Art Critic, Poet, Editor
A view the fire-insurance man could warm to:
flushed from tarry staves,
a shaken chain
of unending diamonds drops
from a water tower with a steady drip.
One day in winter, new wood, briefly blond,
is nailed into place – sheathing
preparing for weathering.
In a week, new traces erased:
old as before, now watertight.
From the window in daylight – stable,
self-contained -- it’s a portly administrator
in a newly sewn suit.
Was what you did last night what’s called
slipping into something comfortable,
saying, “No idea-killing here,” and
me there going and missing my cue again?
I remember the late professor R. O. Payne --
Chaucer scholar, tomb-brass rubber, and
angling partner to some of the best --
saying what lay beneath might be more
than you wanted to become acquainted with
in scary twilight waters.
In movie reverse,
the splash run backwards:
person dives out of the water,
big fish flies back in.
To summon sleep now,
no more drip counting. I fall
to the rise of fish in a stream,
my inverse water torture,
the old way.
Copyright Cynthia Nadelman
Published in Southwest Review
Renoir on Versailles
It doesn't really square.
First, he's not a landscape man,
except for that furry background noise
behind the dancers and the picnickers.
And though he's not a radical,
depicting workers at their trades,
few smokestacks or trains,
no more is he a royalist.
With Fragonard, he shares a
penchant for green and pink
and les bons temps.
Between these two, though,
there is water
under the bridge.
He doesn't do military men,
Few poppyfields, oceans.
His boats are moored
to docks quite often, their former
occupants scrubbed for dinner
along the riverfront.
But once, on a visit to Versailles,
Renoir was piqued
by the lengthy vistas and the rippling fountains.
Trained in forests Barbizonian,
he knew a thing or two about
framing the open air.
Thus, on a small, horizontal canvas,
strange to him and to the location,
a nameless green sward leads
to stony, distant forms.
As if Renoir were counting
the ways he could not be Renoir.
Copyright Cynthia Nadelman
Published in The Gettysburg Review
Excerpts from “Plastiques Fantastiques”
. . . .The January 1927 Knoedler exhibition of Nadelman’s “galvano-plastiques” consisted of five near-lifesize female figures and several busts. The show’s casual premise was the circus, long one of Nadelman’s favorite sources of inspiration. The titles of several of the figures were taken from the circus, burlesque, or vaudeville – always the music hall rather than the ballet. The full figures -- two of them standing and three seated -- were called Dancer Before Appearing on the Stage, Tight Rope Dancer, Lion Tamer, Acrobat, and Resting After Performance. We can only guess at which was which, since their titles – as so often with Nadelman – seem largely interchangeable and the sculptures are nowhere near as literal as their titles. They may well have been made up simply for the purposes of the show. The sculptures are actually glosses on the occupations described and, when all is said and done, they resemble ballet dancers in their general grace and bearing. To spice things up, there was the bust called Ringmaster, a bemused roué in top hat and painted-on mustache. (Perhaps he was a stand-in for ringmaster Nadelman, who sported a mustache at the time.)
The look of these sculptures represented a departure for Nadelman, albeit one that was easy on the eye. In profile or outline, they were soft and somewhat veiled – more Renoir (whom Nadelman admired) or Medardo Rosso than Maillol, Brancusi, or, well, Nadelman. Compared to the sharp outlines of much of his earlier work, these were positively soft-focus. The figures might also have seemed soft-porn, in a refined way, as their at-once clothed and unclothed demeanor was drawn from the skimpily but tightly clad (or clad in tights) circus and music-hall performers they represented. The female busts are a more sedate group, with the focus more on facial nuance than on gesture. As usual, Nadelman’s figures and busts boasted a repertory of gestures, expressions, and accoutrements (such as bows and ribbons). Outstretched, encircling, or reaching arms, a crossed leg turned inward on a seated woman – these were some of his customary and endlessly varied sculptural and graphic gambits. And the sculptor’s use of paint on figure sculpture was broadly and freshly there for all to see. Once again, he had done something that may have seemed jarring, even as it linked him to all sorts of earlier sculptural and decorative traditions – or precisely because of that.
