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Monday, August 25, 2003


A Neoclassicism of Modern Life

Elie Nadelman: Sculptor of Modern Life, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City, April 3 - July 20, 2003

Neoclassicism in its various forms has often been associated with a conservative view of the past; in the visual arts and architecture, its claims to a historically realized idealism seem at once highly reasonable and over the top, in the sense that a remarkable tradition is being adhered to in the midst of what may at best be called indifference. In contemporary life, at a time when universals have come to seem inherently imperialist, based as they are on a willfully visionary reading of certain social mores, neoclassicism possesses as much crankiness as serenity — one needs only to think of Little Sparta, conceptual artist Ian Hamilton Finlay’s garden in Scotland, where the neoclassicism is a brilliant riposte to society’s vulgar materialism. But the neoclassical position is hardly seen today for what it actually is, namely, a reference to a time that stands out for its emotional restraint, as well as a stance that seeks to distance itself from the ego-based expressionism to which we have become so accustomed and which we regard as inherently eloquent as an artistic stance.

But neoclassicism is more than a position; it is also a critique. In contemporary culture — literature as well as art — expressiveness and a Duchampian irony have been pushed to the point where almost anything and everything get shown, for the sake of self-esteem as much as for the benefit of genuine accomplishment. There is nothing necessarily wrong with this — it would be facile to ridicule the psychological desires of people intent on getting attention, even if that attention lasts no longer than Andy Warhol’s15 minutes. But neoclassicism poses a larger problem, one that subsumes the issue of ego gratification: in an age when almost anything, no matter how poorly constructed or conceptualized, is accepted in the name of art, the real issue is whether the idealization of restraint carries with it the social baggage of privilege now that the structures that historically led to classicism and its offshoots are seen as politically and socially suspect. For better or worse, it is the belief of many that the assumption of classicism is inherently offensive, primarily because it offers the privileged an ethic and esthetic with which they might distance themselves from the general public (whatever that latter term might denote). It is this writer’s conviction, however, that the attitude of restraint is itself a reading — an interpretation — of human nature with all its weaknesses and peccadilloes. In other words, the remoteness of certain kinds of neoclassicism, it seems to me, is itself a cultural construction, one that isn’t innately cold or arrogant; the decision to keep one’s feelings to oneself or look to the past for inspiration does not inevitably lead to harm or justify exploitation. The idea that classicism does so is itself an example of stereotyping, at a time when such stereotyping should be taken with a large grain of salt.

In fact, a more complex view of classicism should be delineated, for the sake of complexity in art. Rather than being stigmatized as inherently condescending, classicism should be seen as one way (among many) of making sense of the world, of engaging it. Its great strength is its historical realism. Without a sense of the past, our actions may seem new and interesting to us, but they lack a context for their historical or traditional importance. If one believes in the neoclassical position as a reading of tradition rather than as an absolute statement, then art occurs in continuity with what preceded it, rather than as some absolute statement of value. The classicism of the Polish-born sculptor Elie Nadelman, then, is best experienced as part of the artist’s discussion with the past rather than as an isolated attitude. While there is something distant, too stylistically considered, about much of Nadelman’s art, it is also true that Nadelman made contact with a continuum that heralded classical art’s great strength as an idealized project, in which a serenely impersonal stance is championed. While it cannot be said that such a position is better than others, it is certainly a valid expression of creative impulse. Indeed, the extent to which Nadelman’s classicism engages the past is the extent to which it reifies nostalgia and longing, emotions that need to be investigated in our culture, which is so deeply given over to the new.

It has been remarked that Nadelman maintained the decorum of polite reserve in society, but it does not necessarily follow that his choice of a classical style, in particular the close quotations in his early work of Praxiteles, is an example of a distanced or cold sensibility. More than anything else, the classical, idealized marble heads seem to be about a dreamy impersonality, a hearkening back to a golden age. Their lack of engagement — which is to say their self-sufficiency — comes across not so much as smugness as harmonious restraint; one remembers that this work came shortly before the First World War and what would quickly become a century of mass death. This is where Nadelman is most vulnerable: his aristocratic bearing, in both person and art, doesn’t reject so much as preclude the explosive volatility of the last century, and viewers who worry about the implications of what can be seen as a facile reserve are right to question Nadelman’s achievement, which, no matter how beautiful, is accomplished through a negation of everyday life and an idealized reading of history. Unlike Picasso, who so often made art from his passionate embrace of eros and emotion, Nadelman sought a stylized truth, which appears to be aristocratic in nature.

In a culture whose relations with art are increasingly democratized, Nadelman’s esthetic may seem out of place. It is more likely, however, that it represents an alternative to a culture in which expression in and of itself is seen as good. When Nadelman immigrated to the United States in October 1914, he began producing work whose outlines were highly simplified; a little more than a year later, in December 1915, he showed two large plaster pieces in a show at 291, Alfred Stieglitz’s gallery. Nadelman’s curved horse with a front leg raised in right angles and a docked tail, and a man wearing a bowler and leaning against a tree, are nothing if not classically inspired. They approach the viewer by form alone, disclosing no open emotion that might affect an audience. As such, they present to the world a neutrality that continues Nadelman’s theme of self-sufficient form, which argues that art is a matter of outline and tubular shapes rather than a statement intended to communicate through the outright manifestation of feeling. The drawings of this period, 1914-15, continue his penchant for the curved line, and one of a cow, around 1915, shows the animal’s belly to be nothing but an elliptical line. The stylization of the curved line would culminate in the statues, Resting Stag and Wounded Stag, both from 1916-17, whose volumes are rendered as heavily curving masses; the wounded stag, with an arrow deep in its chest, has an upraised head that lifts up and back, its mouth open in agony.

