Not quite Surrealist or Constructivist, Joseph Cornell’s boxes are windows, assembled with once beautiful objects long discarded from their previous life and arranged in their own elevated space. He began creating art around the 1930s, assembling found objects in new ways. Surrealist photographer Lee Miller photographed Cornell with his preliminary works in the early 1930s, some of the only documentation of his work in this period to survive. Starting small in the late 1930s with a mirrored box set with dancing thimbles, he would create his first assembled boxes in the 1940s as a way for his brother Robert, disabled and mostly confined to their home, to experience the outside world. Much of his work from experimental film to assembled boxes were for the delight and entertainment of his beloved brother.
Working out of the cellar of his home, Cornell would take glasses, marbles, prints, magazines, pamphlets, and books he found on his walks throughout the New York metropolitan area and meticulously arrange them in folders and boxes, ready to be utilized when the right project came to mind. He would leave notes to himself with ideas on how the contents should be used, drawing out the pleasing effect the creation of the boxes afforded him. In the found object, Cornell created by “getting away almost completely from the original experiences and utilizing [the] newly found material based upon itself, with the original experiences taken for granted and outgrown” (Diary entry, May 17th, 1952). Cornell would assemble thematic series of boxes over a period of years, including homages to his favorite actresses, interactive Medici Slot Machines, delicate Aviary, buoyant Soap Bubbles (using one of the many pipes he purchased from the Dutch booth at the World’s Fair), and ethereal Observatory, among many others.
The box Moran’s will offer for auction, likely from Observatory, utilizes the particular hallmarks of that series; the glass stemware enclosing translucent marbles, the rod suspending rings of metal, the painted wood orb, the repurposed page from a 19th century French horology book, all deliberately placed and arranged. External footsteps can set the rings fluttering, creating a dynamism that reminds the viewer these are not static objects but living works, changing with the movements and lighting of the outside world while, through the glass panel, separating the universe contained within and rendering it untouchable. Exhibiting his works with galleries by the 1950s, Cornell would gift boxes to neighbors in Flushing, and in particular the neighborhood children, of whom he was very fond. One friend observed “he would reach out to the children of his neighborhood, they came ordinarily and took these extremely expensive boxes out of his garage. I saw once…a little girl come tripping across the grass with one of these…masterpieces and say ‘I’m tired of this one Joseph!’ over the literal picket white fence, and him say ‘that’s all right my dear’ and he took it from her and went into this garage and came back with another and said ‘why don’t you try this one for a while and tell me how your mommy likes it’” (Stan Brakhage, Joseph Cornell: Words in a box). It is possible that this box was gifted to such a little girl in the 1950s, as by the mid-1960s her mother had sold it to the Frank Perls gallery. Only a storyless letter from the sale survives, saying simply that the seller’s daughter was friends with Cornell, which is included with the lot.
In some ways the boxes reflect Cornell’s own life, touched by the outside world but very much insulated from it. Joseph Cornell was born to Helen and Joseph Cornell in the village of Nyack, New York on Christmas Eve, 1903. A member of a prominent Dutch family, Cornell’s early years were comfortable until the elder Joseph Cornell passed away in 1917. The sudden passing left the family with strained finances and necessitated their move to Queens where Cornell remained with his mother and younger brother for the rest of their lives. It is believed Cornell never left New York state and only occasionally left the five boroughs, nevertheless his diaries show he was an avid reader and collector, finding refreshment in listening to the works of Classical and Romantic composers and delighting in people watching. Whereas Cornell rarely left the city, his brother Robert had cerebral palsy and was physically disabled, rarely leaving the home on Utopia Parkway in Flushing, Queens. Popular with artists and actors of the 1950s and 1960s, Cornell’s work gained a following over the last half of the 20th century with exemplary examples fetching millions of dollars. A shy person, Cornell did not have a romantic relationship until much later in life, a largely platonic albeit adoring one with artist Yayoi Kusama. He corresponded with patrons and friends and wrote countless letters to actresses he admired, gifting them the boxes he made in their honor. His brother passed away in 1965 and his mother only one year later in 1966. Joseph Cornell died on December 29, 1972.