I n 1948, Joseph Cornell made his West Coast debut at visionary collector William Copley’s eponymous Beverly Hills gallery. The exhibition – an iconoclastic installation draped in royal blue velvet and featuring four works from the artist’s enigmatic Soap Bubble series – was, as Copley recalled, “quite beautiful and publicly disastrous as it proved forbidding and claustrophobic to anyone not already drunk on Cornell.” (William N. Copley, Reflections on a Past Life, Cologne, 2014, n.p.) Nevertheless, Soap Bubble Set attracted appropriately discerning buyers: Françoise Stravinsky, the daughter-in-law of famed composer Igor Stravinsky, and Copley’s gallery manager and her husband Soulima. Françoise and Soulima – himself a composer and concert pianist – were immersed in the West Coast avant-garde, counting Man Ray, Max Ernst, Dorothea Tanning and Aldous Huxley among their friends. The intricately composed Soap Bubble Set, a canonical centerpiece of Cornell’s oeuvre, has remained in the Stravinsky family for seventy years.
An autodidact, Cornell was deeply moved and obsessed by many wide-ranging influences. Though he resisted the label of Surrealist for his own work, he admired the ready-mades of Marcel Duchamp, the experimental humor of Max Ernst, and the philosophical wit of René Magritte. A series of visits to the 1939 World’s Fair further cemented his fascination with both the futuristic advancements of science and the genius of old masters like Vermeer, Caravaggio, Rembrandt and Leonardo. It was there that Cornell acquired a boxful of Dutch clay pipes, a motif which would appear time and again in his work. Redolent of his own ancestry (both his parents were of Dutch descent), the pipes evoke an impressively disparate set of references; recalling the vocabulary of 17th-century vanitas while also alluding to Magritte and Man Ray, the taxonomically displayed pieces act as a symbol of science even as they conjure the childlike wonder of blowing bubbles.
Soap Bubble Set, featuring four such pipes rather than the usual one or two, brings these themes – of ephemerality and memory, science and imagination – to the fore. Cornell further develops his metaphysical meditations with other carefully chosen items, arranged against the backdrop of an antique lunar map. Notably absent are the titular soap bubbles, their presence instead suggested by each compositional element: the spherical moon, the shimmering surface of the glass, the floating cylinders, and of course the soap bubble pipes. Following Edwin Hubble’s confirmation of cosmic expansion in 1929, the metaphor of a swelling soap bubble flourished in the popular press; for Cornell, the image would have reminded him of blowing bubbles as a child and the wonder of their creation. Writing in the catalog for the Copley Gallery exhibition, he described the Soap Bubble series as “poetic theaters or settings wherein are metamorphosed the elements of a childhood pastime. The fragile, shimmering globules become the shimmering but more enduring planets – a connotation of moon and tides.” (Exh. Cat., Beverly Hills, Copley Galleries, Objects by Joseph Cornell, 1948, n.p.)
Just as his soap bubbles are present through implication rather than physical representation, the truth of Cornell’s art is not the material objects we see but rather what Sandra Leonard Starr calls “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (Exh. Cat., New York, Castelli-Feigen-Corcoran Gallery, Joseph Cornell, Art and Metaphysics, 1982, p. 4) A meditation on the transience of matter and ephemerality of earthly life, Cornell activates the complex symbolic associations of each item to remind us of the absolute eternal nature of the invisible spirit. Combining richly emblematic items from history and personal memory, Soap Bubble Set is a sublime example of Cornell’s best beloved and oft-recurring themes, from his very first box in 1936 and throughout the remainder of his esteemed career.
Zoe Vanderweide is a Contributing Writer at Sotheby's