“The Folk Art Collection of Elie and Viola Nadelman”


Collections assembled by artists are among the least predictable and most innovative. A gem of a show at the New-York Historical Society examines New York pre-war avant-garde taste as reflected in objects once possessed by Elie Nadelman (1882-1946). In 1919 Nadelman married heiress Viola Spiess Flannery and they went on a collecting binge, scavenging appealing though lowly objects from antique stores and junk shops. From 1926 to 1937, they presented a selection of their American and European tobacco store figures, primitive paintings, and carved eagles at their homespun Museum of Folk and Peasant Arts, Riverdale, New York, thereby helping to popularize the term “folk art.” These humble artifacts clearly influenced Nadelman’s art practice, which is revered for its unique blend of Classical, vernacular, and modernist vocabularies of sculpture. The Historical Society’s exhibition deftly displays source materials such as weathervanes, chalkware busts, and other folk objects alongside Nadelman’s own work: wooden sculptures of figures engaged in activities like playing the piano or dancing the tango, remarkable for their curving silhouettes, jaunty flapper attitudes, and roughly applied paint.

The Nadelmans’ finances grew shaky after the 1929 stock market collapse. In 1937, they sold their collection—some 15,000 items—to the New-York Historical Society. This is the first exhibition of the trove since its acquisition. —Lindsay Pollock


Pictured: Elie Nadelman: Tango, ca. 1920-24, cherry, stain, paint and gesso, 35â?? by 26 by 13â?? inches. © Estate of Elie Nadelman.