Art

Revisiting the First American Folk Art Museum, Founded by a Modernist Sculptor

The Folk Art Collection of Elie and Viola Nadelman
Two versions of Elie Nadelman’s “Dancer (Danseuse)” (1920-22) on view in ‘The Folk Art Collection of Elie and Viola Nadelman’ at the New-York Historical Society (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

The rough finishes and loose poses of Elie Nadelman’s sculptures of circus performers, pianists, and dancers were influenced by his incredible collection of folk art. With his wife, and heiress, Viola Nadelman, he founded what is considered the first folk art museum in the United States. The Museum of Folk and Peasant Arts opened in 1926 in the Riverdale neighborhood of the Bronx, but it couldn’t survive the Nadelmans’ financial losses following the 1929 stock market crash, and they closed the institution in 1937, selling its 15,000 objects to the New-York Historical Society.

Today, the Society is opening The Folk Art Collection of Elie and Viola Nadelmanshowcasing some of the highlights of this acquisition, and contrasting them with examples of Nadelman’s work on loan from the Harvard Art Museums, Jewish Museum, Hirshhorn Museum, and Whitney Museum of American Art. The traveling exhibition debuted last year at the Albuquerque Museum, and this September will open at the Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover, Massachusetts.

The Folk Art Collection of Elie and Viola Nadelman
Installation view of ‘The Folk Art Collection of Elie and Viola Nadelman,’ with a sailor tobacco shop figure (1850-60) and the “Rosa Isabella” ship figurehead (1865) at left (click to enlarge)

Co-curator Roberta J. M. Olson, also curator of drawings at the Society, called this modernist sculpture the “spine” to the exhibition. “He probably studied these figures he collected,” she said, noting the tobacco store carvings with their casual poses, the worn colors on a ship figurehead, and the delicate painting on the chalkware statues. Olson added that through organizing the exhibition with co-curator and museum director Margaret K. Hofer, they found some unexpected connections between his art and the objects. For example, the hose wielding “Fire Chief Harry Howard” (1855) who greets visitors at the entrance, seems to have been restored by Nadelman.

The most dramatic restoration is with the 1865 figurehead from the Rosa y Isabel clipper ship. A Spanish dancer formed from red pine, oil paint still clinging to the splits in her wood, she lost her arms and a foot at some point along the ship’s 1888 foundering and her residence in a Caribbean ship graveyard. Yet here in the gallery, she reaches a hand skyward, swaying forward on a dainty slipper, both of which were likely added by Nadelman after his 1920s acquisition. Her slender limbs share the grace of his sculptures’ streamlined bodies, such as the “Tango” (1920–24) figures frozen in their own dance, their willowy bodies carved from cherry caught at the point of separation before they twirl away.

The Folk Art Collection of Elie and Viola Nadelman
Detail of the “Rosa Isabella” figurehead (1865) from the Rosa y Isabel clipper ship
The Folk Art Collection of Elie and Viola Nadelman
Elie Nadelman, “Untitled (Two Acrobats)” (1930-35), painted glazed ceramic; “Two Women (Two Acrobats)” (1930-35), painted glazed ceramic

Olson also noted that Nadelman “believed in the democratization of form.” Many people recognize Nadelman for his “Circus Women” in Lincoln Center, made on a colossal scale after his death in 1946, and the exhibition includes two smaller ceramic versions. The play with pastel dots and stripes echoes the hand-colored chalkware figures in the adjoining cases. Chalkware was made from hollow molds of Plaster of Paris and peddled door-to-door in the 19th century as an affordable form of art, nicknamed the “poor man’s Staffordshire.” That idea of the repeating figure being individualized with personalized paint can also been seen in Nadelman’s 1920s sculptures of “Dancers” and “Circus Performers.”

The Folk Art Collection of Elie and Viola Nadelman
Unidentified American maker, chalkware bust of a woman (1800–50), plaster of Paris, paint
The Folk Art Collection of Elie and Viola Nadelman
Three versions of a “Circus Performer” (1920-24) by Elie Nadelman

The Folk Art Collection of Elie and Viola Nadelman succeeds where other exhibitions, such as the recent Folk Art and American Modernism at the American Folk Art Museum (which also included work by Nadelman), have fallen short with its narrow focus on the Nadelmans. In this way, it’s able to visualize those crossings between folk and modernism through one man’s art passion — but it’s worth pointing out that even the Museum of Modern Art during the first half of the 20th century included folk art as part of its larger mission to exhibition Modern art. However, this also narrows the discussion on his art — for example, the classical inspiration from his study of antiquities — and the wider influence of folk art being increasingly recognized in the 20th century as something worthy of collecting and exhibiting.

In some ways, the exhibition can feel like many folk art exhibitions, which tend to group by medium, yet the large-scale photographs showing the Nadelmans’ museum emphasize how this echoes their own pioneering galleries. Many of the objects here have been on view before at the New-York Historical Society, but grouped together with Nadelman’s art, they get the closest they’ve been since the early 20th century when they informed his material experimentation and animated human forms.

The Folk Art Collection of Elie and Viola Nadelman
Elie Nadelman, “Tango” (1920–24), cherry, stain, paint, and gesso
The Folk Art Collection of Elie and Viola Nadelman
Installation view of ‘The Folk Art Collection of Elie and Viola Nadelman,’ with “Fire Chief Harry Howard” (1855), made by an unidentified New York City maker, at right
The Folk Art Collection of Elie and Viola Nadelman
Elie Nadelman, “Piano Player (Pianiste)” (1921), wood, paint, gesso, metal
The Folk Art Collection of Elie and Viola Nadelman
Two examples of chalkware figures (1840-90)
The Folk Art Collection of Elie and Viola Nadelman
Installation view of ‘The Folk Art Collection of Elie and Viola Nadelman’
The Folk Art Collection of Elie and Viola Nadelman
Weather vanes and architectural ornaments
The Folk Art Collection of Elie and Viola Nadelman
Wilhelm Schimmel, “Eagles” (1865-70), wood, paint, primer, varnish
The Folk Art Collection of Elie and Viola Nadelman
Two fire engine condenser cases from the 19th century, both for New York City engine companies
The Folk Art Collection of Elie and Viola Nadelman
George W. Brown & Co., Riverboat Excelsior pull toy, (Forestville or Cromwell, CT, 1870), tinned sheet iron, iron, paint, paper
The Folk Art Collection of Elie and Viola Nadelman
Installation view of ‘The Folk Art Collection of Elie and Viola Nadelman,’ with a betrothal or marriage coffer (1580-1660) at left
The Folk Art Collection of Elie and Viola Nadelman
Two face jugs made by African-American sculptors in Alabama
The Folk Art Collection of Elie and Viola Nadelman
Unidentified German Maker, Toy village (1850-1900), wood and paint

The Folk Art Collection of Elie and Viola Nadelman opens today and continues through August 21 at the New-York Historical Society (170 Central Park West, Upper West Side, Manhattan). 

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