There are different versions of top-hatted men in Nadelman’s oeuvre, and an unpainted one with an aquiline nose (not in the original exhibition, but in the current one) is a bit reminiscent of Abraham Lincoln. That is only fitting, since the medium of galvano-plastique, or electroplated plaster, had been in use in the 19th century for such items as commemorative medals, reliefs, and busts of such notables as presidents. Traditionally, the medium provided a way of simulating bronze without the weight or the expense of that material. Galvano-plastique had an industrial connotation that must have pleased Nadelman. In fullest flower artistically in the 1870s and 1880s in France, it was certainly not new when the sculptor made this series of works. Rodin had used it experimentally on one of his early figures, the St. John the Baptist.
Generally, a (usually modest-sized) plaster item would be dipped in a bath containing a bar of, say, copper. When electric current was applied to the bath, the copper would adhere chemically to the plaster and coat it. The Nadelman figures would have been quite large for the treatment and therefore would have represented quite a technical feat. After all, the S. C. Tarrant Company, which Nadelman used for the task, specialized in “Galvano-bronze products” and touted the likes of ashtrays. As so often in his use of non-traditional materials, the sculptor must have enjoyed challenging fabricators accustomed to commercial applications to help him achieve his own goals and specifications.
. . . . As with the wood genre pieces of the early 1920s, which had been produced with the help of machinery and the techniques of American figurehead and shop-figure carving (which, in turn, harked back to earlier European sculpture-making practices), Nadelman was producing “low” doppelgangers for his “high” productions. The subject matter played along. Nadelman’s painted sculptures – in plaster, wood, bronze, and galvano-plastique-- were often referred to, even by admirers, as “caricatures”. That term -- if not really capturing their intent -- reflected both their perceived role as being opposed to the artist’s more classical work and their ties to the world of entertainment, which they so often mirrored.
What Nadelman strived to have all of his work embody was the quality of being “plastique.” In almost all of his writings (mainly done in the 1910s), he held the quality of plasticity above all others. For him, this term seems to have signified sculptural creation with intent. Not for him the subconscious or the automatic – he was frankly a non-Freudian artist in that sense. He claimed that a subject was necessary as something on which to base plastic art. In the absence of plasticity, which involved attention to and mastery of materials, subject matter could lead to the mere imitation of nature. And in the absence of either subject or plasticity, he felt there was only the formless venting of feeling.
By appropriating industrial-style means and using non-precious materials, Nadelman was anticipating both general trends of the Depression years and the exigencies of his own later scaled-back practice. Although his carved marbles and carved-wood sculptures would still have been considered examples of plastic art, the move toward a fluid, modeled, and molded quality in his work in cast terra-cotta, papier-mâché, and plaster had perhaps found its very bearings in the term and the phenomenon of galvano-plastique.
Copyright Cynthia Nadelman
Published in Elie Nadelman: Galvano-Plastiques, Salander/O’Reilly Galleries, 2001.
The Arts and Crafts Dilemma: Where's the Art in Smart?
When was the last time you found yourself asking, “Wow, how did they do that?” (as opposed to “Why did they do that?”) about a work of art? Chances are, it was in response to something called “craft.” Of course, nobody says that art or craft has to elicit such a response. At best, it may sound like a compliment from someone of the “my kid could do that” school of thought. At worst, it suggests the elevation of chicanery and sleight-of-hand. We’ve spent so much time internalizing the notion that the kid could not have done whatever it looks like he could have done, we certainly don’t want to get caught up in the kind of thinking that says it’s only good if it looks complicated or hard to do. No, we’re all tied up in the notion that it’s only good if it’s conceptually “smart.”
. . . . I think we’re all too smart for our own good these days. If artists are attracted to glass, for example, I'm pretty sure it isn't because it's smart. It's because smart has been usurping the role of art, and there is a desire to reconnect with something that requires a degree of expertise and that, in return, becomes something one wants to look at as well as think about. There's been no dearth of smarts in recent contemporary art. Think of all those minds in various biennials trying to outsmart one another. The art, it goes without saying, is often in short supply. . . When it’s really art, on the other hand, it’s automatically smart.
. . . I’m not alone today in seeing a yearning for made things – on the part of the makers themselves, of viewers, and of collectors. Hence the popularity of outsider art -- often, but not always, labor-intensive work made by mainly unschooled or self-taught practitioners, the emotionally disturbed, the old, the isolated, or simply the original. More and more, I find, sculptors are turning or returning to so-called crafts to make the kinds of things they really want to make. And there are certainly people in the crafts world who are making things that qualify as sculpture. In a not-unrelated development, some artists have incorporated the work of indigenous artisans in their own multipart pieces.
