Joseph Cornell's work Untitled is cerebral and yet manages to convey a playful spontaneity through the use of youthful ephemera within the constraints of the rigid box. Famously shy and eccentric, the artist rarely left New York and instead chose to spend much of his time at his family's home in Flushing, Queens. In light of such isolation, the window-like nature of the box assumes an added identity; here, Cornell allows the viewer the opportunity to glimpse into the artist's world.
The objects placed seemingly at random throughout the work - rubber balls, wooden stamps, plastic animals - are quite directly linked to the most profound relationship of the artist's life. Born six years Joseph's junior, Robert Cornell lived his life plagued by debilitating cerebral palsy and his brother took an outsized interest in Robert's well-being. The trinkets contained within the work are naturally imbued with the levity and joyousness of youth, and Robert, the perpetual child, could not have been far from Joseph's mind as he assembled these paeans to innocent pleasure.
Cornell made many examples of these boxes which range from those completely filled with effluvient excess, to those which seem an exercise in minimalistic restraint. This work, in its paucity of containment, seems to elucidate a certain sense of longing, a particular emptiness highlighted by the deliberateness with which the chambers are both full and void. It is an emptiness reflected in the social misgivings of the artist and his preference for his outsider locale in Queens even while being canonized as one of the preeminent New York artists working in the 20th century.