It’s both amazing and amusing to be recalled to a time-1917 or thereabouts-when Elie Nadelman (1882-1946), whose work is the subject of a marvelous retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art, was denounced as “outrageous,” “unwholesome,” “gruesome,” even “degenerate,” for exhibiting sculpture that depicted adult men and women in modern dress. Proper people-the very type that in an earlier American generation would have been scandalized by depictions of their contemporaries in the nude-were now greatly disconcerted when confronted by beautifully crafted figures of gentlemen in top hats and tailcoats and fully clothed women in contemporary attire. We can only suppose that these proper people suspected a spoof or a satire or some other affront to the dignity of their class and culture. What these benighted souls seemed not to have suspected is that they were confronted by an aesthetic intelligence of consummate wit and refinement.
It was entirely characteristic of Nadelman, however, that he remained undeterred by this ignorant response to his sculpture. In a letter to The New York World , he calmly stated the obvious: “When the public does not find nude women in sculpture,” he wrote, “they wonder whether the works are artistic or not. When one represents women in their dresses or men wearing hats, the public, not being accustomed to this, do not know whether there is art or solid insolence. Instead of trying to decide about the question the public revolts.”
It wasn’t, to be sure, the kind of revolt that greeted another significant New York art event of 1917: the scandal caused by the inverted urinal that Marcel Duchamp submitted as a sculpture entitled Fountain to the first exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists. Fountain was rejected, of course, and that rejection did much to expand Duchamp’s already burgeoning notoriety as an exponent of Dadaist audacity. Nadelman’s audacities were of an entirely different order. Whereas Duchamp made a career of scorning the very idea of artistic tradition, Nadelman embraced tradition (indeed, a wide range of European traditions, beginning with classical antiquity)-and then, in a true stroke of genius, he also appropriated the tradition of American folk art. In 1975, on the occasion of an earlier Nadelman retrospective at the Whitney Museum, I made some observations that may be worth repeating here about the role of tradition in his oeuvre ; this aspect of Nadelman’s achievement is still not sufficiently appreciated. “In the history of Western sculpture since Rodin,” I wrote, “[Nadelman] stands alone among artists of the first rank by virtue of his visible intimacy with ‘tradition.’” I then attempted to place Nadelman’s idea of tradition in the wider context of early 20th-century modernism in the following passage:
“Nadelman’s ‘tradition’ … is a highly personal amalgam. One can name some of the diverse elements that contributed to it-Rodin and Beardsley, Houdon and Michelangelo, Hellenistic sculpture and Art Nouveau, Italian mannerism and American folk art-but Nadelman’s sources never quite prepare us for the experience of the work itself. His early work especially-the grand oeuvre produced in the decade (1904-1914) in Paris and his first years in New York (1914-16)-is as full of quotations and paraphrases as The Waste Land or The Cantos, and like them, it effectively absorbs, modifies, and transforms what it remembers in a rhythm and accent that is new. The example of poets like Eliot and Pound is, indeed, worth keeping in mind in thinking about Nadelman, for he too was a polyglot expatriate and cosmopolite of great cultivation and sensibility, a scholar of the traditions he sought to invest with a new vitality who found in the alien terrain of the modern world a rich store of material for a style at once contemporary and timeless.”
In the making of that style, Nadelman was a dedicated purist in his sense of form, contour and finish, but he differed from other sculptors of this persuasion in consciously aligning his purist inventions with unmistakable evocations of adored precedents. In this respect, it’s interesting to recall that it was from Nadelman that the English art critic Clive Bell appropriated the term “significant form” as a touchstone of aesthetic quality. I thought that the 1975 Nadelman retrospective at the Whitney, organized by the late John I.H. Baur, was a great exhibition, but I believe that the new retrospective, organized by Barbara Haskell, gives us an even greater, more sympathetic account of his achievement, and the book-length monograph that Ms. Haskell has written to serve as the exhibition catalog is also exemplary in every respect. Until now, the only really indispensable study of Nadelman’s work has been Lincoln Kirstein’s Elie Nadelman (1973), published by the Eakins Press. For Nadelman scholars, this was a hard act to follow, but Ms. Haskell has succeeded, through extensive research and a serious reconsideration of many issues in Nadelman’s career, in casting fresh light on both the work and the life of this extraordinary artist. I’ve been studying Nadelman’s work and writing about it for many years, yet I’ve discovered much in Ms. Haskell’s monograph that was new to me. It’s by far the best-and best-written-of her many publications.
Elie Nadelman: Sculptor of Modern Life remains on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art, Madison Avenue at 75th Street, through July 20.
Follow Hilton Kramer via RSS.