted such that the white sand races across the blue sky in a way that evokes a sparkling shower of stars or comets arching across the heavens. Cornell managed to create one of the most fleeting and mysterious astronomical experiences in a space on a miniature scale with the most banal of objects. The infinitude of space also doubles as the endless seas, and the mystery and desire to transverse both realms is readily captured. Contemplative longing, for escape and for higher understanding, are running themes throughout Cornell's oeuvre; in Untitled, this craving is palpably felt.