Kicking Up a Storm

After decades of undeserved oblivion, sculptor Elie Nadelman's time has come again, in a long-overdue retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Among the masters of modern art, none did more to assure his place in obscurity than Elie Nadelman. In the early years of the 20th century, Nadelman bestrode the Paris art world like a colossus. His sleek-lined, classically inspired sculptures in marble and bronze wowed the critics, directly influenced Brancusi and Modigliani, and later became a touchstone for the designers of the Art Deco style.

More than any other artist of his day, Nadelman demonstrated how modernism could embody the ancient qualities of ideal beauty and perfect proportion but also be absolutely contemporary. His vaudeville Venuses, high-stepping horses, derbied dandies, peppy dancers, lithe acrobats, dignified dowagers, and pneumatic circus ladies are as instantly recognizable as their polar opposites—the emaciated figures Alberto Giacometti created a generation later. But unlike his eminent contemporaries and Giacometti, Nadelman is virtually unknown to the general public today.

"He was his own worst enemy," says curator Barbara Haskell, who organized Elie Nadelman: Sculptor of Modern Life, a major retrospective on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art, in New York, from April 3 to July 20. (It follows close on the heels of a fine, smaller survey that recently toured the country under the auspices of the American Federation of the Arts.) "Time and time again he made mistakes that made him invisible."

For despite Nadelman's brilliant start, he stopped pushing himself, in part because of his too-comfortable way of life in Jazz Age New York. A bon vivant whose rich wife lost her fortune in the Great Depression, he lived in diminished circumstances in the '30s and '40s—but stubbornly turned away from his most likely source of income by refusing to exhibit for the last 16 years of his life. Instead, he sold off his beloved folk-art collection and taught ceramics and clay modeling to wounded GIs at a VA hospital. By the time he died, by his own hand in the Bronx in 1946, he had become a recluse virtually forgotten by the art world.

After his death, it was discovered that Nadelman had obsessively and secretly devoted himself to one last great project—a series of more than 400 bizarre plaster dolls. In 1985, photographer Peter Hujar took a remarkable series of black-and-white pictures of these small but powerful figures, emphasizing their coy sexuality and intimations of childhood eroticism. Word of mouth steadily grew about that drawn-out coda, culminating in a 1999 exhibition at the Salander-O'Reilly Galleries in New York that caused a sensation in the city's avant-garde art circles.

That new generation of fans, including such artists as Kiki Smith and Ellen Phelan, has found in those perverse statuettes a spiritual ancestor for their own work, which questions everything from realism and abstraction to body imagery and gender identity. "They are seductive," Smith has said. "They're a little bit like hussies or Kewpie dolls, even while they have many classical references."

Between 1985 and 1992, Phelan produced a haunting series of pictures based on doll imagery, but long before that, she and her husband, the sculptor Joel Shapiro, admired Nadelman the sublime puppet master. "The first piece of art that Joel and I ever bought together, in 1974, was a little Nadelman circus figure of a woman," Phelan recalls. "We were coming up in the environment of abstraction and minimalism, and we were both looking at ways to put back into art many of the things that had been deemed unworthy, like the human figure and the rest of the world."

The startling totality of Nadelman's once-brilliant but sadly truncated career is being examined in depth for the first time in almost three decades. The Whitney show brings together 200 pieces that, taken as a whole, are sure to spark even wider interest in this paradoxical figure. "Today, all the things he did are common practice among younger artists," says Haskell. "His willingness to go back to historical precedents is very postmodernist, his annihilation of the boundaries between high art and low culture is something artists are doing again, and figuration is the dominant vocabulary. He just seems like an artist of the moment, against all the forces that once marginalized him."

Eliasz Nadelman was born in Warsaw in 1882, the seventh and youngest child of a jeweler. From an early age the boy wanted to be an artist, and his family encouraged him. But as a Jew, Nadelman always felt himself an outsider, even though his family was highly assimilated and cultivated. The Warsaw region of Poland was then ruled by Russia, and a strong nationalist impulse was shared by young artists who depicted historical scenes to fan the flames of the independence movement.

Instead, Nadelman sought a more timeless, universal art free of topical references and didactic story lines. He was drawn more to Symbolism, the avant-garde movement that rejected naturalism in favor of personal intuition and spiritual liberation. He also felt at ease with the classical tradition.

