Blue Medici, c. 1954
ACA Galleries, New York.
Private Collection, USA, acquired from the above in 1991.
Blue Medici is an example of Cornell’s celebrated Medici Slot Machines, considered by many to be the artist’s greatest works. These intricate, enigmatic compositions hint at a world of immense, interrelated significance and memory, meriting the artist and critic Marcel Jean’s description: ‘His ‘‘crystal cages’’, guardians of clear, urgent dreams, are made in the image of a solitary man who would like to be unapproachable and yet is tormented by a desire to communicate with his fellow men. Between his hands, small worlds spring gulp unceasingly, full of reality and life’. (M. Jean and A. Mezei, The History of Surrealist Painting, S.W. Taylor, trans., New York, 1960, p, 317)
Originally associated with the Surrealist painters and poets during the 1930s, Cornell pursed a unique practice peripheral to – and resolutely independent of – the flourishing New York School during the late 1940s and 1950s. Begun in 1942, Cornell’s seminal Medici Slot Machines series embodies his ability to collect, distill, and interrelate seemingly disparate sources of inspiration within the space of his shadow boxes. The Medici works are particularly striking in their juxtaposition of high and low source material: named after the Medici of Florence, the family synonymous with European cultural enlightenment, the Medici Slot Machines are centred around four distinctive portraits of children by Italian Renaissance artists.
In Blue Medici, Cornell’s box frames the face and torso of the Head of a Boy, an anonymous portrait by a follower of Caravaggio. With his open mouth and piercing stare, the youth’s ambiguous expression welcomes the projection of external natrratives. Blue Medici is an especially austere example of Cornell’s Medici series. The starkly contrasting blue and black colour scheme lends a cinematic quality to the image, and contributes to the vaguely unsettling atmosphere.
The construction of the Medici Slot Machines is heavily influenced by Cornell’s childhood impressions of New York penny-arcade machines, synonymous in his mind with the enchantments of childhood. Cornell described his Slot Machines as something ‘that might be encountered in a penny arcade in a dream’. (quoted in D. Solomon, Utopia Parkway: The Life and Work of Joseph Cornell, Boston, 1997, p. 139). In typical Cornell fashion, smaller images of the boy line the box on the wings of the triptych in a grid formation, as if to suggest an unspooling roll of film, evoking the continuous cycle of the creation and destruction of meaning. As critic Deborah Solomon notes, ‘What makes the Medici Slot Machines so memorable is not merely the mixing of disparate elements, but the potent new meanings they acquire in the process. A Renaissance princeling is made to seem part of the present, while a candy machine in a subway station becomes the vaulted palace in which he resides’ (D. Solomon, Utopia Parkway: The Life and Work of Joseph Cornell, Boston, 1997, p. 140).