Elie Nadelman: Sculptor of Modern Life, Whitney Museum of American Art

In the art of Elie Nadelman, sobriety and enchantment are strangely, wonderfully entangled. Nadelman, who died in 1946 at the age of sixty-four, gave sculpture’s ancient mandate to turn real space into dream space a modern vehemence and an adamantine logic, but also a flash of what-the-hell insouciance. The idealized marble heads and the wood carvings of sleek theatrical performers and the plump doll-like women that fill the Nadelman retrospective that is at the Whitney Museum of American Art through July 20 are the work of a saturnine magician. Nadelman possesses a sculptor’s deepest, truest intuitions. He brings to his swelling volumes and shifting profiles a rapturous liquidity, a musical suppleness.

Great sculpture always has a shockingly vital presence, and Nadelman’s command of space is right up there with the giants, with Brancusi and Arp and Giacometti and maybe even Donatello. These sculptors knew how to bring their wildest imaginings barging into the universe of actualities, and the effect can be dizzyingly powerful. Sculpture, which incites our desire to touch as well as our desire to see, takes hold of us in a very different way than painting. Chroniclers of the ancient world tell us that the allure of certain Hellenistic carvings of Venus was so strong that worshippers yearned to have sex with the statues, and sometimes attempted to do so. Nadelman, like many twentieth- century artists, including some who worked abstractly, wished to underscore sculpture’s strong, erotic pull. While there is a velvety seductiveness about much of Nadelman’s art that is worlds away from the abraded austerity of Giacometti’s spectral figures, these artists, both of whom produced some of their essential work in the 1940s, shared a fascination with sculpture’s totemic, confrontational power. They knew how to turn ancient mysteries into modern dramas.

Nadelman was born in Warsaw, studied in Munich, and by the time of his first one-man show in Paris in 1909 had attracted the attention of artists and tastemakers, including Matisse, Leo Stein, and Thade Natanson. He caused a sensation with the drawings of classical heads and figures that he constructed out of buoyant orchestrations of springing, leaping arcs. These drawings are a freestanding achievement, and also a guide to the idealized anatomy from which Nadelman conjured the marble and bronze beings who seem to inhabit the rocky hilltops and the azure seas of a lost pastoral paradise.

With that first group of mature drawings and sculptures, Nadelman declared that modern art’s search for essences involved an exploration of the fundamentals of classicism. He was aligning himself with a reconsideration of academic tradition that had been encouraged in France by Puvis de Chavannes, Degas, and Seurat, and in Germany by the sculptor Adolf von Hildebrand, whose book The Problem of Form in Painting and Sculpture, a copy of which was in Nadelman’s library, is one of the founding texts of formalism. Picasso, who already in his Rose Period had made his own case for a meeting of modern asceticism and Greek equilibrium, was immensely impressed by Nadelman’s exuberantly skeletal drawings, and Nadelman’s salutes to the Greco-Roman imagination foreshadowed the fascination with Neoclassicism that pervaded so much work done in Paris in the years during and after World War I.

With his early marble heads Nadelman created an art of mild yet sublime longing. And while there is no reason to think that a man who had been born and had passed his entire life in Paris could not have produced such work, it is not unreasonable to imagine that Nadelman’s abiding fascination with lost worlds is rooted in the immediate biographical facts—in the experience of having left his homeland behind. As it turned out, Nadelman lost Paris, too, for with the arrival of World War I he came to believe that he would be most secure in the United States, which is where he lived for the rest of his life.


Nadelman received a warm welcome in New York, from the high-bohemia circles in which Alfred Stieglitz moved and from the barons of Fifth Avenue, who were soon inviting him to carve portraits of their wives and children. He developed a fascination with folk art—with its spectacular flowering in nineteenth- century America and the relationship of those American products to European precedents. With Viola Spiess Flannery, a wealthy widow whom he married in 1919, he built a folk art collection second to none, which they were forced to sell when the crash wiped out their fortune. Folk art was a lost world that Nadelman embraced as an America of the imagination to set beside the Athens and Alexandria of the imagination to which he had earlier declared his lasting fealty. As the decades passed, his nostalgia seems to have thickened and darkened and become almost autobiographical, as this dashingly attractive man who had been a charismatic social animal in his younger years became increasingly reclusive, creating a huge body of work that would be unknown until after his death.

