Joseph Cornell and American Modernism
Joseph Cornell (1903–1972) is best known for his exquisite and alluring box constructions, in which he transformed found objects—such as celestial charts, glass ice cubes, and feathers—into enchanted worlds that blur the boundaries between fantasy and the commonplace. Art historian and Humanities Center fellow Marci Kwon will discuss her new book, Enchantments: Joseph Cornell and American Modernism, an innovative and interdisciplinary account that reveals enchantment’s relevance to the history of American mid-century American art.
Kwon explores Cornell’s attempts to convey enchantment—an ephemeral experience that exceeds rational explanation—in material form. Examining his box constructions, graphic design projects, and cinematic experiments, she shows how he turned to formal strategies drawn from movements like Transcendentalism and Romanticism to figure the immaterial. Spanning four decades of the artist’s career, Enchantments sheds critical light on Cornell’s engagement with key episodes in American modernism, from Abstract Expressionism, 1930s “folk art,” and the emergence of New York School poetry and experimental cinema to the transatlantic migration of Symbolism, Surrealism, and ballet. Cornell’s participation in these varied milieus elucidates enchantment’s centrality to midcentury conversations about art’s potential for power and moral authority, and reveals how enchantment and modernity came to be understood as opposing forces.