After studying in Warsaw and Munich, Nadelman gravitated to Paris, the epicenter of the art world. He arrived in 1904 and immediately began searching for the fundamental essence of sculpture, paring away unnecessary details until he was left with the bare minimum needed to express a specific form. He did this in a patient series of experimental drawings, and his sculpture thereafter followed the precise, linear emphasis of those breakthrough figure studies.

Nadelman's first one-man show, in 1909, was a roaring success. Taken up by those shrewd talent scouts Gertrude and Leo Stein, he was so much the dernier cri that Matisse put up a sign in his studio that warned, TALKING ABOUT NADELMAN IS FORBIDDEN HERE. Two years later in London, all the works in his next solo outing were snapped up by a single buyer: the up-and-coming cosmetics diva Helena Rubinstein, who recognized in his vivid reinterpretations of Greek goddesses the perfect symbol and subliminal advertisement for her treatments as a modern science. As Rubinstein later wrote, "To me, Nadelman's purity of line and his feeling for form say 'beauty' better than all the fancy words coined for the beauty industry by Madison Avenue."

Rubinstein became Nadelman's most important patron as she acquired his best pieces. Eleven of them are in the Whitney show—including two stylized classical wooden heads of women lent by her step-granddaughter, Suzanne Slesin (the design editor and writer who is working on a book on Rubinstein's taste titled Over the Top), and her husband, Michael Steinberg.

At the outbreak of World War I, Rubinstein hustled Nadelman out of harm's way to New York to work on a plaster relief for her salon there. In America he found a whole new world to conquer, and not just artistically. With his Grecian profile, penetrating gaze, full head of wavy hair, and tall, slim figure, Nadelman brought to life the classical ideal as vividly as his art did. Those striking good looks, coupled with his innate gracefulness, charming manners, dandified outfits, and seductive reserve, made him irresistible to the ladies. Not unaware of his effect on the opposite sex, he bragged of "nothing but women and his manly powers," grumbled the sculptor Jacques Lipschitz. Even Alice B. Toklas, Gertrude Stein's mustachioed mate, gushed over his "unearthly beauty" and "eternal youth."

After several affairs, Nadelman at 37 married Viola Spiess Flannery, a vastly wealthy but sickly widow four years his senior, and began a decade-long joyride that lasted until the 1929 stock market crash wiped them out. The Nadelmans had one son, Jan (now 80 and a retired U.S. career diplomat), and maintained both a luxurious townhouse on East 93rd Street off Fifth Avenue and a 16-acre estate, Alderbrook, perched above the Hudson in the Riverdale section of the Bronx.

The couple indulged their enthusiasm for folk art, a sophisticated specialty then shared with only a few other adventurous pioneers such as Abby Aldrich Rockefeller. They favored objects with a bold sculptural presence, like weathervanes and ships' figureheads, as well as Pennsylvania chalkware, small vernacular carvings that bore a telling resemblance to his last works. To share it all with the public, they built a three-story gallery on their Riverdale property and opened it in 1926 as the Museum of Folk and Peasant Art (the snooty-sounding "Peasant" was later dropped).

Nadelman's marital security also affected his working methods, affording him three assistants and allowing him to indulge his extreme perfectionism. If, while cutting a block of stone, he came upon a vein or blemish, he would simply set it aside, regardless of the cost. (Dozens of such castoffs were found in his house after his death.) On the whole, though, his posh circumstances seem to have inhibited his creative drive. His tendency to copy successful pieces in varying sizes and materials—his favorites included marble, bronze, cherry wood, and galvano-plastique (plaster coated with copper)—was the sign of a talent content with repetition. By the mid-1920s, Brancusi had eclipsed Nadelman when it came to their brand of smoothly stylized sculpture.

At his best, Nadelman fought against the static nature of his medium at a time when vanguard artists like Marcel Duchamp and the Italian Futurists were also fixated on capturing the essence of movement. While they looked to stop-frame photography and motion pictures for ideas on how to convey animation, Nadelman went back to the ancients for inspiration. During his early stay in Munich, he had been mesmerized at the Glyptothek museum by the famous fifth-century b.c. pediment figures from the Temple of Aphaia on Aegina. Those marble fragments depict battling Greeks and Trojans in a split-second of action, with the falling warriors suspended forever in time, as immediate as any sculpture since. He would adopt that archaic "frozen moment" and give it a thoroughly modern power.

