Published: May 20, 2003
By Stephen May
NEW YORK CITY – With more than 200 sculptures in bronze, marble, wood, ceramic and plaster, plus works on paper and photographs, this is the largest exhibition ever mounted of one of the greats of American modernism and the first in New York in more than a quarter century. Superbly organized by Barbara Haskell, the Whitney’s curator of early Twentieth Century art, “Elie Nadelman: ” will be on view at The Whitney Museum of American Art through July 20.
The case for Nadelman’s importance and the range of his achievements should be notably advanced by this attractive display. It traces the early influences on the Polish-born artist of Greek sculpture, Gothic wood carvings, Art Nouveau and French sculpture to the impact of American folk art and contemporary life after Nadelman arrived in this country. “[I]n America,” writes Haskell in the exhibition catalog, “Nadelman’s work blossomed as he began to create singularly fluid, stylized, curvilinear sculptures in which the ancient and the modern merge to form a brilliant new aesthetic.”
The exhibition underscores Nadelman’s synthesis of seemingly opposing sources — past and present, classical and folk, traditional and modern, high and low — and his gift for infusing his sculpture with demonstrative qualities that are at once accessible and refined.
Born in Warsaw, the youngest of seven children of a jeweler, Nadelman (1882-1946) studied art in Warsaw and Munich before relocating in Paris in 1905. A man of wide interests with an inquiring mind, he familiarized himself with styles from prehistoric times to the present, which he blended into his own distinctive artistic personality.
His work during a decade in Paris melded classical Greek sculptural ideas with French contemporary art. Thus, his serene female heads of marble and bronze from this time suggest a Twentieth Century look in an antique style. In several, variously titled “Female Head” or “Ideal Head,” classic women wear modish turbans and expressions of amusement.
His first solo show at a Paris gallery in 1909, showcasing his gifts for classical harmony and elegant refinement, caused a stir. Nadelman further refined his ideas about the modernist idiom as he hobnobbed with titans of European avant-garde around the city. He became a regular guest at the Saturday evening soirées hosted by the celebrated American expatriates Gertrude and Leo Stein. Around this time Nadelman sculpted a fascinating, chubby nude, “Standing Female Figure (Gertrude Stein),” circa 1908-09, now owned by the Whitney.
All ten of the classical marble heads from a solo exhibit at a London gallery in 1911 were purchased by a fellow Pole, cosmetics entrepreneur Helena Rubinstein. Believing that, as Haskell writes, “Nadelman’s sculptures embodied the image of beauty she felt her products made possible,” Rubinstein became his most important patron. Eventually she installed his work in her home and salons and used it in advertisements.
Early on, Rubinstein commissioned four draped female figures, made of terra-cotta, engaged in such daily activities as bathing, combing their hair and dressing. “The Four Seasons,” 1911, initially displayed in her New York beauty salon in 1916, are now part of the large Nadelman collection of the New York Historical Society.
Thus, the 32-year-old Nadelman was already well-known when he arrived in New York in 1914. His first American works were simplified tubular forms based on subjects from everyday life.
A little more than a year after coming to this country, art impresario Alfred Stieglitz staged a solo exhibition for the newcomer at his famed 291 gallery. Among the highlights — then and as displayed in the current show — “Man in the Open Air,” circa 1915, a wonderful bronze with a classical figure decked out in a contemporary bowler hat and bow tie, and the classically sleek bronze, “Horse,” 1914, a model of economy of detail.
Following his early successes, Nadelman began to move in fashionable New York social circles, where he found constant inspiration for his witty works, as he did from images in popular magazines and newspapers. He became a much sought-after artist, swamped with portrait commissions.
Nadelman’s status was greatly enhanced in 1919 with his marriage to heiress Viola Flannery, which expanded his access to a heady world of money and privilege. The couple entertained at their East 93rd Street townhouse in Manhattan and later at “Alderbrook,” their country retreat in the Riverside section of the Bronx.
