Enchantments: Joseph Cornell and American Modernism

Princeton Univ. Apr. 2021. 272p. ISBN 9780691181400. $60. FINE ARTS
Self-taught American artist Joseph Cornell (1903–72), known for his enigmatic box constructions and collages, has inspired a spate of scholarship and homages as eclectic as his creations. Kwon’s handsomely illustrated book takes a deep dive into the culture that influenced Cornell, and situates him within the art and politics—and politics of art—of his time. Armed with an extensive knowledge of art theory, Kwon (art history, Stanford Univ.) proposes a complex thesis: that as midcentury modernism emerged in opposition to a nostalgic idea of enchantment, Cornell’s creations embraced beauty and mystery but were at the same time the product of serious artistic practice. This is a theoretical book rather than a biography; Cornell’s own voice is largely absent, but Kwon’s focus on his myriad influences (from contemporary film, dance, poetry, and commercial art, to Renaissance painting), as well as later artists who cite Cornell as a source, offers a free-associative yet scholarly insight into his work.
VERDICT Possibly too academic for a popular collection, but will complement academic libraries or those with strong arts and social sciences collections. Readers interested in 20th-century culture who have some grounding in contemporary art theory will enjoy this beautifully produced book.
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