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Elie Nadelman: Sculptor of Modern Life


Elie Nadelman: Sculptor of Modern Life, the largest show ever presented of the work of the great modernist sculptor, and the first in New York in more than 25 years, will open in the spring of 2003 at the Whitney Museum of American Art. The landmark tribute will consist of more than 200 sculptures in bronze, marble, wood, ceramic, and plaster, as well as works on paper and photographs; it will fill the third floor Peter Norton Family Galleries from March 27 to July 20, 2003. (left: Tango, c. 1919, Painted cherry wood, 3 units, overall: 35 7/8 x 26 x 13 7/8 in., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Purchase, with funds from the Mr. and Mrs. Arthur G. AltschulPurchase Fund, the Joan and Lester Avnet Purchase Fund, the Edgar William and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch Purchase Fund, the Mrs. Robert C. Graham Purchase Fund in honor of John I.H. Baur, the Mrs. Percy Uris Purchase Fund and the Henry Schnakenberg Purchase Fund in honor of Juliana Force. 88.1a-c )

"The classical and the modern live side by side in Elie Nadelman's timeless art," said Maxwell L. Anderson, Alice Pratt Brown Director of the Whitney. "It is especially fitting that this exhibition should be mounted by the Whitney, where Nadelman's works are among the gems of the collection. This show will offer a new view of the relationships and continuities within a body of work that already occupies a revered place in American art."

Barbara Haskell, curator of prewar art at the Whitney and organizer of the show, noted, "Influenced by a wide array of art historical references from Greek marbles and terracottas to Gothic wood carvings, Art Nouveau, and the sculpture of Rodin, Nadelman was already an accomplished sculptor when he arrived here from Paris in 1914. It was in America, however, that 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."

Born in Warsaw, Poland, Elie Nadelman (1882-1946) spent his aesthetically formative years in Paris, where he moved in 1904 and where he developed a style of classical harmony and elegant refinement that would characterize his work throughout his career. His first one-man show, at Galerie Druet in 1909, was an overnight sensation, catapulting the artist to renown within the Parisian art world. Nadelman's transformation of classical principles into a modernist idiom caught the attention and respect of a large group of patrons and critics, from Leo and Gertrude Stein to André Gide and Apollinaire. It was the Steins who introduced Nadelman to Picasso. Nadelman's one-man show in London in 1911 confirmed his reputation as a successful sculptor of sleek abstracted figures within the Greek and Roman tradition. (right: Dancer, 1920-25. Painted cherrywood, 28 1/4 in., The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut; Gift of James L. Goodwin and Henry Sage Goodwin from the Estate of Philip L. Goodwin)

Nadelman's career in Europe ended with the start of war in 1914. Sponsored by his patron, Helena Rubinstein, who had purchased the entire contents of his 1911 London show, he sailed to America. Here the artist introduced genre subjects into his repertoire. The formal, unaffected simplicity in his works, as well as their whimsy and use of wood rather than bronze and marble, has been compared to folk art, which Nadelman began to collect soon after coming to America. (In the mid-1920's, Nadelman and his wife, Viola, built a museum on their Riverdale estate to house their vast folk-art collection.) Nadelman's early shows in New York at Scott & Fowles and M. Knoedler & Co., following his American debut at Stieglitz's famous "291" Gallery, were so successful that the artist was swamped with commissions and soon became an active force in the artistic life of New York.

By 1919, Nadelman was balancing the idealized and elegant linearity of his earlier work with genre subjects from American life. For the next decade, his union of vernacular subject matter with the clarity, order, and simplicity of the classical tradition would remain central to his art. By the mid-1930's, however, with his fortune wiped out by the 1929 stock market crash, he altered his style. In the last ten years of his life, he produced small-scale plaster figurines whose contorted bodies and distressed surfaces seem to speak of the collective pain of a society tormented by war. Working in virtual seclusion, Nadelman never exhibited this later work, and it remained hidden away until after his death, in 1946. Many of the later pieces are in the private collections of prominent contemporary artists, who find in their intimate scale and coarsened features precedents for their own work.

After his death, figures in plaster, terracotta, marble, papier-mâché, and wood still crowded his studio. "Seen from today's perspective," notes curator Barbara Haskell, "these works reveal Nadelman to be an artist of exceptional formal innovation. Indeed, these sculptures seem the work of a younger artist--one whose desire to forge a synthesis of popular domestic artifacts and the classical tradition forced the limitations of sculpture."

The first major retrospective of Nadelman's work took place at The Museum of Modern Art in 1946. The Whitney presented a second in 1975. Scholarship to date has largely depended on a monograph on the artist, written by Lincoln Kirstein in 1973. In conjunction with this exhibition, Ms. Haskell is writing a monograph that will examine every aspect of the artist's work within the context of his life, influences, and artistic evolution.

Support for Elie Nadelman is provided by Laurie Tisch Sussman, Susan Malloy, and Carol and Ted Shen. The catalogue was supported, in part, by a generous grant from Furthermore, a program of the J. M. Kaplan Fund.

RLM readers may also enjoy an earlier article: Elie Nadelman: Classical Folk (3/8/01)

rev. 1/7/03)

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