Details & Cataloguing

Contemporary Art Evening Auction

New York

Joseph Cornell
1903 - 1972
signed and dated 1943 on a label attached to the reverse
wood, cork, branches, paint, printed paper and grains in wood and glass box construction
12 5/8 x 11 1/2 x 2 3/4 in. 32 x 29.2 x 7.1 cm.
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Galerie Bischofberger, Zürich
Galerie Alfred Schmela, Düsseldorf
Acquired by the present owner from the above in August 1968


New York, Museum of Modern Art, Joseph Cornell, November 1980 - January 1981, cat. no. 158, p. 212, illustrated
Krefeld, Kaiser Wilhelm Museum, Sammlung Helga und Walther Lauffs - Amerikanische und europäische Kunst der sechziger und siebziger Jahre, November 1983 - April 1984, cat. no. 71, p. 67, illustrated


Yoshiaki Tôno, The Independent Object, Kodansha, 1972, n.p., illustrated in color
Paul Wember, Kunst in Krefeld, Cologne, 1973, p. 103, pl. 40, illustrated in color
Edward Lucie-Smith, Art Now: from abstract expressionism to superrealism, New York, 1977, cat. no. 109, p. 148, illustrated in color

Catalogue Note

Bird in a Box, (1945) is a captivating example of Joseph Cornell's Habitat series. Executed at the dawn of America's emergence as a cultural power, Bird in a Box offers a poetic alternative to the painterly abstractions of post-war art. Unlike his contemporaries, Cornell unveils a seductive glimpse into the magical imagery at play in his inner world. An amateur naturalist, Cornell uses nature, not as a representational ideal, but as a conduit to human psyche from which to draw private associations and novel juxtapositions revealing the mind's fantasies and fears. Consequently, the inclusion of birds and other small creatures in his boxes may refer to the uncanny symbolism of Surrealist iconography. Within this framework, the bird was a common motif traditionally associated with heaven and freedom.

In spite of the seeming randomness alluded to by Cornell's incongruous choice of imagery, he produced compositional arrangements formally, pre-determining colors and textures to suit an internal narrative much like characters in a theatrical performance. Cornell's selected imagery, composed of ordinary objects gathered in bookstores, thrift stores, long walks in the country, and inspired by the dioramas in New York's Museum of Natural History, conveys a view of nature as a masterly designed environment. Bird in a Box is an intellectualized version of poetic beauty, an exact depiction of an unnatural habitat wherein bird, cage, and wooden elements comply with the demands of artistic vision.

Cornell selected illustrations from engravings, books, and Victorian bric-a-brac to create his magical narratives. These images, categorized in individual boxes and hoarded as collectible items themselves, served as artificial "stand-ins for the actual creatures" that captured much of Cornell's attention. Cornell knew no limits when it came to the appropriation of his medium, sometimes going so far as to cut up valuable classics such as Alexander Wilson's American Ornithology (1808-14) and John James Audubon's The Birds of America (1840-44). (Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, Joseph Cornell, Shadowplay Eterniday, New York, 2003, p. 116)

Conceived as a fragment, and not as a discarded refuse of reality (as in the work of Kurt Schwitters and Marcel Duchamp,) Cornell's imagery evokes a sense of nostalgia by mirroring our most mundane and private experiences. Not surprisingly, it has been noted that: "Cornell's elastic interpretation of found materials set the stage for the postmodern concept of appropriation, although his intentions—equally pragmatic, honorific, and poetic—differ greatly from the ironic or subversive goals of his contemporary heirs, Jeff Koons, Matthew Barney, and Damien Hirst, among them." (Ibid., p. 25)

Contemporary Art Evening Auction

New York