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Elie Nadelman: Sculptor of Modern Life

Whitney Museum of American Art

April 3 to July 20, 2003

"Tango" by Nadelman

"Tango" by Elie Nadelman, stained, gessoed and painted cherry wood, 35 7/8 inches high, The Whitney Museum of American Art, Purchase with funds from the Mr. and Mrs. Arthur G. Altschul Purchase Fund, the Joan and Lester Avnet Purchase Fund, the Edgard William and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch Purchase Fund, the Mrs. Robert C. Graham Purchase Fund in honor of John I. H. Baar, the Mrs. Percy Uris Purchase Fund, and the Henry Schakenberg Purchase Fund in honor of Juliana Force, Photograph by Jerry I. Thompson

By Britt Caputo

Elie Nadelman’s art appeals to its viewers on a level that some contemporary artists neglect - that of aesthetic pulchritude. He crafted his early sculpture with seamless, gently curved lines that are elegant and beautiful and with bemusement.

“If there were ever an artist whose work is tuxedo urbanity disguised as bib-overalls folkiness, it’s Elie Nadelman,” wrote Peter Plagens for Classical art, particularly the Greek sculptor Praxiteles, heavily influenced Nadelman, who recreated the smooth, idealized figures of antiquity with a delicate hand. Maxwell L. Anderson, Alice Pratt Brown Director of the Whitney Museum of American Art, stated “the classical and the modern live side by side in Elie Nadleman’s timeless art.”

Elie Nadelman (1882-1946) moved from his native Poland to Paris, where he explored classical sculpture and was influenced by Georges Seurat and Auguste Rodin. Nadelman was a distinguished artist when he moved to America in 1914. The "Elie Nadelman: Sculptor of Modern Life" show at The Whitney Museum of American Art" is a collection of 200 sculptures and drawings.

Nadelman’s early portraits are nameless and somewhat androgynous. They are without distinct features, or emotion; a void that allows the faces to assume many identities. Ironically, the seemingly uncomplicated figures embody ambiguity: anachronism, androgyny,and anonymity. The sculptures’ sensuousness is also ambiguous. Unlike the suggestive poses of Modigliani’s nudes (say, "Reclining Nude" (1917), Nadelman’s figures are not overtly sexual. Yet the lusciously smooth and cool marble is subtly, but undeniably, sensual.
A Whitney tour guide told her group that the statues exemplify “timeless serenity and detachment.” Most of his early portraits are simple and removed. But this is not always the case.

"Ideal Head of a Girl with Long Hair"

"Ideal Head of a Girl with Long Hair," by Elie Nadelman, marble, 14 3/4 inches high, 1916-17, Museum of Fine Arts, Springfield, Massachusetts, Gift of Charles and Mary Magriel, supplemented by gift from the Fine Arts Council and Museum Purchase Funds

"Ideal Head of a Girl with Long Hair" (1916-7) demonstrates Nadelman’s ability to depict feminine beauty with the grace of the best Italian Renaissance masters. His marvelous technique would also be demonstrated in numerous commissioned portraits, which, like "Ideal Head of a Girl with Long Hair," are not characterized by his more familiar style of almost balloon-like figures.

"The Bird" by Nadelman

"The Bird," by Elie Nadelman, ink on paper, 25 1/4 by 19 3/8 inches, circa 1907-9, The Whitney Museum of American Art, purchase with funds from Philip Morris Incorporated, photograph by Sheldon Collins

Like his early sculpture, Nadelman's drawings are relatively simple. His sketch "The Bird" (1905) portrays the flying animal in about five lines. "The Seated Woman" (1905) consists of ten lines. Nadelman embraces simplicity to produce graceful sketches. His minimalist style, one that almost distorts his images, reveals a burgeoning sense of Cubism that influenced Henri Matisse and, Nadelman claims, Pablo Picasso.

In 1919 Nadelman married an American heiress, Viola Spiess Flannery. With his newly acquired wealth and social prestige, Nadelman could afford to neglect the tastes of his customers and begin to sculpt for himself. Perhaps, then, the art produced in this period of fiscal freedom is the art that best expresses his artistic visions.

"Tango" drawing

"Tango" by Elie Nadelman, brown ink and brown watercolor over pencil on wave paper, 12 3/16 by 8 1/4 inches, 1914-15, The Art Institute of Chicago, Sanford Schwartz gift

During the twenties, he worked mainly on folk-inspired wooden sculptures whose apparent crudeness “startled” his viewers. According to Danforth P. Fales, acting director of the Frick Art & Historical Center in Pittsburgh that held a major Nadelman show entitled "Classical Folk" in 2001, "Nadelman's extraordinary ability to draw inspiration from the past as well as the present, from 'highbrow' to 'lowbrow' art, from classical statuary to Cigar Store Indians, helped forge a new way of thinking about and making art in the United States." These sculptures illustrate Nadelman’s genius: the artist captures motion, and even moods, with a coarse, stiff, lifeless solid. "Tango" (circa 1920-4), a wooden portrayal of a dancing couple, exemplifies Nadelman’s ability to capture fluidity with wood. The folds of the female dancer’s skirt softly flow as she dances, her partner bends his arm gently to hold hers, both sets of knees are appropriately bent, and both necks are cocked slightly. Critic Mark Stevens pointed out in a review for New York, that Nadelman “concentrates upon that dramatic moment just before a dancing couple clasps hands and whirls away.” Nadelman captured these brief instances forever; he manages to immortalize the fleeting. In "Dancer" (circa 1920-24), a woman kicking her leg up in a manner that will last only a few seconds, Nadelman froze the instantaneous eternally. As Nadelman used impressively few lines in his early sketches, the artist crafted his sculpture with few definitive lines. Both "Tango" and "Dancer" are simple figurines, with a smooth surface, untouched by minute detail. Through simplicity, Nadelman explores the most complex: motion and time.

