Elie Nadelman


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Sculptor, draftsman, and collector. His sleek, stylish figurative works draw on modern and classical traditions, while also displaying a droll humor based on sharp-eyed observation of social conventions. An early collector of American folk art, he sometimes incorporated his admiration for untutored expression into his own work. The modern veneer and sophisticated charm of his sculpture suited 1920s taste, but during the more socially conscious 1930s, his reputation declined. Born in Warsaw, Nadelman studied art there and served for a year in the Imperial Russian Army before moving to Munich and then on to in Paris in 1904. Initially drawn to Rodin's work, he soon turned to more modern expression, as he became acquainted with Brancusi, Picasso, and other leading figures. At the same time, he also closely studied the ancient sculpture on view at the Louvre, as well as African masks in the ethnographic museum. In the Paris years, he experimented with considerable originality across styles and media. Drawings from about 1905 anticipated aspects of cubist fragmentation, but he never pursued broken forms in his three-dimensional work. By 1906 some of his sculpture rivaled Brancusi's in radical simplification. Nadelman's work appeared in the Armory Show before he left Paris in 1914. He went first to London before continuing later that year to New York. His first American one-person show at Alfred Stieglitz's *291 gallery initiated his success in 1915. The exhibition included a plaster version of the genial bronze Man in the Open Air (Museum of Modern Art, 1915), which exemplifies the characteristics that brought Nadelman fame. The sculpture's svelte, sensuously smoothed forms suggest modernist simplification, but they also reveal the artist's preference for decorative, curved shapes. The pose derived from classical sculpture ties the work to tradition, while the bowler hat and string tie add witty contemporary touches. Appealing as this work may be, it foreshadows a loss of ambition in the later work of an artist whose early career promised leadership in the development of sculptural modernism.

From the late 1910s through the 1920s, when he numbered among the most prominent New York artists, Nadelman received numerous portrait commissions. Their polished surfaces and refined, slightly simplified forms glamorized sitters. An early patron, the Polish-born cosmetics baroness Helena Rubinstein, placed his idealized marble busts in her beauty salons. Simultaneously, through about 1924, inspired by newfound enthusiasm for American folk art, he often worked in wood, which he sometimes painted, as in Woman at the Piano (Museum of Modern Art, c. 1917). With gentle mockery, many of these pieces depict entertainers or high society. In 1926 he opened to the public his enormous folk art collection, displayed in a building on the grounds of his home in the Riverdale neighborhood of the Bronx. (He also had a town house in Manhattan until forced to sell it during the Depression). Nadelman became an American citizen in 1927. After the 1929 stock market crash, which decimated his fortune and precipitated a decline in the popularity of his work, he became reclusive. Following his last one-person exhibition, mounted in Paris in 1930, he accepted a few commissions, such as the limestone decoration for New York's Fuller Building (1930–32), but for the most part withdrew to his studio. In 1937 he sold his entire folk art collection to the New-York Historical Society. Leaving no clue to his intentions, during his last sixteen years he produced more than four hundred odd little figurines in a variety of materials. He committed suicide at his Riverdale home.


Subjects: Art.

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