Joseph Cornell - 20th c. & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Morning Session New York Thursday, July 2, 2020 | Phillips

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  • In Short

    From Utopia Parkway in Flushing, Queens, to one of the most revered private collections of contemporary art in Germany, Joseph Cornell’s Sandsifter, 1952, encapsulates the remarkable career of one of the most reclusive postwar American artists. Formerly in the collection of Helga and Walther Lauffs, this work is a beautiful example of Cornell’s discrete Sand Fountain shadow boxes, of which other examples reside in the permanent collections of the San Francisco Museum of Art, The Art Institute of Chicago, and The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.. Within this surrealist assemblage, dunes of blue glass beads, akin to sand, and a small cork ball drift in and out of a shattered glass receptacle — poetically exploring the ephemerality of time, all the while formally presaging Robert Rauschenberg’s combines.

  • Cornell: The Armchair Voyager

    Cornell's shadow boxes presented the artist with an escape from the realities of his domestic life into an distant worlds of his imagination.

    When Cornell created Sandsifter in 1952, he had garnered considerable acclaim as a pioneer of assemblage art. As early as 1936, his unique shadowboxes were included in the exhibition Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism at The Museum of Modern Art in New York and he had been the subject of several high-profile exhibitions at the Julien Levy and Charles Egan galleries. Cornell’s was on friendly terms with artists Marcel Duchamp, Robert Motherwell, Andy Warhol and Mark Rothko, and his work was being acquired by prominent collectors — and yet he remained a profoundly solitary figure. 

    Duane Michals, Joseph Cornell, 1972 © Duane Michals. Courtesy of DC Moore Gallery, New York.

    Duane Michals, Joseph Cornell, 1972 © 2020 Duane Michals.


    In Context

    Cornell initiated his work in assemblage as an escape into an imagined world from the realities of his domestic life; for the majority of his adulthood, Cornell lived with his mother and brother on Utopia Parkway in Flushing, Queens, acting as the primary caretaker for his brother, who had cerebral palsy. He embraced the process of creation as an act of imaginary travel, using his art as a passport into the infinite realm of his imagination.
    Incredibly, Cornell created worlds of extraordinary vividness having rarely left his immediate surroundings of New York. Instead, he directly derived inspiration from his experience of the city itself, as well as from his readings of poetry and passions for ballet and the arts. Cornell’s appreciation for sundry materials first began during his midday escapes into the junk shops of Lower Manhattan during his time as a cloth salesman. He was mystified by the “poetry of things,” the notion that all objects intrinsically contain the memory of lived experience. Cornell saw the taciturn beauty of these items and used his Duchampian assemblages to translate their hidden exquisiteness into a universal language of visibility. 


     A Fabric Sale in the Lower East Side, Mahattan, 1946.

    Joseph Cornell and Travel

    wanderlust noun 
     the wish to travel far away and to many different places

    On the occasion of the major retrospective Joseph Cornell: Wanderlust at the Royal Academy of Arts in London in 2015, curator Sarah Lea describes how the theme of wanderlust is closely linked to Cornell’s artistic practice, and his travels of the imagination.





  • The Sand Fountain Series

    Cornell’s Sand Fountains take a unique position in the artist’s oeuvre for their unique focus on the ephemerality of time. Cornell first referenced his Sand Fountain Boxes in 1945, writing in his diary, "One of the finest boxes (objects) ever made was worked out this day (completed or almost). The box of a white chamber effect with a fountain of green sand running. Shell, broken stem glass for receptacle" (Joseph Cornell, 1945, quoted in Mary Ann Caws, ed., Joseph Cornell's Theater of the Mind: Selected Diaries, Letters, and Files, London, 1993, p. 124).

      "Blue was Cornell's color, celestial or night-blue for dreaming.”
    – Dore Ashton​​​​​​


    Works such as Sandsifter were conceived to be handled: the act of carefully shifting the orientation of the box results in the sand cascading in and around the glass receptacle. The pleasure of watching the changing shapes of sand can be compared to the fascination of watching the unpredictable but repetitive motion of waves — an association here strengthened by the radiant blue hues in the swells of sand and the inner walls of the box. Cornell, as Brian O’Doherty noted, would dissolve the powdery blue drapes and walls surrounding him in his Utopia Parkway home "into “that ‘azure' [he] seemed to need for many of his ambitious voyages.”


    Blue was one of Cornell’s favorite colors, a hue he associated with spirituality and infinity in its reference to both the sea and the heavens. The poetic sense of eternity is countered by the undeniable passing of time: Sandsifter guides the falling sand along its way but cannot contain it, just as the shattered hourglass cannot contain time. With its intentionally aged exterior, Sandsifter creates an effect of reflective solemnity, a tabernacle at the altar of time. 

    Detail of the present lot
  • Collector Focus

    Heiner Friedrich.
    Paul Wember.
    Helga and Walther Lauffs.

    Carefully selected by some of the most influential figures of the contemporary art world at the time, Sandsifter is a work distinguished by exceptional provenance.

    Though Cornell often struggled with letting his precious objects leave his possession, Sandstifer eventually made its way to the Munich-based gallery of Heiner Friedrich, the legendary dealer who would later cofound the Dia Art Foundation in New York in 1974

    It was through the Galerie Heiner Friedrich that Helga and Walther Lauffs acquired the work in October 1969. Based in Bad Honnef, near Bonn, the couple had amassed one of the most notable collections of European and American contemporary art held in private hands in Europe. The strength of their museum-quality collection was not only the product of the couple’s keen eye for art, but also of their relationship with Paul Wember, the director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Museum in Krefeld who was widely celebrated for developing the museum’s visionary program of contemporary art.

    • Provenance

      Galerie Heiner Friedrich, Munich
      Helga and Walther Lauffs Collection, Bad Honnef (acquired from the above in October 1969)
      Sotheby’s, New York, September 10, 2008, lot 88
      Private Collection, New York (acquired at the above sale)

    • Exhibited

      Krefeld, Kaiser Wilhelm Museum, Sammlung Helga und Walther Lauffs - Amerikanische und Europäische Kunst der sechziger und siebziger Jahre, November 13, 1983 – April 8, 1984, no. 72, p. 69 (illustrated)
      Krefeld, Kaiser Wilhelm Museum, Schwerpunkt Skulptur: Hundertvierzig Werke von achtzig Künstlern, 1950 - 1990, June 21 – October 11, 1992, no. 39, p. 42 (illustrated)


Sandsifter Box

signed "Joseph Cornell" on a label affixed to the reverse
wood box construction with acrylic, cork, glass, lead, metal, printed paper collage and blue glass beads
14 x 7 1/2 x 4 1/8 in (36.5 x 19 x 10.5 cm)
Executed in 1952.

Full Cataloguing

$180,000 - 250,000 

Contact Specialist

John McCord
Head of Day Sale, Morning Session
New York
+1 212 940 1261

20th c. & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Morning Session

New York Auction 2 July 2020