The artist’s passion for self-taught art, first developed in his native Poland, increased with his discovery of American folk art. With the help of his wealthy wife, he collected such work voraciously, and incorporated folk elements into his own work. From 1926 to 1936 they maintained the Museum of Folk and Peasant Arts on their Riverside estate, but were forced to close it and sell the collection to the New-York Historical Society during the Depression.
This fascination for American folk work led to wood carvings to which Nadelman applied gesso to suggest flesh and clothing. Some of his most endearing, and enduring, art was created between 1920 and 1924, when he utilized simplified, curvilinear forms and frozen, elemental gestures to give pieces a stylized solemnity and timeless monumentality. Works of this period, such as “Host,” “Orchestra Leader” and “Woman at the Piano,” have a freshness, immediacy and wittiness reminiscent of American folk sculptures.
Nadelman excelled at selecting subjects that allowed him to capture an expressive moment in time and demonstrate his commitment to the power of form. His affinity for popular art and entertainment is suggested by works depicting dancers and performers, such as “Dancer (High Kicker),” circa 1918-19, and “Female Dancer,” circa 1920. These animated figures are caught in motion yet, thanks to their curves and convex forms, they retain a grace and composure reflecting the artist’s sense of formal harmony.
The star of the show, “Tango,” circa 1920-24, a tableau of painted cherry wood, shows a suave, tuxedo-clad male and his fashionably garbed, carefully coiffed female partner engaged in the intricate movements of the dance. In a witty commentary on modern society, the stiffness of the high society figures — they barely touch each other — contrasts with the intimate and normally sensual South American dance in which they are engaged. It is a memorable, iconic image, owned by the Whitney.
In the mid-1920s, Nadelman experimented with what he called “galvano plastique” objects — plaster genre figures whose surfaces were electroplated with a thin veneer of metal, such as “Man with Top Hat,” circa 1925-26, and “Standing Female Figure,” circa 1925-26. “The medium appealed to Nadelman,” said Haskell, “because of its potential for unusual finishes and its ability to replicate bronze, which allowed him to make art that was populist and affordable without being condescending — an issue that increased in importance to him as he became more committed to folk art.”
When the Depression wiped out Nadelman’s fortune and forced him to sell his beloved folk art trove, he began to withdraw from the art world. His mood darkened as World War II engulfed members of his family in Europe.
Perhaps to fill the void left by the loss of his folk art collection, during the last decade of his life, Nadelman created some 400 hand-size plaster, doll-like figurines, perhaps destined for mass production. Combining classical motifs and everyday poses and fashions, the cherubic quality and expressive gestures of these improved objects reflect the artist’s refusal to separate high from low art. The large display of these untitled late plaster figures in the current exhibition was conceived by contemporary artist Kiki Smith to evoke their arrangement in Nadelman’s Riverside studio.
Virtually ignored by the art world, living in reduced circumstances and in deteriorating health, Nadelman took his own life in 1946.
His cause was promptly taken up by art writer and ballet leader Lincoln Kirstein, who spent years studying and promoting Nadelman’s work. As Haskell wrote, “It is almost entirely due to his [Kirstein’s] advocacy that Nadelman’s reputation has flourished since his death.”
The importance of that effort is amply demonstrated by curator Haskell in this appealing and informative exhibition. It offers visual documentation of her observation that “Nadelman created sculpture possessing both the authenticity and vitality of vernacular culture and the formal discipline and architectonic clarity of classicism. In so doing, he took the classicist quest for the timeless and the beautiful to a new plateau, creating out of the subject matter of contemporary popular culture an art that was outside the flow of time, uncontaminated by the contingencies and constraints of temporality.”
We are indebted to Haskell and the Whitney for mounting a show that solidifies Elie Nadelman’s standing as one of the most important American sculptors working in the first half of the last century.
The exhibition catalog, written by Haskell, is thorough, insightful and attractive. It includes 150 illustrations in color and 95 in black and white, an exhibition history, selected bibliography and chronology. Published by the Whitney and distributed by Harry N. Abrams, Inc, it sells for $39.95 (softcover).
The Whitney Museum of American Art is at 945 Madison Avenue at 75th Street in New York City. For information, 1-800-WHITNEY or visit www.whitney.org.
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