. . . On the critical front, we are reminded of the roots of the "smart" problem. Artists who work primarily in glass or clay or fiber (they are sometimes called "media specific," though I never heard painters called that) find themselves in the position of having to defend their mastery of technique. In articles and debates – coming from both the craft and mainstream art cultures -- it is clear that the burden is placed on craft to prove itself equal to art, usually by addressing such issues as content, society, and context. Without advocating giving up these issues entirely, I’d like to propose that the art side of this equation come down from its lofty perch and reacquaint itself with the values of craftsmanship, technical knowledge, and form.
In an interview in a 1995 issue of Glass, Jane Adlin, of the department of 20th century art at the Metropolitan and cocurator of the exhibition, "Modern Glass in the Metropolitan Museum of Art," was asked to explain the "controversy about the glossary of technical terms." It seems that when the question of whether to provide technical information in conjunction with the exhibition came up, a critic said (according to the curator): "`If you are trying to bring in glass as a fine art, or ceramics as a fine art, and put it on a par with painting and sculpture, why are you doing a glossary of techniques? You wouldn't do it for a show of drawings by Picasso.' And it's true [said Adlin]. On the other hand, it's somewhat needed. People do ask. People do want to know."
And so they do. Given the Met's practice (and they shouldn't be singled out, since they are hardly alone) in recent years of providing lengthy labels full of sociological, historical, and contextual minutiae, some formal, stylistic, and yes technical information would be welcome. Even in painting and sculpture. Even with Picasso. No one’s been seen rapping curators’ knuckles lately when these elements are neglected.
Traditionally, painters, sculptors, and other artists made things that other people couldn't. The “wow” factor. Later, of course, intention became paramount. The ensuing mistrust of facility and polish has been with us now for at least two centuries. It is nothing new. Most of us have assimilated these notions, with the result that art has become a sort of amateur branch of philosophy, where exercising the brain is often felt to be enough. Pretty much anyone can be smart, though. We know where that leads, and by now it's a pretty boring prospect. All too often, smart does not translate to thought-provoking or intellectually engaging, while art -- whatever its intentions -- does.
The novel concept at this juncture would be for us to stop being so embarrassed by technical mastery, style, and expertise--qualities that still hold currency in the craft world. Maybe we really need to decide whether we want art at all, or whether we're just too jaded for the whole thing. If the answer is that we do, then there are things to be learned from so-called crafts artists. And “smart” doesn’t top the list.
Copyright Cynthia Nadelman
Excerpted from an essay in American Ceramics, 1999
Ongoing reviews for ARTnews, American Ceramics, Sculpture, and other journals
"Pot People: Recent Figurative Ceramic Sculpture," Sculpture Review, Fall 2010.
"Tribal Hybrids: New Native American Art," ARTnews, June 2007.
"Critic's Pick: Nicole Cherubini," ARTnews, April 2007.
"Arctic Transformations: The Jewelry of Denise and Samuel Wallace" (review of exhibition at the National Museum of the American Indian, NY), Metalsmith, Winter 2007.
"Elie Nadelman as Caricaturist," Sculpture Review, Summer 2005.
"Marja Vallila at Zabriskie Gallery," Keramika a Sklo, Prague, February 2005.
"Shock of the Old: Christopher Dresser's Design Revolution" (exhibition review), Metalsmith, Winter 2005.
"Middle-Aged Gods and Giant Babies:Realism in Current Sculpture," ARTnews, December 2004.
"Shock Tactician: Katarzyna Kozyra," ARTnews, November 2004.
"Kim Simonsson: Finnish Quasi-Manga," American Ceramics,14/3, 2004.
"Interrelated Parts: Claire Lieberman," Sculpture, December 2003.
“Luis Miguel Suro: Dynamic Ceramics,” ARTnews, April 2001.
“Forbidden Fruit,” profile of Janet Fish, ARTnews, October 1999.
“Commentary:Where’s the Art in Smart?” American Ceramics, January 1999.
“On the Edge: Joanna Przybyla, Forest Arranger,” ARTnews, April 1997.
“Prints: Nancy Graves, The ‘Missing Link,’” ARTnews, September 1996.
“With a Brooklyn Accent: Urban Glass,” ARTnews, January 1996.
“Thomas Cole: Blending William Wordsworth and James Fenimore Cooper,” ARTnews, May 1995.
“Elie Nadelman," Biuletyn Historii Sztuki, Warsaw, September 1994.
