New York

Elie Nadelman

Whitney Museum of American Art and Zabriskie Gallery

The Whitney has mounted a large exemplary retrospective exhibition of the sculpture and drawings of Elie Nadelman. It is the first comprehensive museum attention his work has received since the 1948 retrospective organized by Lincoln Kirstein for the Museum of Modern Art two years after Nadelman’s death. And that exhibition, like this one, also amounted to something of a rediscovery, since Nadelman neither sold nor exhibited work during the last 16 years of his life. Nadelman is frequently described as a charming, debonair man of impeccable taste and intelligence; he seems to have enjoyed artistic and social success wherever he went, and yet his career, both before and since his death, has been prone to disappearance and reemergence. In both his life and his art, suave, ironic stylishness is often the reverse side of dissatisfied restlessness.

Born in Poland in 1882, Nadelman was educated there as an artist and left at the age of 20. By 1909 he had established himself in Paris with an exhibition of sculpture which is thought to have influenced the simplicity of Brancusi’s forms, as well as Picasso’s Cubist sculpture. At the outbreak of World War I, Nadelman, unable to enlist in the Russian army, left for America (with the aid of one of his most active patrons, Helena Rubenstein) where he again established himself, exhibiting first at Stieglitz’s “291.” He married well and became one of the earliest collectors of American folk sculpture, which he absorbed (like all art he came into contact with) and which helped inspire some of his best work: smooth, elegantly round figures of wood, bronze, galvano-plastique, papier-maché and terra cotta. The 1929 crash forced Nadelman to give up his New York townhouse, and, by 1935, his atelier and assistants and his folk art collection. Although he never stopped working, he withdrew from the art world and lived in seclusion in his home in Riverdale.

Looking at the exhibition as a whole, or at individual pieces, Nadelman’s unreliability comes across again and again. You don’t really ever understand what Nadelman is doing, what he is going to do next, why some tendencies are never followed up, why others, in particular a rather stagnant Neo-Classicism, crop up repeatedly. After his radical beginning, Nadelman pursued a modern kind of classicism; he wanted to discover through analysis an order which would yield what he called “significant form”—and for Nadelman, unlike Roger Fry, this term meant finished, impersonal perfection. But Nadelman knew too much for absolute perfection; he was saturated with the history of sculpture and of figurative objects in general. At its best, his classicism is impure, perverted by his worldliness, by his response to the popular, the common and the contemporary.

Nadelman is much more erratic than this exhibition acknowledges; his Neo-Classical pieces, although firm and unsentimental, are nothing more. These figures lack Nadelman’s characteristic restlessness, his special quiet agitation, but they are not in repose, they are simply lifeless and they should have been drastically weeded. (It is illuminating to see from photographs that Nadelman looked vainly Neo-Classical; this explains the narcissism and the suspicion that when he was true to the Greeks, he was true to the most superficial in himself.) But his less original work does serve as a standard which helps locate, through comparison, the subtle ways in which Nadelman shifted and distorted the styles he admired. The sculpture is installed in dense groups according to period, size, and usually material. This makes it possible to peruse a group of related pieces and to see where Nadelman’s classicism goes off the track, parodies and transcends itself. Among the small nudes from the Paris years (variously Greek, Renaissance or Mannerist in style), is a smooth, inflated figure of gilt bronze (1908). With little attention to descriptive detail, her jointless limbs are made to swell outward, tapering in again at precariously small hands and feet. Like a colossal doll, she moves an arm and a leg forward in a mechanical, appealing gesture which presages, as does her form, the wooden figures done in the States. Nearby is an Ideal Head (1906–07) of dark wood, its nose curving to a sharp point above a small, bowlike mouth, in turn made ridiculous by the large full chin swelling beneath it. The voluptuous curves of the chin and forehead make the facial expression pinched and comical, but this gives the head character, a quality of inward, if coy, self-awareness that mocks Nadelman’s “straight” heads. In these two pieces, as in most of the later work, we experience the forms abstractly before we think of them descriptively. Their drama is first formal, the opposition of pointed and round, of line and volume, and secondly stylistic. Nadelman combines sources, styles, and points of view in a way that seems more normal in painting, with its greater continuity and variety of tradition.

As Nadelman proceeds, his special agitation informs and gives life to his best work, particularly that which he produced in America. The wood figures (1916–20), smooth and cylindrical like something out of Seurat, have a dainty, trembling buoyancy. They lean forward toward their audience in the ritualized gestures of society or entertainment that their titles indicate: Tango, Chanteuse, The High Kick, The Woman at the Piano, Circus Performer, Orchestra Conductor, Hostess. These pieces, particularly Chanteuse, are effortlessly graceful—so beautiful as forms that we hardly notice their mental or emotional blankness. However, in a very few pieces, Nadelman achieves a complete, self-knowing, inward repose, and these figures are the most profound in the exhibition. In the bronze Man in the Open Air (1914–15) and the cherry wood Host (1919) the gestures are absent; the figures are involved with their own thoughts, not with any outward action. They don’t entertain or flirt with us. Particularly in the Host, one of Nadelman’s last wood pieces, the usual buoyancy seems more resonant. A thick gentleman sits in a chair, his bowlered head slightly bent and lost in thought. He sits solidly, almost heavily, except that his arms, as they reach downward to his thighs, also flair outward delicately, helplessly. The two painted bronze busts The Man with a Top Hat and Bust of a Woman from the late ’20s virtually sag in defeat. Their enormous faces hunch forward, as if pulled downward by their awkwardly protruding noses. Their expressions are, like the flaring arms of the Host, ever so slightly stricken; this visible pessimism recalls Roman portraiture. If they are out of anything, it is Munch, not Seurat.

The Zabriskie Gallery, which organized mini-retrospectives of Nadelman’s work in 1967 and 1974, has mounted a wonderful exhibition devoted to the terra cotta circus figures and the slightly larger papier-maché and ceramic women. These pieces are numerous and small (5 to 20 inches) and they constitute the greater part of Nadelman’s production during the last decade of his life, when he wanted his art produced in large editions so everyone could have it. The terra-cotta circus figures are so extremely weightless that they barely touch the ground. Installed at the Whitney on the sides of a low, black pyramid, they float, top-heavy and a little awkward, suggesting kewpie-dolls, courtesans, lady wrestlers, children in outrageous costumes all at once (and with Hellenistic decadence). Despite their inflated volumes and strange secretive smugness, which are distorted and off-putting, such an array of human stances, gestures and movement, such knowledge of bodily energy and expression, is rare in the history of sculpture (only Degas seems as rich and intimate) and this in itself is irresistible and moving. At Zabriskie the relationship to Degas is strengthened by the greater numbers of papier-maché figures, women who are engaged in private, everyday activities: examining their feet, fixing each other’s hair, gossiping, playing with poodles. Compared to the bobbing, contained terra cottas, these figures have generous, rolling lines; the two groups together represent Nadelman’s most sustained effort and, in some ways, his most significant. He is dealing with the human form both as it is abstract and as it is a vehicle for humanness. These pieces aren’t monumental or tragic, like Host or the painted bronzes, but they have personalities; they’re not blank or brainless. The terra cottas are, again, portrayals of entertainers now cocky and self-sufficient. The papier-maché figures don’t challenge us, but they engage each other in normal communication. Here, having mastered beautiful, coherent form, Nadelman uses it to record the endless variety of both the bizarre and the everyday in human life.

Roberta Smith