A Rich Feast of Folk Art at the New-York Historical Society

Folk art barely existed as a term, much less a category in the years just before 1920, when it became a presiding passion of the Polish-born American sculptor Elie Nadelman (1882-1946). After spending six years absorbing modernity in Paris, the young artist landed in New York in 1914, his crossing on the Lusitania financed by Helena Rubinstein, a client.

Constantly on the lookout for sculptural inspiration, Nadelman was already taken with European peasant art and was also buying antiquities before he reached New York. Within a few years, folk art from both continents would fuel some of his best and most expressive work, the svelte carved-wood figures of dancers and dandies he called woods. Moreover, folk art was a crucial element in his marriage to Viola Spiess Flannery, a widow, A merican heiress and, like him, natural-born collector. Antique textiles were among her early interests.

"Tango" (circa 1920-24) by Elie Nadelman. Credit Estate of Elie Nadelman, Whitney Museum of American Art

The couple wed in 1919, using their honeymoon to visit museums of peasant art in Oslo and Stockholm. Soon, they were conducting intense buying sorties paid for by Viola's fortune and Elie's portrait commissions, in the Old World, New York and the American Northeast into Canada. Their omnivorous shopping — which included the purchase of French and American pharmacies — reached a peak, but hardly ceased, in 1926. That year, they opened the Museum of Folk and Peasant Arts in a stone building that they erected and later expanded on Alderbrook, their estate overlooking the Hudson in Riverdale, N.Y. It was the first museum of folk art in this country and the first anywhere to combine American and European material.

The Nadelmans' tale, like some of the best collecting narr atives, is a riveting combination of wealth, visionary thought, aesthetic passion and cruel fate, culminating in the 1929 market crash, which eventually destroyed their dream and broke their hearts. This story is being told in unprecedented detail in "The Folk Art Collection of Elie and Viola Nadelman," a marvel of an exhibition that opens Friday at the New-York Historical Society. The society saved most of the couple's collection, if not their groundbreaking museum, by purchasing 15,000 objects in 1937. Since then, it has been exhibited only in bits and pieces.

An elephant pull toy (circa 1860-90), part of the collection of Elie and Viola Nadelman at New-York Historical Society. Credit Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times

This show and its exceptional catalog, which adds "Making It Modern" to the title, form a rich feast of art, art-world history and visual dot-connecting. Research was greatly bolstered in 2012, when the Historical Society was given several boxes of the index cards that the couple kept on their purchases by their granddaughter, Cynthia Nadelman, an art critic, poet and editor.

The roughly 250 objects here skim across the collection but indicate its scope and aims, one of which was to show American folk art's roots in European peasant art. The four needlepoint samplers on view are variously American, German and Spanish. Two wood blanket chests decorated with repeating arched-window motifs are 17th-century Swiss (carved) and 18th-century American (painted).

Credit Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times

The show is loosely divided between cases of mostly frivolous things (toys, amusing ceramics and fabulous painted boxes) and the functional, often beautifully decorated tools, especially those for baking and textile-making. Sometimes the function was to decorate, as with a Swiss wafer iron and several carved wooden butter molds. Sometimes the objects leave you clueless as to function, or name. For example, a well-used length of wood carved with medallions and the year 1791 is a mangle board, used for pressing linen — a harbinger of irons. A kakelorum is an early roulette game: A marble dropped into a carved spiral figure circles down to a plate with round indentations, each numbered. Pick a number, insert a marble, see where it lands.

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