‘The Folk Art Collection of Elie and Viola Nadelman’ Review: Shaping the Artist

New York

The Polish-born, quintessentially American sculptor Elie Nadelman (1882-1946) considered his European and American folk art collection, which he amassed with his wife, the American heiress Viola Spiess Flannery, to be his greatest work of art.

After the couple married, in 1919, they acquired folk art with a vengeance. At its height, their collection comprised over 15,000 objects—including paintings, furniture, Frakturs, toys, vessels, tools, textiles, weathervanes and carved wooden tobacco-shop figures. These were housed in the Nadelmans' Museum of Folk and Peasant Arts, in the Riverdale neighborhood of the Bronx—the first folk art museum in the U.S. In 1937, when the Great Depression forced the museum to deaccession and dismantle the collection, the New-York Historical Society purchased the bulk of its holdings.

The folk art collection fed not just Nadelman's obsessive need to acquire oddball and exquisite, one-of-a-kind objects that were simply stated, charming, utilitarian, hand-painted and handmade, but also—and primarily—nourished and influenced his omnivorous tastes and his own varied sculptural pursuits. That connection between Nadelman's collection and his own masterly, sometimes w himsical and pared-down, nearly abstract sculptural figures is the subject of "The Folk Art Collection of Elie and Viola Nadelman," an enlightening and thoroughly enjoyable show at the NYHS.

Nadelman's sources and subjects were diverse. He mastered marble, wood, bronze, brass, ceramic, plaster and papier-mâché. He worked large and small. A classicist who also collected Greco-Roman and medieval art, he was influenced equally by the hardware store and the Louvre, the dance hall and the Parthenon. He sculpted gods, goddesses, ideal heads, animals, children, dolls, circus performers and aristocrats. This show's one drawing, "Profile Head of a Woman" (1920), looks as if she had just stepped off of an ancient Greek pediment frieze. Blending ancient and modern, lowbrow and highbrow, European and American traditions, Nadelman's unique, extremely influential sculptural conflations collectively reveal—besides the influence of folk art—Egyptian statuary's eternal calm, Greco-Roman classicism, Seurat's evanescence and the sensuality of East Indian eroticism, as well as vaudevillian slapstick, flirtatious Hollywood starlets and the rollicking can-can. They also provide the seeds of biomorphic abstraction. Any comprehensive Nadelman show bears this out.

Narrowly focused and heavily weighted toward Nadelman's sources in folk art, however, this delightful, challenging exhibition is refreshingly different. Co-curated by Margaret K. Hofer, NYHS's director, and Roberta J.M. Olson, its curator of drawings, the show is an immersion rather than a chronological display.

Filling one long gallery are about 250 superb works of folk art, divided thematically, interspersed with a dozen of Nadelman's own sculptures—small and tabletop-scaled human figures made mostly of wood and ceramic. These include high-stepping dancers, acrobats, portrait busts, a woman playing the piano, and a couple doing the tango—their stoic expressions and knifelike hands comically adversarial. Nadelman believed that a true understanding of American culture must take folk art into account. The NYHS's installation serves to connect European and American folk and fine art traditions, while brilliantly letting flow a major wellspring for Nadelman's sculpture.

Here, Nadelman's sculptures and folk art converse, flirt and mingle. Forms, lines, curves and features appear to dovetail and flit among objects. It's as if you were at some strange family reunion, where Nadelman's figures act like entertaining distant cousins. Yet they rise above the cacophony—especially Nadelman's hand-painted, mustachioed portrait bust, in bronze-colored galvano-plastique, "Man in Top Hat" (1925-26), who presides like a circus master.

Moving through this show is like searching for genetic clues. The hair buns crowning a set of 19th-century carved wooden French milliner's heads are echoed in the heads of Nadelman's own female figures, whose long, lithe, sinuous legs extend just like some of the show's coffee-pot spouts. Likewise, the painted and wire bows of Nadelman's figures relate directly to the keys of wind-u p toys—and also to the tails of the exhibition's cow-shaped creamers, which curve back and connect to their bovine bodies, doubling as handles.

Elsewhere, the painted scalloped bodice on Nadelman's bronze "Bust of a Woman" (1924-25) seems to have leapt directly from another woman's bosom—in hand-painted American chalkware (c. 1850). An 18th-century European wrought-iron broiler's ribs undulate like the flowing drapery and rivulets of hair that grace the terra-cotta figures in Nadelman's "The Four Seasons" (c. 1912)—on view in a separate exhibition upstairs. And beautifully spare, smooth wooden clothespins (1850-1900) could be the missing link between Nadelman's figures and Cycladic idols.

The largest object here—a German-made, hand-painted-wood ship figurehead nearly 7 feet tall—is the racy "Rosa Isabella" (1865). Weather-beaten and windswept, she plows forward like the ancient Greek marble "Winged Victory of Samothrace." When Nade lman acquired her, she was missing limbs—some of which he hand-carved and restored. Like this remarkable show, she is a wonderfully peculiar amalgamation of Neoclassical and Northern, ancient and modern, lowbrow and highbrow, the graceful and risqué. And like every object here, she is quintessentially Nadelman.

Mr. Esplund writes about art for the Journal.

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