As much as he revered classicism, Nadelman was equally enthralled by the circus, which he attended often both in Europe and the United States. For him (and many of his early-modernist peers), circus performers epitomized a delicate balance between stoic dignity and rambunctious clowning, physical daring and psychological uncertainty, and he combined those contradictory qualities in his sculptures from the teens onward. His gift for rendering movement was most lifelike in the painted plaster and wood figures he created just after he arrived in America. Dancer (High Kicker), made around 1918, shows a chorine with one leg flung upward in extension that any hoofer would envy. A star of the Whitney retrospective is Tango (ca. 1919), a couple poised in graceful mid-step of the dance rage of the day. Their outstretched, intertwining arms suggest the insinuating tempo of the seductive music, while their formal dress underscores the high-style sex appeal of this urbane courtship ritual. At once funny and serious, chic and tender, it's both social commentary and a compositional tour-de-force.

Today, Nadelman's plaster dolls, done during his last decade, are attracting the most attention. As his world fell apart, so did his belief in classical perfection. He took new inspiration from sources as diverse as Mae West, burlesque strippers, and newspaper ads. The blurry features and blobby limbs of his little figurines, which he worked over roughly with knives and files, give them a metamorphic quality, as if they were creatures caught in the act of becoming something else. Weird, compelling, and more than a little disturbing, they're unlike any other artifacts of their time. "He began by echoing forms appropriate for ancient divinities," wrote his great advocate Lincoln Kirstein about the odd arc of Nadelman's career. "He ended by trying to project contemporary idols from dreams or nightmares of adult dolls." Nadelman harbored fantasies of mass-producing affordable, domestic-scale sculpture for middle-class collectors who otherwise might have settled for Staffordshire spaniels or Dresden shepherdesses. It never happened.

Despite charting new artistic territory, the final years of Nadelman's life were awful. Near the end of World War II, he was horrified to learn that most of his remaining relatives in Poland had been exterminated by the Nazis. Forced to sell the townhouse, the land around the Riverdale mansion, and his carriage-house atelier, he was reduced to using his kitchen as a studio. Workmen on a remodeling job accidentally damaged a large portion of his early work. But nothing crushed him so much as having to part with the folk-art collection, which went to the New-York Historical Society for a fire-sale $50,000. "The dismantling of the Museum," he confessed, "did also dismantle something in me." A debilitating heart condition that he revealed to no one kept him in constant pain and, it seems likely, in the depths of depression as well.

The folk-art collector Jean Lipman recalled visiting him in that bleak period, during a thunderstorm. "Tall, piercing black eyes, shabby dark suit, who in the first lightning-flash glimpse in the doorway of his great house looked to me like Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights," she wrote. "The house had been stripped of almost all the furniture and rugs and—storm or unpaid electric bills, I never knew—was lit only by a few candles." In the emotional trough between Christmas and New Year's Eve in 1946, after telling his wife that he felt he had attained his artistic goals, he committed suicide.

Two years after Nadelman's death, not even the first comprehensive survey of his work, at the Museum of Modern Art, could revive his reputation. Given his deep affinity for dance, it's no wonder that the curator of that show, and his biggest posthumous champion, was Lincoln Kirstein, co-founder, with George Balanchine, of the New York City Ballet. The event could not have been more ill-timed. It coincided with the explosive emergence of the New York School of Abstract Expressionists, whose wild nonrepresentational canvases by such macho big boys as Pollock and de Kooning made Nadelman's civilized classicism look antique in the worst sense. Ten years earlier, Nadelman had been asked to participate in a MoMA show but foolishly declined, saying he wasn't quite ready for a retrospective but would let the museum know when he was.

Those who visit his long-overdue tribute at the Whitney will have little doubt that Nadelman's time has come again. Like Seurat, Toulouse-Lautrec, Picasso, Rouault, Beckmann, and Calder, he found in the circus a poignant metaphor for the three-ring hullabaloo of modern life, which he tried to rise above with the equipoise of a tightrope walker. Part pop Praxiteles, part carnival side-show barker, and part exorcist of the childhood psyche, this complex creator still awaits his proper rank in the annals of modern art.

Martin Filler wrote about archeologist Iris Love in the November/December issue.