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 artforum.com. 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
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" (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.
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,
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.
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 Metro.com, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.