It is impossible to consider Nadelman without considering his passion for fifth-century Greek sculpture, for late Hellenistic terra-cottas, for American cigar-store figures and weather vanes, and for posters and photographs of circus and burlesque performers. Yet there is nothing modest or selfless about Nadelman’s acts of homage. His feeling for this wonderfully variegated material is so intimate and so obsessive that you may end up believing that he is not so much a sculptor saluting the art that he loves as he is an artist attempting to speak in a lost language—and not just to speak the words, but also to re- experience the syntax and make of it a new poetry. When Nadelman absorbs certain stylistic elements from Biedermeier toys and American weather vanes into his impressions of the elegant ladies and gentlemen and the dazzling performers of his own day, he is not slumming, or thinking ideologically, or anticipating the decades of irony that followed, or making a comment about “high” and “low.” He is erecting an entire alternative universe, a whole world made in his imagination, with its own manners and morals, its own fashions and foibles.

In the last years of his life, Nadelman was fascinated by the multiple versions of terra-cotta statues that had been produced in Hellenistic times using fairly simple molds, and he went right ahead and created molds of his own and made multiple, somewhat variegated versions of small, over-ripe, yet babyish figures. There is something deliciously megalomaniacal and wildly audacious in this late work, in which Nadelman creates types and variations on types and families and generations of families. In summoning this Hellenistic fantasy, Nadelman fights off the loneliness of the modern creative spirit. Working only for himself, he creates a weirdly beguiling multiplication of selves.

Nadelman is so large-spirited an artist that even his misses are fascinating. I find quite a bit to admire in the portraits that he did of America’s leading citizens and their children, which evince an emotional tact and a sneaky formal surprise that echoes, however distantly, Ingres’s divine portraiture. As for Nadelman’s successes, they are by no means all of a piece, coming as they do in such different forms, from sleekly impersonal to delicately witty to disquietingly expressionistic. He is one of those artists whose work is so rich and so varied that a museumgoer may hesitate to say what is best, and yet there is also much to be said for the general view that it is the wood figures of the first half of the 1920s that are the summit of his art. If certain marble heads and silkily mannerist bronze figures can be regarded as definitive achievements, it is still in the carvings titled Dancer, Hostess, Chanteuse, Circus Performer, Circus Girl, Tango, Host, Woman at the Piano, and Orchestra Conductor that his effects are peerless—at once ineffable and inevitable.

These figures, in which all the quirks of Nadelman’s contemporaries are granted the absolution that comes with formal perfection, are truly like nothing else in the history of art. The relatively small size of the carvings, two or three feet high, can be surprising, considering how much space the figures command, and it is part of their glory that Nadelman is able to give his restricted means such an expansive power. Where earlier and later in Nadelman’s work the emphasis is often on the voluptuousness of volume, here, without any loss of solidity, he emphasizes edges and profiles and the unfurling of contours. The high kick of a dancer’s leg, the floating hand of the pianist, the erect carriage of the conductor, and the stolidity of the seated man are marked in space with calligraphic panache.

In the drawings in which Nadelman thought through these marvelous witty vignettes of modern life, we see the artist zeroing in on the appetite for incisive social analysis through formal simplification that is the locus classicus of the caricatural imagination. And then we see him pushing through comedy to philosophy—from joke to revelation. Everything that Nadelman had learned, everything that he would ever know, is absorbed into these figures. They reflect his interest in the startling and the unexpected, his appetite for narrative complexity, his search for a form that in its inevitability suggests infinity. And the more you look at these extraordinary works, the more the shadow play of influences, whether from folk art or from Seurat or from nineteenth-century photography, vanishes into the vitality of a singular image.

