The Folk Art Collection of Elie and Viola Nadelman

On View
New York Historical Society
May 20, 2016 – August 21, 2016
New York

In 1937, Elie and Viola Nadelman's Museum of Folk and Peasant Arts was an original in practically every way. Today, the contents are still quite delicious; every piece exceptional, acquired while practically nobody else was looking, each cousin to a common aesthetic purpose, that one can still feel, even in the selection exhibited here (the Society purchased only a large fragment of the whole, reputed to have been more than 15,000 items). Strong feelings and deep purposes are still restless among these things. The original Museum was the project of an artist, and even, it has been said, his “masterpiece.”    

Elie Nadelman, Tango (detail). 1920 - 24. Courtesy the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Elie Nadelman, Tango (detail). 1920 - 24. Courtesy the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Born in Warsaw, Nadelman (1882-1946) made his way to Paris before the First World War, where he was a pathfinding modernist in the circle of the Steins. As an émigré to New York, it seemed he would ride the crest of the modern, but in fact he was already a stranger in every circle, in the Parisian avant-garde, and in New York as well, even as a leader of the most up to date conservatives. By 1929, married well and doing well, largely on lucrative portrait commissions, he held the art world at arm’s reach. At his death in 1946 he was well out of touch and only the single-handed efforts of Lincoln Kirstein have kept his name alive until now.  

Just now he is getting with-it again. Galerie Buchholz collects him, and represents his estate, here and in Europe. Perhaps now at last his reputation will come to rest where it belongs, on his still-underknown late work, “the dolls,” roughly a thousand unmounted small plaster figures only inches high. These profoundly ambiguous beings, scattered between new and old, boy and girl, matter and metaphysics, were produced after the demise of the Folk and Peasant Arts Museum and in mourning for it. As a body, they are an unvisited monument of 20th century modern art. Once aware of the dolls, one sees all Nadelman’s prior activity as a prelude to them, the former Museum and this exhibition included.  

W. Allan, Highlander tobacco shop figure (detail), c. 1850.
W. Allan, Highlander tobacco shop figure (detail), c. 1850.

The exhibition contents raise an audible babble of forms and suggestions. Their busy murmur is diametrically opposite the silence and solitude of Nadelman’s youth in Paris, “living on plaster” (said Gide, after visiting his studio), where he was no collector (so far as we know) but a producer alone, remarkable for his questing philosophical focus on essential form. There is an abrupt philosophical contrast between Nadelman’s Europe and New York, between the single artist and the married artist-collector/collaborator. Recent scholarship and the excellent exhibition catalog open our eyes to the unsolitary burden of Folk and Peasant Arts Museum-building. Tables in the catalog appendices itemize the dealers, the travel, and the chronology of the Institution, but only barely suggest the ever-crowding stuff, the disorder, the moving, packing, unpacking, labeling, the miscellaneous correspondence, museum planning, construction, installation; all of which was subtracted from Nadelman’s practice. How did he stand it?  

In the twenties, he was not the only artist collecting “folk” (for want of a better term, we’re not there yet) art. Other moderns were collecting backward, as they pressed forward, but Nadelman’s collecting, uniquely, was within his creative practice. The rhymes between the collection and his own work are more than loving, and witty; he had set about total awareness of a universe of art and objects, low and high, so by his middle work, the museum-building artist practiced as an artist without walls, inhabiting every viewpoint, from every continent, locale, culture and epoch simultaneously, as if all time and place were one head, and under the eye of one staggeringly sophisticated observer.  

The exhibition includes a welcome selection of Nadelman’s mid-career works, from the late teens and twenties, in carved wood, bronze and electro-plated plaster, all touched with the artist’s signature freehand painting. With them placed among Museum objects one gets the funny feeling that all the exhibition contents, whatever their origin, are the work of one hand. As if a single insinuated intelligence, prolifically various and reinventive, had guided all hands. Nadelman, having recognized the charm, was both its poet and one more suborned practicien, only more self-possessed than the others. Again and again he picked up another maker’s theme, saying May I? May we try this once more? Your song, of course, but I hear another voice, may we reveal it? There is something more here, let me bring out more fully what you would not have known better…

The Museum could not survive the Crash. In 1937, under duress, the Nadelmans sold the bulk of the Collection to the New York Historical Society. Elie confessed that “the dismantling of the Folk Art Museum did also dismantle something in me.” But the demise of the Museum made matter and space for his own work. The dolls began as straightforward models for editions of small works for all, to be mass produced in contemporary plastics, like Bakelite.  But the project slipped away from the crowd and back to the consolation of philosophy, and solitude. The teeming multiplicity of the dolls recalled the Museum and one by one they soothed the losses of the collection. Alone again, Nadelman prepared his final art, an old man’s game, for himself, and a few.


Brandt Junceau


JUL-AUG 2016

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