Elie Nadelman

The Cleaning and Conservation of Elie Nadelman’s Two Circus Women, 1930

January – April 2010 

A leading modernist sculptor of the first half of the twentieth century, Elie Nadelman pursued a highly individual path. Although this Polish-born artist was among the first to practice abstraction in sculpture in Paris, where he was a prominent member of the avant-garde, he later devoted himself to the human figure.  The source of his work ranged from early classicism to Asian and Egyptian sculpture to American folk art.  Nadelman relocated to New York in 1914 and became well established in the New York art world, appreciated for his work in bronze, marble, wood, and more. 

Whereas Nadelman’s early work tended to present sleek, stylized figures, in the mid-twenties his style shifted. He began to focus on images of female circus performers with bulbous contours and indistinct facial features, as seen in Two Circus Women, 1930.  Tragically in 1946, Nadelman committed suicide, and Lincoln Kirstein, a close friend of Philip Johnson, became the Executor of the artist’s estate.  

Acquired in 1949 directly from the estate, Two Circus Women stands prominently in the Glass House, anchoring the southern side of the Glass House.  Referred to as “tutelary goddesses” by Johnson, the sculpture defines the living spaces within the Glass House, separating the Dining Room from the Kitchen and the Living Room from the Dining Room.  The sculpture is integral to experiencing and understanding the design and layout of the Glass House. Johnson likened Two Circus Women to Georg Kolbe's Alba (Dawn) in Meis van der Rohe's 1929 Barcelona Pavilion, softening the austere geometry and polished surfaces. In 1951, a unique bronze copy was cast from Johnson’s sculpture for Nelson A. Rockefeller.  The uneven surface and texture, as well as the discoloration are the result of the casting process. Rockefeller’s objects file notes, “Only cast. The original in paper mâché was destroyed in the casting.”  

Johnson’s long and fruitful friendship with Kirstein began at Harvard through the Society for Contemporary Art.  Founded by Kirstein, the group exhibited early modern art, several years before the establishment of The Museum of Modern Art.  During this period, Kirstein also developed the literary magazine, The Hound and The Horn that celebrated writers such as James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, and T. S. Eliot.   

Kirstein would later pour his energies into the world of dance, beginning with Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe and later with the work of George Balanchine.  Kirstein was seminal in bringing Balanchine to New York to start the School of American Ballet and later to form the New York City Ballet.  Johnson designed the home of the New York City Ballet, the New York State Theater for the Performing Arts.  For this building, Two Circus Women were used again as a maquette for the monumental marble sculpture, three times larger than its original size, in the lobby. 

Johnson’s sculpture is constructed of two plaster halves, a front and back piece that are adhered along the side.  An internal metal cross brace provides additional stability and allows the sculpture to be anchored to a display pedestal, designed by Johnson.  The paper mâché surface, applied onto the plaster armature, is extremely delicate and lifts easily.  On the back, much of this surface has been lost, and plaster is exposed.  On the front, only small areas of the orginal surface exist. 

An identical, original plaster and paper-mâché copy belongs to the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City.  The Whitney Museum’s sculpture is in excellent condition.  The sculpture is uniform in color, and its surface is smooth with a slight sheen.  Conserved in 2003 by Daria Keynan, the sculpture is crated and stored in a controlled environment.  Even in this ideal environment, there has been slight lifting.  This copy not only allows the viewer to imagine Johnson’s sculpture before 1951, but also highlights the fragility of the paper mâché surface and underscores the challenges facing the Glass House in the maintenance and care of this sculpture, moving forward.  

The goal of the 2010 conservation is not to restore the sculpture to its original condition.  Rather, it is to stabilize the sculpture, to secure lifted surfaces, and to prevent further loss. During Philip Johnson’s life, the sculpture was extensively repaired twice in 1969 and 1981 by Joseph Ternback, New York. The 2010 conservation is the third conservation treatment of this sculpture. 

The bronze cast is on view in the garden at Rockefeller estate Kykuit, a National Trust Historic site in Pocantico Hills, N.Y.  Because NTHP owns both the original paper mâché sculpture and the bronze copy, a unique opportunity is presented, allowing each site to illustrate the broader history relating to the sculpture.  By conserving this sculpture, the Glass House continues to educate visitors about the Rockefeller family and Philip Johnson, how they worked in tandem shaping the politics, culture, and the built environment of post-war America.  

Conservator: Daria Keynan, New York 
New York Shipper: Surround Art, Brooklyn, New York 

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