American artist and sculptor Joseph Cornell (1903-72) was predominantly a collector of souvenirs, old prints, photographs, music scores, theatrical memorabilia, and French literature, who by 1936, established a signature style of his poetic assemblage with these collections. After losing his father at the tender age of 14, he moved with his mother and three siblings, to the Queens locale of New York City. His characteristic works were the boxes he shaped out of wood (like “Medici Slot Machine”), glass, and innumerable objects & photos. Joseph collected his raw materials from the New York City’s antique and secondhand shops, which helped him in transmitting a prosaic and delightful sensation to his art.
Cornell’s miniature wooden boxes, cautiously filled with assorted objects, were largely enclosed with glass, imparting a three-dimensional look. Selected carefully, these objects held no inherent value alone, but when pooled together, divulged a deeper connotation. His incongruous and unique juxtapositions were elegiac, evoking links to ‘Surrealist’ traits, such as mystery, fantasy, the subconscious, dreams, etc. Joseph’s choice of subjects was unbound, such as Hollywood stars, astrology, birds, ballet, opera, travel, Medicis of the Renaissance, artists, poetry (Emily Dickinson), and the cosmos. His materials were also cutouts from newspapers, butterfly wings, marbles, and the snippets of wallpaper, souvenirs and memorabilia, sky charts, old advertisements, broken glassware, music boxes, feathers, metal springs, maps, seashells, mirrors, and plastic ice cubes. “Medici Slot Machine” is one of the first boxes Cornell fashioned in his basement workshop.
“Medici Slot Machine” is a dream-machine exhibit, based on a young ‘Renaissance’ prince, Piero de Medici of Florence. It combines the prince’s puzzling world with a contemporary vending machine. He added many minute portraits at the sides that look like the clips of movie, some of which are of the same young man in the portrait. Joseph also inserted a grid of wires over the images, which looks like the exterior of windowpanes. Close to the base is a glass shelf, below which are small window-like openings with toys in them, while the midpoint displayed a compass. The original painting is in the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore, Md.
Initiated in the early 1940s, this box juxtaposed ‘Renaissance’ and the ‘Rococo’ portraits of children with collaged elements handpicked from boardwalk games and slot machines. The “Medici Slot Machines” had moveable parts, such as the marble, which slide back and forth in the base compartment. Cornell anticipated his “Medici Slot Machine” to tempt the onlooker for playing it. Hitherto, rather than being a game, this inscrutable box instead projects psychosomatic complexity. Cornell’s choice of objects had an undeniable personal touch, and his works evoked a mood of nostalgic trance in his viewer.
A recluse in real life, the creator of “Medici Slot Machine,” Joseph Cornell used his art to flee away from his family, a barren suburban life, and his own emotional demons. In bringing precise order to his art, he was compensating for the bedlam of his personal life. Cornell continued to live in the house in Queens until his death in 1972. Throughout his prolific career, Cornell skillfully positioned the rudiments of his private history in every nook and corner of his boxes. Today, even after around 37 years of his demise, Cornell is the accepted master of assemblage art.