The sculptor Elie Nadelman may have enjoyed too much success too soon. In 1909, his first one-man show—inspired by the art of ancient Greece—was a Paris sensation. He was only in his mid-twenties. Leo and Gertrude Stein befriended the young artist, and important French writers paid attention to him. In 1911, the American cosmetics queen Helena Rubinstein bought out his entire exhibit in London, using his work to promote her ideal of beauty. After his move to America during World War I, Nadelman became a darling of fashionable collectors. (One critic referred to his “skyrocket ascension” into “the empyrean blue of success.”) He was married to a wealthy socialite during the Roaring Twenties, living a life of great luxury, and developed a famous collection of American and European folk art. After the crash of 1929, however, Nadelman entered a dark period—one made all the darker, perhaps, by the skyrocket brightness of what had come before. He and his wife lost their fortune. They sold their collection of folk art. And Nadelman himself suddenly seemed too sleekly upper-class for Depression-era taste. As his reputation declined, the sculptor retreated to his studio and stopped exhibiting. The Museum of Modern Art mounted a dutiful retrospective after his death in 1946, but the fifties ignored him. While his reputation rose somewhat during the sixties, owing to Pop’s interest in his use of the vernacular, Nadelman was a decidedly minor if not forgotten figure.
Elie Nadelman: Sculptor of Modern Life, which recently opened at the Whitney Museum of American Art, is an effort to set aside these vagaries of history, circumstance, and taste—and fix Nadelman firmly in the pantheon of important American artists. Organized by Barbara Haskell, the retrospective includes more than 200 sculptures and clearly lays out the evolution of the artist’s sensibility. Born in Poland, Nadelman went to Paris in 1904. It was his aspiration to create a modern art of purity and idealized form that initially entranced sophisticated collectors and critics of the time. He dismissed art that was a “slave of Nature,” speaking instead of “perfect form” and “true art.” Although he developed a number of variations on his classical theme, including some work inspired by Italian mannerism, Nadelman was also concerned from the beginning about getting a contemporary spirit into his work. (He revered Baudelaire, who argued that art must include both the eternal and the transitory.) America gave him the necessary razzmatazz. While retaining the linear grace of classicism, he began making witty and sometimes satirical sculptures of archetypal figures, ranging from upper-crust ladies to high-kicking dancers and circus folk. His so-called genre figures may owe something to folk art and Seurat, but they also seem irreducibly American. They could almost be people walking down Broadway. They have a flapper insouciance. Nadelman would often capture the characteristic pose of a figure, and it’s not always what one would expect. In Tango, for example, he concentrates upon that dramatic moment just before a dancing couple clasps hands and whirls away.
It was in these genre figures that Nadelman synthesized the classical and the contemporary in a way that now looks original. And it was here that he made his strongest claim to a major place in American art. He always had a distinctive visual style—a sinuous line that’s formally interesting—and his art kept evolving until his death. But Nadelman also had an abiding weakness. That a cosmetics tycoon was his greatest supporter suggests the nature of the problem. Nadelman’s art is often too pretty. Its elegance seems fashioned for a Fifth Avenue apartment. The great modern sculptors who turned to tribal, unschooled, or ancient art for inspiration—such as Picasso or Brancusi—brought a wonderfully raw, invigorating spirit into contemporary art. The sophisticated Nadelman, by contrast, instinctively softened his sources. He cooked away the rawness of folk art. He sent Greek art to the beauty parlor. In this respect, his unexpected last works—made in despair and never presented to the world of money and prestige—are actually his most affecting. Beautifully unpolished and fragmentary, these rough figures, at once ancient and fresh, offer an implicit criticism of perfected elegance. In Nadelman’s end was a beginning.