Sometimes, however, the stylization seems like a conceit; in Sur la plage (1916-17), a complicated tableau of a white marble female nude having her leg toweled by a dark bronze female figure, the sharp contrast between tones — the creamy white of the marble and the dark, burnished surface of the bronze — ends up looking contrived, even precious in its studied estheticism. Such is the weakness of an art that relegates all expression to a self-regarding classicism, which can make an unintended mockery of reserve and formal self-sufficiency. Nadelman fares better in the haunting, sinuous beauty of the idealized heads of 1916-17, whose slight smiles and eyeless faces much more effectively bring the classical ideal out of the past and into the present. Nadelman’s show of such heads in February 1917, at Scott & Fowles Gallery in New York, emphasized a classical vision in both marble and wood, with the busts’ regular features and sightless eyes suggestive of a better world than the one in which viewers then lived. Sometimes the simplified order of the features was thrown into contrast with the heavily worked patterning of hair, but even here the emphasis was on regularity and containment. Nadelman, who would go on to do lyrical plaster genre figures soon thereafter, and equally stylized wooden sculptures of high-society personages after that, was never so much in touch with the classical ideal as with these heads.

Nadelman married well, to an heiress named Viola Spiess Flannery in 1919, and became a part of American high society; he turned to making work that reflected the aristocratic lives of the people with whom he socialized. His wry, sensitive wooden sculptures — of a woman playing piano, of a couple dancing the tango, of a conductor of music — were created roughly between 1920 and 1924 and stand out as brilliant, if arch, recreations of people enjoying the good life. They seem more closely related to folk art than to classical sculpture (Nadelman and his wife had amassed a remarkable collection of American folk art); however, they also reflect an archly stylized esthetic, whose rounded lines bring to mind Nadelman’s idealized heads. In the very late work, the miniature plaster figurines Nadelman created from 1938 to 1946, the viewer sees him return to his formal beginnings. Yet the implications are different, as curator Barbara Haskell points out in her well-conceived catalogue essay:

By abandoning smooth surfaces and idealized, geometric forms, Nadelman effectively liberated his art from over refinement. Up to this time, his figures had been characterized by psychological withdrawal and reserved composure, undisturbed by psychic self-searching or spiritual tension. His new art gained from a sense of the mysterious and irrational in life. (Elie Nadelman: Sculptor of Modern Life, p. 187)

In making art that embraced emotional tension, surely the result of his concern over Hitler’s increasing power in Europe and then the Second World War, Nadelman gave himself over to a vulnerability his more formal work had never communicated. The emotional openness is expressed by the plaintive quality of the figurines, whose features are only barely delineated. Nadelman had within his possession “an extensive library of illustrated catalogues and glossy photographs of Greek antiquities and terra-cottas” (Elie Nadelman…, p.189), and these images were placed in scrapbooks with advertisements and images of women from popular culture. Whatever the precedents for the figurines, they communicate an anxiety about form and seem obsessive when laid out in rows upon tables (their display at the Whitney was conceived by the contemporary artist Kiki Smith and reflect their arrangement in Nadelman’s studio in Riverdale, New York); the small, 10-to-12-inch figures quite literally embody an isolated stance, in which uncertainty is only partially shored up by repetitive form. It is fair to read the isolation as biographical as well as esthetic: as the catalogue points out, Nadelman had few, if any, close friends; he desired considerable privacy concerning his personal life. In his last years, he rejected offers for exhibitions, so that this late body of work was not recognized until the 1970s, a pluralist time when artists had begun to be interested in figuration again.

The amorphous forms of the figurines feel at once innocent and jaded, primeval and very contemporary. They are both sexual and chaste at the same moment. The sculptures are very different from the neoclassical, idealized heads of Nadelman’s career in Paris and his first years in America; as such, they appear to be both a culmination of decades of effort and an expression of indeterminacy brought about by the instability of the world. It is moving to consider these works in light of historical context; they reveal little of the Greek heritage to which Nadelman originally owed so much. His idealism, like most expressions of idealism, removed him from society as well as situating him in an attitude that would sharply define his reaction against emotional transparency. Nadelman turned to the Greek ideal as a way of showing his temperament, which was reserved rather than open. As a result, his sensibility needed a way to demonstrate restraint. Haskell sees his situation as quintessentially postmodern: the exhibition at the Whitney argues that Nadelman’s willingness to flit from one culture and epoch to another, choosing whatever fits, is evidence of a postmodern mind ahead of its time. I am not so sure, however, that Nadelman would have adhered to this rather facile reading of his affinities, which are more deeply seated and less simplistic than one might at first imagine. Nadelman gave us a moment in time in his idealized heads, a moment that sought out the past for its ability to give life to an esthetic in common with a highly gifted, if also somewhat isolated, sensibility. No matter how stylized his response to Greek idealism, or how closely he came to decoration in his art, Nadelman also portrayed a timeless beauty, in touch with inspired form.

Jonathan Goodman is a contributing editor to
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