While Nadelman often worked out the ideas for the figures in plaster, he seems to have been certain that their final formulations had to be in wood rather than in bronze; and this is immensely important. Of all the sculptor’s materials, wood is the one that we experience as most immediately organic. This material that is so often used in furniture and domestic architecture feels closer to us than marble and bronze, which we inevitably associate with the chill of monuments. Even in the magisterial forms of the limewood altarpieces of the Northern Renaissance—at least one of which, Veit Stoss’s Saint Mary Altarpiece, Nadelman knew in his youth—wood imparts to the figures a soft, yielding quality. The immediacy of this substance suits the dailiness of Nadelman’s subjects, a dailiness that he proceeds to set off a bit, in a middle distance of the imagination that turns out to be the distance between where we stand and eternity.

This retrospective at the Whitney, which was organized by Barbara Haskell, the museum’s curator of early-twentieth-century art, is the first Nadelman show in a New York museum in a quarter of a century. In subtitling the exhibition “Sculptor of Modern Life,” Haskell has made it clear that for her it is the wood figures, with their connection to the theatrical and social life of Nadelman’s own day, that are at the core of his achievement. Curiously enough, the arrangement of the show at the Whitney does not exactly support this view, for Haskell has displayed more of the classical heads than were probably needed, and has sometimes included versions of the same motif in marble and bronze or in wood and bronze, a doubling of images that tends to muffle the effect of individual works. And the sense of Nadelman as a sculptor of modern life is not well served by the extremely low lighting in the show, which dampens the exuberant power of the wood figures and gives the entire enterprise a disturbingly sepulchral quality. A visitor to the Whitney may leave wondering if Nadelman is modern at all. And yet Haskell, who has in the past mounted important shows of misunderstood or underappreciated American artists such as Ralston Crawford, Joseph Stella, and Burgoyne Diller, must be saluted for bringing us what is only the third major museum show in New York since Nadelman’s death.

While versions of several of his works are well known in the city he called home—especially the Man in the Open Air that was for many years a striking presence in the Museum of Modern Art sculpture garden and the two huge, posthumous marble versions of groups of circus performers in the lobby of the New York State Theater—Nadelman remains, for most of the museumgoing public, a shadowy figure. Even among Nadelman’s most fervent admirers, the small group of fanatics who have followed the exhibitions of his work that have been mounted at the Zabriskie and Salander-O’Reilly galleries in the past quarter-century, he remains something of an enigma, an artist whom some people love mostly for his allegiance to classical verities and whom others cherish for his quirky eccentricity. This conflict seems to go back to the first appearance of the wood figures in the 1920s, when the brilliant critic Henry McBride observed that “we calmly divided into two ranks, the one half of us liking Mr. Nadelman’s return to classicism and the other half preferring the caricatures in wood of modern society.” And in a sense the situation became even more complicated after Nadelman’s death, when Lincoln Kirstein, that commanding figure in the American arts, almost singlehandedly ensured that Nadelman’s achievement would not go unsung. Kirstein organized the first retrospective (at the Museum of Modern Art in 1948), encouraged collectors to take a look at the work, and produced four major texts, including a monograph that has a supercharged imaginative shape that we normally associate with the art of fiction. While Kirstein is far too astute to overlook all that is marvelously mannered and eccentric in Nadelman’s art, he sees the sculptor as part of an American artistic aristocracy that re-affirms timeless values in a democratic spirit, and in doing so he folds an image of Nadelman as the chronicler of modern life into an image of Nadelman as the classicist for all time, “concerned with metaphysical pattern, not personal psychic drama.”

While Haskell, like everybody who has written about Nadelman, salutes Kirstein, she also hopes to move the discussion forward. When she argues that we can see new sides of Nadelman “in the eclectic climate of postmodernism,” she is trying to suggest that developments in the art world since Kirstein completed his major work on Nadelman some quarter of a century ago leave us better equipped to respond to the artist’s avidity for popular culture and to the sense of turmoil and unrest that his later, more distorted figures sometimes suggest. Frankly, I am not so sure that all of this wasn’t evident to Nadelman’s earlier admirers. Whatever Kirstein may say about Nadelman and classicism, when he organized that first retrospective he pretty much picked the high points from every period that we still pick today.

