Written by Claire Lanier.
Admit it―it’s hard not to smile when you’re looking at Jumping Jack. He’s fun, he’s wacky, he’s relaxed (is he lying in shavasana?). Jack the toy clown gets you.
So why is it that when we call Jack a “toy,” we smile, but when we call him folk art, we create a disconnect? Folk art doesn’t get a ton of love. We often think fine art is for the dining room, and folk art…well, it belongs in grandma’s dusty cabinet back in the den.
But in the mid 20th-century Elie and Viola Nadelman saw not only the artistic significance of folk art but also what it represented in pop culture for us as individuals and as Americans. Their story starts with Elie.
Today Elie Nadelman is widely known for his Modernist sculptures that mix vernacular themes with classic aesthetics. Born in Poland, he studied sculpture in Paris, London, and New York, showing pieces at the 1913 Armory Show. Shortly thereafter he moved to New York permanently (he took the Lusitania to get here!) holding his first show at Alfred Stieglitz’s 291 gallery. It was around this time he began focusingwork on American pop culture, and it’s not hard to see this influence―pieces like Dancer show a clear nod to American vaudeville culture.
But despite his professional success, Nadelman had yet to create his legacy.
The turning point? In 1919 he married Viola Spiess, a New Yorker born to Americans of German Jewish descent, whose father’s cigar manufacturing business put the family amongst the social elite.
Elie and Viola shared a passion for collecting folk art, and their dual obsession spiraled quickly and massively. By 1926, a mere seven years later, the Nadelmans opened their collection for free public browsing at their Museum of Folk and Peasant Arts in Riverdale, New York. With 14 galleries of art from more than a dozen countries, the four-story building was chock full of European and American pottery, games (like the kakelorum below), toys, chalkware, furniture, wrought ironwork, textiles, sculptures, and much more. Out front, the iconic trumpeting Fire Chief Harry Howard welcomed guests.
As an artist, Elie was the creative mastermind behind the museum, but Viola, often overlooked, was the managerial powerhouse who brought their collection from personal hobby to the public stage.
Over the next decade, the Depression hit the Nadelmans hard, and in 1937 they sold the vast collection (more than 15,000 pieces!) to the New-York Historical Society, drastically transforming and modernizing the city’s oldest museum, which had traditionally housed heirlooms and the art of Old Masters.
And that’s the true legacy that the Nadelmans left on today: the value that art and artifacts of all times and tenors are to be enjoyed by all. They stand alongside Clyfford Still, Theodore Roosevelt, and other 20th-century visionaries who saw the importance of public accessibility for the sake of knowledge, inspiration, and collective experience.
Amidst the tumult of the World Wars and their aftermath, the Nadelmans saw how our identity could be both reflected and confirmed by pop culture and folk art, and they didn’t hesitate to share it. Hey, not all art is meant to make us weep―sometimes we might just fancy a smile.
Stop by the New-York Historical Society to see The Folk Art Collection of Elie and Viola Nadelman, now on display through August 21. Learn more on our website.