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Argyle Chair
Charles Rennie Macintosh

Art for the Common Man
by Bob Brooke

When most people think of folk art, they probably imagine art done by ordinary people without artistic training. And they’d be right. But folk art takes in much more than that. Elie Nadelman, a New York sculptor, and his wife, Viola, knew that, and to them folk art became a collecting obsession.

This summer, the New York Historical Society will celebrate their fantastic collection in an exhibition entitled “The Folk Art Collection of Elie Nadelman—Making It Modern.” On view from May 20 through August 21, the exhibit features more than 200 objects across a wide range of media including furniture, sculpture, paintings, ceramics, glass, iron, textiles, drawings and watercolors, and household tools.

The objects collected by Nadelmans made up the first public folk art collection in the United States, as well as the first ever to consider the European roots of American folk art.

What is Folk Art?
Generally, folk art is not influenced by movements in fine art. Although folk art usually excludes works done by professional artists, many 18th- and 19th-century American folk art painters made their living by their work, including itinerant portrait painters.

While tribal art, primitive art, tramp art, and popular art, such as the paintings of Campbell Soup cans by Andy Warhol are often lumped together as folk art, in fact, each is distinctive in its own right.

Folk art encompasses a range of utilitarian and decorative media, including cloth, wood, paper, clay, metal and more. If an artist cannot find traditional materials to use, he or she will often substitute new materials, resulting in contemporary expressions of traditional folk art forms. Elie Nadelman knew this from his own work and applied it to the objects he and his wife collected over the years.

But all folk art has one common characteristic—it’s colorful. Most folk artists learn their skills and techniques through apprenticeships in informal community settings, such as the art produced in villages in Bali, Indonesia, where the artists in each village specialize in one type of art, be it wood carving or painting or whatever. Above all, all folk art is simple and direct.

Today, collectors assemble their antique folk art collections based mostly on the individual pieces’ artistic merit. The people who created them never intended them to be art. Examples of this type of folk art include weathervanes, old store signs and carved figures, itinerant portraits, carousel horses, fire buckets, painted game boards, cast iron doorstops and many other "whimsical" antiques.

Elie Nadleman—Artist and Collector
Widely recognized for his elegant and spare modernist sculptures, Elie Nadelman is less known for his role as a pioneering American folk art collector.

Born in Poland in 1882, Elie Nadelman studied sculpture in Paris and Munich, both of which were a hotbed of avant-garde art and ideas, prior to World War I After immigrating to New York City in 1914, he established a reputation for his witty, modernist sculptures. In 1919, Nadelman married Viola Spiess Flannery, a European-educated wealthy widow. Shortly after their marriage, the couple began collecting folk art, which eventually became an obsession.

From 1926 until 1937, the Nadelmans displayed their collection, spanning 600 years and 13 countries, in their own Museum of Folk and Peasant Arts in Riverdale, New York. This museum was the first of its kind in the United States. In fact, the Nadelmans were among the earliest collectors to use the term "folk art" to describe common objects marked by bright colors, flat patterns, and simple forms.

But the stock market crash of 1929 took its toll. As the ensuing Great Depression enveloped the country, the Nadelmans began to sell off works from their collection to finance its upkeep. In 1937, they sold the entire collection of some 15,000 objects to the New York Historical Society.

The Exhibition
The exhibition offers new insights into the intersection of folk art and modernism, the Nadelmans' enduring influence on the history of American art collecting, and the relationship between American and European folk art. The exhibit of the Nadelman folk art collection not only recognizes Nadelman's eye for collecting a rich cornucopia of wonderful yet simple forms, it also reexamines folk art's influence on his own sculpture

The Historical Society included many of the objects from its Nadelman Collection,
supplemented by several pieces of Elie Nadelman's sculpture on loan for the exhibit.

Organized primarily by medium and evoking the displays in the Nadelmans' Museum of Folk and Peasant Arts, the exhibition will highlight new discoveries about objects in the Historical Society's Nadelman collection. The exhibition will also trace the provenance of many of the Nadelmans' purchases using data recorded on the curatorial cards of the Museum and Folk and Peasant Arts, which the family has kept and which were never studied.

Highlights include the regal chalkware bust of a woman, a prized piece created in the first half of the 19th century. It represents a folk art type that may have influenced Nadelman's work. Another piece that’s worth seeing is the monumental carved and painted wood statue of fire chief Harry Howard, created around 1855, which stands at nearly nine feet tall and celebrates one of the most famous figures in New York City's firefighting history.

Other exhibition highlights include objects from everyday life, such as an 18th-century Dutch baby walker, a kakelorum, a game of chance played with marbles from southern Germany from the latter part of the same century, and a spouted stoneware pitcher with cobalt blue flowers and vines from 1798, an outstanding piece of early New York City pottery and one of the Nadelmans' most prized pieces.

To learn more about this exhibition and to purchase tickets, visit the  New York Historical Society page.

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