Joseph Cornell - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Morning Session New York Tuesday, May 14, 2019 | Phillips

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  • Provenance

    Robert Elkon Gallery, New York
    Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1976

  • Catalogue Essay

    ”Shadowboxes become poetic theaters or settings wherein [their contents] are metamorphosed [into] the elements of a childhood pastime." - Joseph Cornell

    Drawing the viewer into the fantastical realm of Joseph Cornell’s universe, Untitled is an exquisite example of the trailblazing artist’s shadow boxes. Created circa 1960, the present work belongs to Cornell’s final series of boxes, known alternately as Space Objects and Celestial Navigations that he began in the late 1950s. Recalling the artist’s very first Soap Bubble Set shadow boxes, Cornell encapsulates the grand cosmos within the intimate confines of his boxed constructions. Despite being created in an era of technological advancements ushering in the Space Age, Cornell’s boxed universes are infused with a sense of nostalgia and dream-like enigma. Often described as an armchair traveler of sorts, Cornell effectively embraced the process of creation as an act of imaginary travel. Cornell, a stargazer since childhood, was remarkably well-read on the history of astronomy, constellation mythologies as well as scientific developments in science. Though venturing into the infinite realm of space with his mind, he rarely left his immediate surroundings of New York. Working from the basement of his mother’s home in Flushing, Queens, Cornell transformed the raw material he collected from the outer world into surrealist assemblages of his inner world.

    Cornell ingeniously explores the connection between scientific and childhood imagination in works such as the present one. As with many of Cornell’s shadow boxes, and in particular the Soap Bubble Set series,Untitled features a painted cork ball that rolls freely on a pair of horizontal rods in a manner that echoes Galileo Galilei’s 17th century experiments of motion, as well as the 18th century orrery model of the solar system. Cornell’s signature Dutch clay pipe features prominently in the foreground, here fractured on the ground and partially embedded in a bed of sand. Echoing Man Ray's Ce qui manque à nous tous, 1936, the pipe is one of the most reoccurring objects in Cornell’s oeuvre and speaks of the artist's favorite childhood pastime of blowing soap bubbles. Seen in this light, the moon and the moving ball take on the form of large soap bubbles floating through Cornell’s imaginary universe. As such, Untitled vividly reminds us, as Angela Kramer Murphy put forward, that "our understanding of the cosmos is predicated not only on how far we can see, but on how much we can imagine" (Angela Kramer Murphy, “Imaginary Voyages”, in Joseph Cornell, Cosmic Travels, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1999, n.p.).

Property from the Miles and Shirley Fiterman Collection



signed "Joseph Cornell" on a label affixed to the reverse
printed paper collage, acrylic, clay pipe, cork ball, and metal in a wood box construction
9 3/4 x 15 1/8 x 3 5/8 in. (24.8 x 38.3 x 9.2 cm.)
Executed circa 1960.

$80,000 - 120,000 

Sold for $137,500

Contact Specialist
John McCord
Head of Day Sale, Morning Session
New York
+1 212 940 1261
[email protected]

20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Morning Session

New York Auction 15 May | On View at 432 and 450 Park Avenue