Haskell, confronting the sad fact that Nadelman remains known yet somehow unknown, cannot resist reaching for new approaches. Perhaps it is some idea about postmodern contextualization that has pushed her to emphasize the fact that Nadelman was Jewish, and to argue, although there is no direct evidence for it, that Nadelman’s despair over the fate of family members in the Holocaust may have shaped the imagery of some of his later, almost expressionistically distorted doll figures. (There is evidence, indeed, to the contrary. “I personally feel equally strongly for the victims of every race [and] feel that your organization which is concerned with one section of these victims has not the necessary appeal,” he wrote to the United Jewish Appeal in 1939.) And perhaps when Haskell exhibits four versions in a row of the magnificent sculpture of a wood dancer, turning Nadelman’s singular image into a Busby Berkeley routine, she means to reveal Nadelman’s interest in what is now known as serial imagery, and thereby suggest that he is a precursor of Andy Warhol’s repeating Marilyns.

Nadelman’s modernity, which Haskell sometimes seems to identify with the artist’s emotional responses to current events, is fundamental, a principled stand. What some museumgoers may initially regard as his old-fashioned love for enclosed sculptural form can be more accurately described as a faith in the essentially abstract nature of pictorial expression. For Nadelman, formal dynamics are the core of art, which means that many of the elements that are so beguiling in his work—the allusions to antiquity, to popular culture, to childhood amusements—function not as references to experiences but as a sort of metaphorical perfume that arises from the boisterous physicality of compositional invention. In a statement that he published in 1910, Nadelman took his place among the founders of the modern spirit when he declared that the life of art was nothing more or less than “the life of form.” As Nadelman wrote these words, he was summoning up an aerial geometry of powerfully curved lines, and he explained that these bounding, leaping arcs were arranged “in accord or in opposition to one another” so that “the life of the work [would] come from within itself.” He was picking up on the ideas of Hildebrand and anticipating those of Clive Bell and Roger Fry when he declared that “the subject of any work of art is for me nothing but a pretext for creating significant form, relations of forms which create a new life that has nothing to do with life in nature, a life from which art is born, and from which spring style and unity.”

Reading these inspiriting words, which Nadelman would echo in statements over the next fifteen years, we are brought face-to-face with the artist’s struggle to liberate artistic expression from the bonds of old-fashioned narrative, of metaphoric specificity, of what-you-see-is-what-you-get realism. Yet this is a complicated kind of liberation, for the artist still longs to re- engage with metaphor and narrative and realism, only now on a new level, where connections are more spontaneous, a matter not of the imitation of life but of the creation of life. If Nadelman’s imaginative freedom produces an art that has its share of ambiguities, it may be because his experimental spirit reflects both a classicist’s search for timeless truths and a romantic’s struggle to be absolutely himself. The fact is that in order to achieve the homogeneity of a true classicism, which he surely desired, Nadelman had to be something of a romantic individualist. In theory, the romantic says that it is the individual’s perceptions that matter, while the classicist says that it is the timeless ideals that matter; but in practice something rather odd can occur. The romantic, who hangs everything on the individual, can create a sense of wholeness more easily than the classicist, who in seeking to set the self to the side provokes an increasingly complex relationship between the self and the world.

Nadelman, the classicist who aims to “create a new life that has nothing to do with life in nature,” is a man of romantic longings. And it is the mingling of romantic individualism and classical equilibrium that accounts for the haunted, muffled, there-but-not-quite-there beauty of so many of his unforgettable figures. In Nadelman’s sculpture, the particular and the general, and the power of the general to become particular, are held in a bewitching high-wire balance. Through the very act of refusing to wear his heart on his sleeve, this great sculptor pushes us to go in search of his heart. Perhaps that is what Henry McBride had in mind when he observed that Nadelman’s art “is cultured to the breaking point.” Nadelman’s triumphant classicism is tinged with disquietude, a disquietude that we experience as melancholy’s afterglow.

This article originally ran in the July 7 & 14, 2003 issue of the magazine.