On the heels of the extraordinary success and attention garnered from the debut of his Aviaries at the Charles Egan gallery in 1949, Joseph Cornell continued to evolve and transform his exquisite boxes in the 1950s, producing works of exceptional quality. While maintaining the thematic white-washed habitats of the Aviaries, Cornell introduced profound change to the interior structures and their inhabitants. The present work, Untitled (Dovecote) dating from the early 1950s, is an astonishingly beautiful compendium of succinctly ordered nesting places aptly titled for their resemblance to structured dovecotes. While greatly informed by the prior Aviaries, the Dovecotes alternate between boxes with a minimalist aura of absence to works populated with spectacular largesse such as the present Untitled (Dovecote). This evolution broadened the conceptual range of Cornell's inventiveness and enabled him to produce some of his finest work.
In 1953, Cornell enjoyed continued critical acclaim from his third solo show at the Egan Gallery. In a review of the exhibition, Sidney Geist noted, "For years, while so many artists have been leaving so much out of their paintings, Cornell has been making the beautiful, shallow, glass-faced boxes into which he puts everything he loves." (Deborah Solomon, Utopia Parkway: The Life and Work of Joseph Cornell, London, 1997, p. 217). This observation rings particularly true of the present Dovecote whose imagery was influenced by one of the most profound relationships in the elusive and quirky artist's life. Youth and nostalgia charmingly emote from the colorful fragments of a previous innocent life: rubber balls, wooden toy blocks and tiny figurines among them. To understand the origins of the hauntingly beautiful imagery harnessed in the present construction, one must revert to June 6, 1910, the day that his brother Robert Cornell was born with debilitating cerebral palsy. Six years his senior, Joseph was profoundly protective of his handicapped younger brother, and felt responsible for his welfare. Throughout his life, Cornell would go to great lengths to entertain his brother, and much of the material he fastidiously gathered over the years appeared to be fragments of materials once employed to this effect. This weighed heavily on Cornell throughout his life, as he once reflected that the pursuit of happiness was "quickly being plunged into a world in which every triviality becomes imbued with significance." (Joseph Cornell, quoted in Deborah Solomon, Utopia Parkway: The Life and Work of Joseph Cornell, London, 1997, p. 92).
In the intimacy and delicacy of works such as Untitled (Dovecote), one senses the depths of pathos in the artist's character, a trait often overlooked in light of his relatively hermetic existence. His brother Robert's condition prevented the natural progression of physical growth or mental maturity prior to his death at 46. As John Bernard Myers noted, "there are few adults capable of a sustained and committed attachment to a person thus handicapped, and even fewer who would find in such a relationship an abiding source of inspiration..." (Exh. Cat., New York, ACA Galleries, Joseph Cornell, May 1975, p. 4). Although there is little to substantiate the claim that Cornell started making art mainly as a vehicle to amuse and entertain Robert, there is no question that the children's toys and playthings reverberate with references to Cornell's shared bond with Robert, the eternal child.
Untitled (Dovecote) harnesses the ephemeral and mysterious qualities at the heart and soul of Cornell's greatest works. Standing before it, one succumbs to a youthful world of associations, yearnings and elusive meanings. Each childish yet sacrosanct vignette suspends its chosen element in guarded reverie and engages the viewer with their own memories of childish innocence. The formalist construction of the box is of considerable significance here, as the objects project in sharp relief in the shallow space, and the drama of their stark compositional contrast is heightened by the color of the objects in contrast to the white of the grid that surrounds them. The viewer is drawn back into the reverie of their own childhood with a sense of re-discovery. The deeply personal content tellingly indicates the underlying seriousness of Cornell's works which, in this instance, appears profoundly autobiographical. The contrast between the frivolous materials and their far more serious foundations make Cornell's Dovecotes poetic and personal passages within the greater universe of Cornell's mythical constructions.
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