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Joseph Cornell

Celestial Navigation

c. 1958


Joseph Cornell (1903-1972)


Celestial Navigation


c. 1958


Assemblage of painted wood and printed papers, aperitif glasses, marbles, plaster head, painted cork ball, metal rods, brad nails and painted glass


Overall: 10 × 16 3/8 × 3 7/8 in. (25.4 × 41.6 × 9.8 cm)

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Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; 60th Anniversary Gift of Estée Lauder, Inc.

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Joseph Cornell was interested in the latest scientific discoveries, poring over articles and books on astronomy and regularly observing the constellations from his backyard, but in his art he preferred a simpler, more mechanical image of the universe. Celestial Navigation recalls the clockwork mechanism of an orrery—an eighteenth-century apparatus that explained the solar system with miniature revolving planets. Like an orrery, the box contains moving parts: the blue ball rolls along metal tracks and the marbles can be switched from one cordial glass to another. Cornell placed these movable orbs and a broken clay pipe in the form of a human head against a backdrop of “fixed” stars, fragmentary constellations pasted onto the walls of the box. In Celestial Navigation, Cornell invokes the myths, images, and theories once used to explain the predictable yet baffling patterns of the night sky. The box presents an ordered, though perhaps not entirely knowable, universe.

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