Joseph Cornell's box constructions evoke fascinating dream worlds that invite viewers to explore the magical details and elements that unfold within them. Created in 1952, Untitled (Uccello Youth) is a classic box construction that dates from the highpoint of the artist's career. This lyrical assemblage draws on the many themes that the artist focused on throughout his career such as art history, magic, mystery and antique toys. The present work also illustrates the influence of his dear friend and mentor, Marcel Duchamp.
By the early 1950s, when Untitled (Uccello Youth) was created, Cornell had personally met many of the European proponents of Surrealism who largely championed the famed American artist. Cornell's renowned box constructions were rightly suited to this group as objects in their own right, and through his venerable assemblage of refuse as relics, the reliquary gained appreciation in its own right.
While the artist has a deep fascination of travel and history, notably the history of art, Cornell had only traveled a limited amount in the United States, so his knowledge was largely based on maps, books, local Museum visits and literature.
Akin to his "Medici Slot Machines" series, Cornell transports the viewer not only to another place but also another point in time with his inclusion of Paolo Uccello's Renaissance fresco drawing. The delicate profile portrait of a young girl appears to be a reproduction of a Fresco that Uccello painted in the Prato Cathedral in the 15th century. It goes without saying that there are certainly intended parallels between the youthful nature of the subject and the toy-like accents that Cornell chose to compose the work.
The notion of games, particularly those long forgotten from the Victorian Era with obscure and obsolete rules, fascinated Cornell. In Untitled (Uccello Youth) there is a die-like block in the lower right corner, whose traditional black and white dots have been replaced with black and white sketches. It appears as if the youthful figure in the box construction could drop their right arm and roll the die. Four white cylinders with brightly colored shapes: red, orange, green and blue, hang from the top of the box that are emblematic of children's toys and the shaped canvases of Ellsworth Kelly. The artist intentionally made a gap between the red and orange shaped cylinders to provide a clear visual lie to the profile portrait. The viewer is aware that Untitled (Uccello Youth) suggests the interaction between the die-like block and dangling toy-like cylinders, yet the objective of the "game" is beyond comprehension. The artist discussed this in his notes when he wrote that "perhaps a definition of a box could be as a kind of 'forgotten game', a philosophical toy of the Victorian era, with poetic or magical 'moving parts', achieving even slight measure of this poetry or magic... that golden age of the toy alone should justify the 'box's' existence" (J. Cornell, quoted in D. Ades, 'The Transcendental Surrealism of Joseph Cornell', pp. 15-41, Joseph Cornell, exh. cat., New York, 1980, p. 29).