"Dancer" by Nadelman

"Dancer" by Elie Nadelman, stained, gessoed and painted mahogany, 28 1/4 inches high, circa 1920-24, The Wadsworth-Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut, Gift of James L. Goodwin and Henry Sage Goodwin from the estate of Philip I Goodwin

Nadelman captured these brief instances forever; he manages to immortalize the fleeting. In "Dancer" (circa 1920-24), a woman kicking her leg up in a manner that will last only a few seconds, Nadelman froze the instantaneous eternally. As Nadelman used impressively few lines in his early sketches, the artist crafted his sculpture with few definitive lines. Both "Tango" and "Dancer" are simple figurines, with a smooth surface, untouched by minute detail. Through simplicity, Nadelman explores the most complex: motion and time.

"Seated Woman with Leg Raised" by Nadelman

"Seated Woman with Leg Raised," by Elie Nadelman, galvano-plastique, 50 1/2 inches high, Estate of Elie Nadelman, courtesy Salander-O'Reilly Galleries, New York, photograph by Paul Waldman

Also during the twenties, Nadelman created life-size sculptures of women through a technique called galvano-plastique. This method involves sculpting an image out of plaster, dipping the figure into liquid metal, and applying an electric current so that the metal adheres to the plaster. The result appears to be a metal sculpture but is significantly less expensive to make.

Although Nadelman's robust women are unlike the thin flappers that once defined conventional beauty, they are serene and graceful. They are by no means dainty, but they still maintain delicate, gentle poise. The subject of "Seated Woman with Leg Raised" (1925-6) illustrates another paradox. The women are perpetually glared at in a most public place, yet they themselves are in quiet, private scenes. The "Seated Woman" ignores her viewers, who are allowed to see her in an undisturbed, natural state.

The life-size women seem to receive less attention than his other works, and none were sold during his lifetime. But I think the sincere portrayals are among his most intriguing pieces. They are public, yet private; they are strong, but vulnerable.

The difficult Depression years heavily impacted Nadelman's art. He and his wife lost their fortune in the stock market crash of 1929 and, despite Nadelman's efforts to preserve a modest income, financial distress forced the heartbroken couple to sell its collection of folk art in 1936. Nadelman was also gravely concerned about his Jewish relatives who were still in Poland. His desperate attempts to provide money for their escape during World War II were fruitless. In 1946, the distraught artist committed suicide. The Depression transformed Nadelman's penchant for pristine beauty into an inclination towards the distorted.

"Two Circus Women"

"Two Circus Women," by Elie Nadelman, papier-maché over plaster, 62 3/4 inches high, circa 1928-9, Whitney Museum of American Art, purchase with funds from The Lauder Foundation, Evelyn and Leonard Fund

He created glazed ceramic circus figurines from 1928-39: lumpy, white figures with colorful details, faceless. Perhaps his interest in the circus, a haven for the freakish and the ridiculous, reflects the chaos and despair of his time. Or perhaps Nadelman merely yearned to escape sinister realities of poverty and raging war by indulging in the innocent entertainment of children. Although the undefined shapes of his circus women are less bold than his earlier works, they have, as John Updike noted in The New York Review of Books, “an air of arrival,of self-careless triumph.” Updike also recognized how these works mark a significant change in Nadelman’s style. “They are the culmination of Nadelman’s drive toward the undefined, the blurred, the featureless generic. They suggest George Segal’s white body-casts, Botero’s unembarrassed tubs, and Nikki de St.Phalle’s jubilantly bulbous women.” Years after Nadelman’s death, Lincoln Kirsten had "Two Circus Women" (1928-29) cast in bronze for Nelson Rockefeller, and later commissioned a marble copy, three-times the original size, for the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center.

"The Four Seasons" by Nadelman

"The Four Seasons" by Elie Nadelman, terra-cotta sculptures, each 31 1/2 inches high, 1911, Collection of the New York Historical Society

"Nadelman's longstanding predilection for smoothness gave way to an obsession with irregularity," wrote Ariella Budick in an article for the News Daily, about the artist's last sculptures. Gone were his flawless lines and beautiful figures. In were distorted, odd-looking people. As his last years were grim, his final art was dark.

Fuller Building frieze

"Frieze on Fuller Building Facade" by Elie Nadelman, limestone, 144 inches long, 1930-2, Photograph courtesy The Maddox Collection

Nadelman also did some highly visible public sculptures on skyscrapers including one for the Bank of Manhattan and another, shown above, for the Fuller Building on the northeast corner of Madison Avenue and 57th Street. These demonstrate that he became very comfortable with the Art Deco style and indeed his earlier work is an important pre-cursor of the streamlined qualities of Art Deco.

Nadelman's personal life and artistic style changed throughout his career. But throughout it, he remained an artist who mixed opposites together to create provocative, beautiful pieces. He combined the classic with the modern, anonymity with universality, fluidity with rigidity, simplicity with complexity, and strength with vulnerability.

Click here to order from the excellent exhibition catalogue by Barbara Haskell


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