"Recent Drawings by Sculptors: A Common Language," Drawing, July August 1994.
"Looking at Art: Henri Fantin Latour's Bouquet of Roses Lithograph," ARTnews, October 1990.
"Pamela Wye," Sulfur, Fall 1990.
"Yozo Hamaguchi," 21st Century Prints, Tokyo, September 1990.
"Stalking the Animals: American Animal Sculpture," American Heritage, June 1990.
"Forum: An Untitled Gouache by Bram van Velde," Drawing, March April, 1990.
"The Shocking Blue Hair of Elie Nadelman," cover story, American Heritage, March 1989.
"Nade Haley," Arts, May 1988.
"Rodin's Late, Erotic Drawings," Drawing, January February 1988.
"Gabo's Progeny," ARTnews, December 1987.
"Rewriting Sculpture," profile of sculptor Alain Kirili, ARTnews, May 1987.
"Richard Diebenkorn," profile, Elle, September 1986.
"Studio: Marsha Pels," ARTnews, September 1986.
"A Wing and a Prayer: The New 20th Century Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art," Manhattan, inc., August 1986.
"Elie Nadelman's Beauport Drawings," Drawing, November December 1985.
"An Inappropriate Appropriation: Michael Graves' proposed Whitney Museum addition," ARTnews, October 1985.
"Entretien avec Raymond Mason," Petit Journal, Galeries Contemporaines, Musee national d'art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Sept. Nov. 1985.
"Beckett's Landscape: The Stage and Beyond," ARTnews, May 1985.
"Broken Premises" (feature review of "'Primitivism'" exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art), ARTnews, February, 1985.
"Van Gogh's Light Year" (feature review of van Gogh exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art), ARTnews, January 1985.
"Who Are the Artists To Watch?" (Jane Dickson, Doris Lanier, Steve Wood), ARTnews, November 1984.
"The New American Sculpture," ARTnews, January 1984.
"'Graffiti Is a Thing That's Kind of Hard to Explain,’" cover story, ARTnews, October 1982.
"Riva Castleman 'You Can't Separate Art History from Social History,'" ARTnews, April 1982.
"The Academy Where Art Isn't Academic: The Addison Gallery of American Art," ARTnews, January 1982.
"A Visit to the Metropolitan's New American Wing," ARTnews, November 1980.
"What's That Forest Doing in Greenwich Village?" (site specific sculpture in New York), cover story, ARTnews, November 1979.
Translation from the German:"'Art Is No Luxury Art Has Its Social Uses,'" by Thomas Deecke, ARTnews, October 1978.
CATALOGUES AND BOOKS
"An Appreciation," in Elie Nadelman and the Influence of Folk Art, Demuth Museum, Lancaster, Pa., 2010.
"Art and Democracy IV: 20th Anniversary of Tiananmen and the Fall of the Berlin Wall" (co-curator), Visual Artists Guild, Gallery H, N.Y., 2009.
Philemona Williamson's Public Art, Delaware County Community College, Media, Pa., 2009.
Linda Mitchell, Katharine T. Carter and Associates, Kinderhook, N.Y., 2008.
Benedict Tatti: Sculptor, 1917-1993, James Graham & Sons, N.Y., 2007.
Kay Walkingstick: Recent Paintings, June Kelly Gallery, N.Y., 2007
Constellation Dinhofer, Denise Bibro Gallery, N.Y., 2005.
Archetypes and Variations: The Paintings of Valentina Dubasky, National Academy of Sciences, Washington, D.C., 2005.
"Elie Nadelman," in Over the Top: Helena Rubinstein, by Suzanne Slesin, Pointed Leaf Press, N.Y. 2003.
According with Nadelman: Contemporary Affinities (brochure), curator's essay, June Kelly Gallery, N.Y., 2003.
"Circle and Spanish Bronzes," in The Abstract Figure: Carol Kreeger Davidson, A Retrospective, Reading Public Museum, Reading, Pa. 2002.
Robert Reid Memorial Exhibition: Paintings 1970 - 1979 (brochure), June Kelly Gallery, N.Y. 2002.
"Illustrated Chronology" in Elie Nadelman: Classical Folk, American Federation of Arts, 2001.
Elie Nadelman: Plastiques Fantastiques (Galvano-Plastiques), Salander-O’Reilly Galleries, N.Y., 2001.
Lev Meshberg: Keeper of the Flame, Franklin Bowles Galleries, San Francisco, 2001.
