When Modernism Met Folk Art at NYHS

Elie Nadelman’s painted cherrywood Circus Girl sculpture (1920-1924)

Elie Nadelman’s painted cherrywood Circus Girl sculpture (1920-1924)

What do 19th-century tobacco-store Scotsmen and Spanish-clad dancers mounted on the fronts of tall-masted trading ships have to do with the rise of Modernism in the United States and the 1913 Armory Show?

Find out through August 21 at the New-York Historical Society’s exhibition, which traces the path of one of America’s modern-art pioneers in The Folk Art Collection of Elie and Viola Nadelman. Take a look on our Flickr feed.

The engaging show is largely drawn from the NYHS collection and tells the story of how a Polish immigrant fused his love of European and American woodworking tradition with Picasso’s love of “the primitive” and developed his own pop-culture-infused modernist sculpture style.

Feisty figurehead from the shipwrecked clipper ship Rosa Isabella, carved in Hamburg in 1865

Feisty figurehead from the shipwrecked clipper ship Rosa Isabella, carved in Hamburg in 1865

The show, which travels next to the Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover, Massachusetts, is a delightful window into how modernism crept onto America’s 20th century radar as 19th-century traditions were becoming a thing of the past.

Nadelman’s sculptures were included in the ground-breaking Armory Show in 1913 and showcased in one-man shows at Stieglitz’s 291 Gallery and other NYC Modernist hotspots.

As the NYHS show makes clear, the whitened faces and painted-to-look-weathered bodies of his circus girls, tango dancers, and vaudevillians echoed back to shapes, colors, and styles he favored from carved tobacco-store Indian sculptures, figureheads salvaged from sailing ships, chalkware busts, and untrained American portraitists of years gone by.

Milliner heads 1820 – 1870

Milliner heads 1820 – 1870

First made in plaster (like popular chalkware tchotchkes) and later in painted cherry wood, Nadelman’s whimsical figures dance, prance, high kick, and entertain in a vaudevillian and Jazz-Age way that their folk-art counterparts never do. Encountering the show’s monumental woodworks at the entrance to the show showcase Edelman’s brilliance in packaging New American rhythms into tabletop sculpture works a sly, backward-looking wink at the past.

Elie shared his love of rapidly disappearing woodcarving, hand-painted boxes and chests, and wooden kitchen objects with his wife, Viola, who led the charge in amassing one of the greatest collections of American folk art ever. The couple scooped up over 15,000 European and Americana work at a rapid pace – so rapid that Elie dropped his art career and concentrated full time on collecting.

Nadelman’s high-kicking cherry wood “Dancer” sculpture (1922) on loan from the Jewish Museum

Nadelman’s high-kicking cherry wood “Dancer” sculpture (1922) on loan from the Jewish Museum

The show is a tribute to their vision and energy (move over, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller!). They were among the first to coin the term “folk art” and opened their own folk art museum in Riverdale in 1924.

When the Depression hit, the couple was forced to sell and the bulk of the collection became the core of the NYHS “everyday history” collection – kitchen implements, toys, miniatures, hat-shop heads, paintings, weathervanes, and you-name-it. Indeed, the back half of the show is a glimpse into everyday life, culinary arts, and domestic entertainments.

It’s an important look into American history, the history of collecting, and the birth of Modernist sensibilities in New York – a show that pays fitting tribute to a core component of one of New York’s storied institutions.

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