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NYHS Celebrates the Folk Art Collection of Elie and Viola Nadelman

The New-York Historical Society (NYHS) has organized an exhibition that celebrates the folk art collection of the late artist Elie Nadelman (1882-1946) and his wife, the heiress Viola Spiess Flannery (1878-1962). The show, titled The Folk Art Collection of Elie and Viola Nadelman (from May 20th to August 21st, 2016) comprises more than 200 objects from their well-curated trove, as well 12 key sculptures created by Nadelman between the late 1910s and the mid-1930s that show an “obvious synergy to his collection,” the curators of the show, Margaret Hofer and Roberta Olson, told Brut Force in a joint statement.

Elie Nadelman, “Piano Player (Pianiste),” Wood, Paint Gesso, and Metal, 36.5” x 22” x 11.75”, ca. 1921. Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Imaging Department, photo © President and Fellows of Harvard College. © Estate of Elie Nadelman.

Elie Nadelman, “Piano Player (Pianiste),” Wood, Paint Gesso, and Metal, 36.5” x 22” x 11.75”, ca. 1921. Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Imaging Department, photo © President and Fellows of Harvard College. © Estate of Elie Nadelman.

The avant-garde sculptor Elie Nadelman was born in Warsaw, Poland, and immigrated to New York City in 1914 with the assistance of his main patron, the late cosmetics mogul Helena Rubinstein. In New York, the artist, who was drawn to European and American ‘peasant arts’, began to nurture his collection. In late 1919, Elie married Viola, who was a “born collector, at first collecting textiles and lace while Elie collected classical and medieval sculpture,” say the curators. One work included in the show, a portrait by the American artist Joseph Whiting Stock that is titled William T. Sears (1837-1920) with a Horse Pull Toy (circa 1843), is one of the couple’s earliest documented purchases, having been acquired shortly after their wedding in 1920.

Elie Nadelman, “Tango,” Cherry, Stain, Paint, and Gesso, 35.875” × 26” × 13.875”, ca. 1920–24. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City; purchase with funds from the Mr. and Mrs. Arthur G. Altschul Purchase Fund, the Joan and Lester Avnet Purchase Fund, the Edgar William and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch Purchase Fund, the Mrs. Robert C. Graham Purchase Fund in honor of John I.H. Baur, the Mrs. Percy Uris Purchase Fund, and the Henry Schnakenberg Purchase Fund in honor of Juliana Force, 88.1 a-c. © Estate of Elie Nadelman.

Elie Nadelman, “Tango,” Cherry, Stain, Paint, and Gesso, 35.875” × 26” × 13.875”, ca. 1920–24. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City; purchase with funds from the Mr. and Mrs. Arthur G. Altschul Purchase Fund, the Joan and Lester Avnet Purchase Fund, the Edgar William and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch Purchase Fund, the Mrs. Robert C. Graham Purchase Fund in honor of John I.H. Baur, the Mrs. Percy Uris Purchase Fund, and the Henry Schnakenberg Purchase Fund in honor of Juliana Force, 88.1 a-c. © Estate of Elie Nadelman.

In 1926, the couple was among the first to share their folk artefacts with the world when they established the Museum of Folk and Peasant Arts (MFPA) in Riverdale, New York, which comprised around 15,000 collected works created in various mediums that spanned five centuries and thirteen countries. “Folk art was only just emerging from the umbrella of ‘antiques’ in both advertisements and dealer’s offerings,” says the curators, “According to the author Elizabeth Stillinger, the Nadelmans were the first to use the term ‘folk art’ to describe their holdings.”

The museum was active until 1937, when the Great Depression struck America and the NYHS came forth to purchase and preserve nearly the entire collection, seeing an “opportunity to shift its focus to incorporate the art of the common man alongside its existing holdings of fine art,” says the curators. Objects from the collection were exhibited there from 1939 and Viola, who was the director and administrative head of the defunct MFPA, worked to place later acquisitions in the collections of prestigious American institutions such as the MFA Boston and the Fenimore in Cooperstown, New York (see this recent article published by Artsy). In 1946, Elie, who was suffering from heart problems at the time, committed suicide by slitting his wrists in the bathtub of their home in the Bronx. Since a posthumous retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in 1948, generations of admirers continue to revisit his work and the couple’s emblematic collection.

Joseph Whiting Stock (American, 1815–1855). “Willard T. Sears with a Horse Pull Toy,” Oil on Canvas, 50.5” x 40”, ca. 1843. New-York Historical Society, Purchased from Elie Nadelman, 1937.452.

Joseph Whiting Stock (American, 1815–1855). “Willard T. Sears with a Horse Pull Toy,” Oil on Canvas, 50.5” x 40”, ca. 1843. New-York Historical Society, Purchased from Elie Nadelman, 1937.452.

The exhibition comprises carefully selected objects chosen from thousands of possibilities that aim to best juxtapose American and European folk art in “an attempt to echo what the Nadelmans sought to achieve with the MFPA,” says the curators. The collection holds many Germanic objects such as painted chests and boxes, some that were created in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and the Germanic parts of France, and others that were created by Pennsylvanian Germans in the United States. “The Nadelmans loved painted wooden objects, from trade figures to boxes, including those with distressed surfaces,” says the curators, “They were also fascinated by functional objects, especially those related to pre-industrial traditions that they saw fast disappearing.”

Unidentified American Maker, “Fire Chief Harry Howard,” Painted wood, 100” x 66” x 44”, ca. 1855. New-York Historical Society, Purchased from Elie Nadelman, 1937.328.

Unidentified American Maker, “Fire Chief Harry Howard,” Painted wood, 100” x 66” x 44”, ca. 1855. New-York Historical Society, Purchased from Elie Nadelman, 1937.328.

Among other highlights, a wooden statue by an unidentified American artist, titled Fire Chief Harry Howard (1822-1896) (circa 1855) is said to “stand out for his monumentality,” says the curators. Unusual objects include whetstone holders, a mangle board and a trammel hook. The oldest object in the show is a box made circa 1580 to 1660, while the latest may be a doll of Brazilian or Caribbean origin, created circa 1900-1925. In addition, the show features a never-before-seen, newly-acquired drawing that Nadelman made of a female head that “demonstrates his involvement with classical and folk art,” says the curators.

Unidentified maker. “Doll,” Silk, Linen, Cotton, Glass, Brass, Celluloid, 16.5” x 7.75” x 2.75”. New-York Historical Society, Purchased from Elie Nadelman, 1937.1207.

Unidentified maker. “Doll,” Silk, Linen, Cotton, Glass, Brass, Celluloid, 16.5” x 7.75” x 2.75”. New-York Historical Society, Purchased from Elie Nadelman, 1937.1207.

The exhibition was first shown at the at the Albuquerque Museum in New Mexico, and from the NYHS it will travel to the Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover, Massachusetts come September. The show is accompanied by an illustrated catalogue titled Making it Modern: The Folk Art Collection of Elie and Viola Nadelman (2015) that was co-authored by the curators.