Spotlight: Joseph Cornell’s Untitled, c. 1953

Untitled c. 1953
Mixed media box construction, 9 1/8” x 13” x 4 1/2”
Gift of Robert F. Ebin ’62 and family and David Winton Bell Gallery purchase

Joseph Cornell had a lifelong fascination with aviaries. His untitled box in the Bell Gallery’s collection is from the Dovecote series (begun in 1950), which takes its name from architecturally structured pigeon carriers with regularly placed recesses in which the birds nest.

Cornell is widely known for his fantastic box structures, in which he meticulously collected and arranged objects of interest into metaphorically resonant assemblages. He is often associated with the Surrealist, with whom he exhibited throughout the 1930s. However, unlike the Surrealists, Cornell was not particularly interested in the subconscious or the erotic. He was instead concerned with drawing out the physical and spiritual connections between people and the natural world.[1] In his earlier aviary series Cornell collaged and assembled brightly colored birds into elaborately constructed cages, playing with the specific connotations of each bird to infuse the work with meaning — for example the owl as harbinger of death.

The dovecote series draws on a myriad of associations. In the middle ages, dovecotes were considered symbols of power. Whitewashed pigeon carriers became popular in New England in the 18th and 19th centuries. Cornell’s familiarity with this American variation is evident in his dovecote series, where he reduced his palate almost entirely to white and replaced printed and stuffed birds with white balls arranged in compositions of grids.

The strikingly monochromatic Untitled reflects Cornell’s growing interest in geometric abstraction and the gridded paintings of Piet Mondrian, in specific. The box was produced using an exceptional economy of means, even for this minimal series. The grid is merely suggested, collaged to the interior walls of the box, leaving an expanse of open space that is barely interrupted by thin crossbars along the upper and lower edges of the box. This sense of airiness contrasts with the reality of the Dovecote as a cage, while the egg-like orbs reduce the birds to their “formal and metaphoric essentials.”[2]

–Alexis Lowry Murray


[1] Hartigan, Lynda Roscoe. Joseph Cornell: Navigating the Imagination. London: Peabody Essex Museum, 2007.

[2] Ibid 307.

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