Larry Horowitz: California Impressions, Franklin Bowles Galleries, San Francisco, 2000.
Eric Goulder, Forum Gallery, N.Y., 2000.
Barry Ledoux, N.Y., 2000.
Rick Levinson, Ericson Gallery, Philadelphia, Pa., 2000.
Sandra Lerner: Empty and Full (brochure), June Kelly Gallery, N.Y., 1999.
Reunion: Kaffe Fassett and Steve Lovi (brochure), Luise Ross Gallery, N.Y., 1999.
Tamar Hirschl:A Retrospective, 1990-1999, catalogue essay, Art Festival, Split, Croatia, and Museum Center, Zagreb, Croatia, 1999.
Robert Reid (brochure), June Kelly Gallery, N.Y. 1999.
“Janet Fish” extended dictionary entry, Contemporary Women Artists, St. James Press, Detroit, Mi., 1999.
Joe Neill: Time, Space and Drawings, Centre d’Art d’Ivry, Galerie Fernand Leger, Paris, France, 1998.
Norman Lewis (brochure), June Kelly Gallery, N.Y., 1998.
Jedd Novatt, Salander-O’Reilly Galleries, N.Y., 1998.
Ann Schaumburger, Amos Eno Gallery, N.Y., 1997.
Elie Nadelman: Patents Pending, Salander-O’Reilly Galleries, N.Y.,1996.
Captured Moments (brochure), curator’s essay, June Kelly Gallery, 1996.
Joyce Melander-Dayton (brochure), June Kelly Gallery, N.Y., 1996.
"Elie Nadelman’s Seated Woman,” extended entry, Addison Gallery of American Art, 65 Years: A Selective Catalogue, Andover, Ma., 1996.
Niki Ketchman, Kouros Gallery, N.Y., 1996.
Christopher Cairns, Frank Martin Gallery, Muhlenberg College, Allentown, Pa., 1996.
Mikyung Kim, Gallery Nine, Seoul, Korea, 1995.
Zhou Brothers, Nahan Galleries, N.Y., and New Orleans, La., 1995.
Arts & Letters (brochure), curator’s essay, June Kelly Gallery, N.Y., 1995.
John Pai: 1968-1983, Sigma Gallery, N.Y., 1994.
Creighton Michael: Landscape, Katonah Museum of Art, 1994.
Shari Urquhart, Hillwood Art Gallery, Long Island University, 1994.
George Koras, Staller Center, S.U.N.Y., Stony Brook, 1992.
Mark Mennin, Kouros Gallery, N.Y., 1992.
Carmen Cicero (brochure), June Kelly Gallery, N.Y., 1991.
Ruth Hardinger, Philippe Staib Gallery, N.Y. 1991.
Means to Ends: Process and Its Traces in Recent Sculpture, curator's essay, Rockland Center for the Arts, West Nyack, N.Y., 1990.
John Crawford, The Sculpture Center, N.Y., 1990.
Lesley Dill (brochure), Carlo Lamagna Gallery, N.Y., 1989.
Doris Lanier (brochure), June Kelly Gallery, N.Y., 1989.
Back to the Wall, The Philadelphia Art Alliance, 1989.
William Carlson, Heller Gallery, N.Y., 1988.
Carol Kreeger Davidson, Humphrey Fine Art, N.Y., 1988.
Bruno Romeda, Kouros Gallery, N.Y., 1988.
Private Expressions, Personal Experiences: Eight Painters, Stamford Art Museum, 1987.
Carol Hepper, Dahl Fine Arts Center, Rapid City, S.D., 1987.
Archaic Echoes: Six Contemporary Sculptors, Muhlenberg College Art Gallery, Allentown, Pa., 1986.
Raymond Mason: Painted Sculptures and Bronzes, 1952 - 1985, catalogue introduction and interview with the artist, Marlborough Gallery, N.Y., 1985.
Hundreds of exhibition, print, and book reviews for ARTnews and other publications from 1978 on.
Published in The Paris Review, Pequod, The Gettysburg Review, New American Writing, Denver Quarterly, Partisan Review, 5 A.M., Southwest Review
Readings at AIR, Anita Shapolsky, June Kelly, and Sideshow galleries, The Club at LaMama, Chelsea Art Museum, Queensborough Community College Art Gallery (CUNY), Las Vegas Art Museum, Queens Borough Public Library, Rhode Island School of Design, Hopper House, The Sculpture Center, Murphy Center