The enchanter

Joseph Cornell: master of dreams

Diane Waldman <em>Harry N Abrams, 152pp, £30</em>

ISBN 08109122

In a letter sent in 1946, Joseph Cornell thanked the poet Marianne Moore for reminding him of "the power of enchantment that the mind possesses". This comment could easily apply to Cornell's own legacy, a collection of some of the most original artworks of the 20th century which transformed the most ordinary objects into a magical homage to the strangeness of the universe. In turn, Cornell's own life has enchanted a public that delights in spinning legend from eccentricity. The Cornell we think we know is still more the private, introspective figure, the artist who dreamt in coffee shops, idealising the women he met on the street or saw on the screen, who created his art from common-place ephemera found in five-and-dime stores. The Cornell with whom we are less familiar is the conceptual artist, revered by curators and collectors of the avant-garde.

Joseph Cornell: master of dreams is a timely refocusing of the interest in Cornell away from the myths of his life and back on his work. Diane Waldman, a former deputy director of the Guggenheim Museum in New York, has had a long association with her subject. She first met him in 1963 when she was writing a thesis on Cornell, and stayed in touch with the artist until his death nearly a decade later. In between times, she organised a major retrospective of his work in 1967. But this is less a personal memoir than a detailed monograph on Cornell's imagery. From the surrealist-inspired collages of the 1930s and the exquisite box constructions of the 1940s and 1950s to the experimental films and later collages, Waldman deconstructs the rich symbolism of Cornell's imagination.

Cornell began establishing his reputation in the early 1940s through his so-called box constructions - the accumulation and careful juxtaposition of objects such as marbles, maps, mirrors, images, glasses, pipes, painted wooden birds and dolls, all of which held a personal and intense resonance. He created astonishing three-dimensional forms that stand as "a poetic theatre of memory". These images could be romantic and playful - in A Pantry Ballet, for instance, red plastic lobsters dance amid spoons and seashells. Or they could be stark and occasionally political - in Habitat Group for a Shooting Gallery, a bullet shatters the glass, covering cut-outs of birds in red paint, representing an emotional response to the conflicts of the Second World War. He mixes fantasy and reality, establishes a dialogue between past and present, and opens the way for a new generation of artists working in installation and mixed media.

Waldman is particularly good at conveying the technical virtuosity of Cornell's work: always striving for excellence, he worked and reworked each piece, developing themes over a period of years, applying up to 20 coats of paint to a piece of wood and often destroying a work completely, only to begin again. The obsessive nature that led him to keep dossiers on film stars and ballerinas was transformed, in his work, into a kind of compositional perfection.

Master of Dreams is not without its flaws. Waldman is not a stylish writer, and she never attempts the kind of illuminating overview that Deborah Solomon achieved in her biography, Utopia Parkway (1997). Her meticulous dissection of Cornell's work can at times obscure its most consistent feature - a simple joy in creativity. (At least, the visual scope of Waldman's book allows his remarkable ingenuity to speak for itself.) She is sometimes over-reverent, too, in her appraisal; in both preface and conclusion, the distinguished curator and author give way to the student who ate lunch in Cornell's kitchen and ran errands for him.

But in the midst of this strange combination of scholarly distance and gushing familiarity, an important assessment of Cornell takes place. By showing his influence on Bob Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol, by positioning him as a bridge between Mondrian, Brancusi and minimalism, Waldman moves beyond contemporary descriptions of his work as - so the International Herald Tribune put it - "a holiday toyshop of art for sophisticated enjoyment", and reaffirms his important place in contemporary art history.

Nicola Upson is the author of Mythologies: the sculpture of Helaine Blumenfeld (Overlook Press)