New York

Elie Nadelman

Zabriskie Gallery

Elie Nadelman lived in America exactly half of his sixty-four years. He came here in 1914, five years after the first exhibition of his sculpture in Paris. He had three shows in New York and never exhibited again from 1925 until his death in 1946. Nadelman’s work is perplexing because of the range and visibility of his sources; as an artist he is saturated with the history of sculpture, and his first, continuing commitment is to that of Classical Greece. Pieces in this exhibition suggest, besides Greek, Renaissance and Mannerist art, Victorian china, American folk art and dolls. Nadelman’s eclecticism is not limited to any period or any level, although the more contemporary and “lower” his sources become, the more interesting and innovative he seems. A number of heads and figures referring to the earlier periods mentioned above are the least original, the stiffest and most pretentious, particularly when in bronze or wood. A number of the full figures are relatively tight and complicated, which Nadelman at his best is definitely not. But even “Classical” marble heads have a vitality which separates them distinctly from 19th-century Neoclassicism and suggests that almost everything Nadelman made reflects his own personal style and intelligence, as well as a capricious control of materials.

Among the best pieces is an abbreviated wooden head finished in 1908. I assumed it was derived from Brancusi only to discover that it predates his Mme. Pogany (which it suggests) and that Geist cites Nadelman as an influence on Brancusi. Two wooden figures (both 1935–40) reflect Nadelman’s consciousness of folk art and also Seurat’s figuration in their cylindrical simplicity. Also from the last years are two small papier-mâché and several tinier terra-cotta figures, all white. These pieces form the core of the exhibition and indicate that there are a number of concerns which involved Nadelman throughout his career and which seem very much his own. In his essay for the exhibition catalogue Sanford Schwartz uses the word “streamlined” to introduce Nadelman’s sculpture. For me the word hits on his most interesting formal qualities. It sums up the nature of Nadelman’s clean lines and smooth surfaces, the unity and clarity of his forms. Nadelman’s surfaces are relatively unencumbered with detail; they are never “worked” in the traditional sense. The continuousness of line and surfaces makes the shapes instantly clear, thoroughly round. The forms, not the figures, are lively, and both generous and economic. Nadelman shares the tendency toward abbreviation and a geometry of simple forms and sharply visible line with Brancusi, although Brancusi takes it much further. An interesting difference is that Brancusi’s simplification results from condensation, his forms usually seem reduced to a single solid mass; while Nadelman seems to inflate his figures to the point of smoothness and weightlessness. The weightlessness is counter to the tradition of ponderous sculpture in terms of form as well as meaning. The content of Nadelman’s best work is often “light”; it is never involved with a world view. His figures are anonymous, their poses banal and contemporary, without narrative.

Roberta Smith