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David Carbone On Seeing Nadelman's
Standing Male Nude


          “One never stops discovering unexpected details in a masterpiece.”
                              – Jean Cocteau

How often do we allow ourselves to truly see a work of art? After all, looking at art is not a passive experience, like watching television; it requires focused mental effort, a playful openness, and a willingness to stay with a work until it reveals something of itself. Often when we turn, momentarily, from an art work, to watch others move through an exhibition, their goal seems rather different: it’s as if touring the room without breaking one’s stride was the sure mark of an aesthetic sensibility. The slight bobbing of heads as they pass each exhibit is a sign to anyone in the room that they have recognized each object, as if it were an answer to a simple quiz.
          All of us are susceptible to this kind of response in a museum or gallery exhibition. Modern and contemporary shows tend to promote spectacle in an effort to entertain. Successful blockbuster exhibitions have, for some time now, re-oriented the thinking of curators. By carefully channeling traffic patterns to increase flow through museum galleries, curators suppress opportunities for viewers to linger before an object. Aesthetic experience, interpretive contemplation, have been largely cast aside in the pursuit of attendance and money.
          One symptomatic factor in all this is the treatment of sculpture as if it were an image rather than a spatial experience. The classic way to achieve this reduction is to place a sculpture against a wall, so that you can’t move around it, allowing one unified view of an object over those qualities which only reveal themselves in our continuous perceptions around it. This is further reinforced by photographic representation in books and catalogues, where the view selected, through repeated viewing, gradually imposes itself on our memories as the essential view and truth about the work depicted. This proved to be especially so of a mostly unremarked-upon bronze masterpiece by Eli Nadleman, called Standing Male Nude, traditionally dated 1908-09, and recently re-dated 1912-13. In its appearances, in the MoMA catalogue of 1948, the Whitney catalogue of 1975, and the catalogue for the Jewish Museum’s exhibit of 2000, Paris in New York, the figure is shown from the right in a three-quarter frontal view. The full frontal views in the Sidney Janis catalogue of 1987, and the recent Whitney monograph of 2003, don’t vary significantly. These photographic conceptions reinforce the work’s title and have succeeded in suppressing its real subject and achievement.
          I first became aware of the magnitude of Nadleman’s achievement in the first Whitney retrospective. The bronze figure was there, but I don’t remember noticing it, until I attended an exhibition of Nadleman’s work at the Sidney Janis Gallery, twelve years later. In the large central gallery, ten bronze works were set out, beginning with four large figures and moving back toward the wall with earlier, smaller works, three forbidding layers deep. The Standing Male Nude, almost twenty- six inches high, stood on a tall pedestal, flush against the wall. Positioned to display a full frontal view, it is anything but a frontal figure.

DAVID CARBONE is a painter and writer living in New York City. He has exhibited widely, including the Boston Museum, the Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art, the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, the National Academy of Design and Phyllis Kind Gallery, Chicago. He has published criticism and essays on painters in Antaeus, Arts Magazine, Art and Antiques and Modern Painters, and can occasionally be heard on National Public Radio.

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Also by David Carbone
Tracing Giovanni’s Shadow
John Graham's Apostasy: For and Against Picasso

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