Modern sculptors and American folk art

Similarly expressive of the stone from which it was carved is Elephant (Fig. 5) by John B. Flannagan, who was active in Greenwich Village and Woodstock, New York, in the 1920s. Like Laurent, Flannagan worked in both stone and wood and showed work in both mediums in his first major exhibition, held at the Whitney Studio Club in New York in 1925. The carved oak chest in Figure 7, which was among the pieces of furniture exhibited there, evidences his interest in both African carving and the British arts and crafts movement. Like that movement's leader, William Morris (1843-1896), Flannagan produced furniture that recalled seventeenth-century English production and did not disguise its construction. Although his career was cut short by his early death, Flannagan was admired by such critics as Henry McBride (1867-1962), who wrote in the New York Sun: "Mr. Flannagan's carvings are amazing. He carves in wood, but so fluently that sometimes one is embarrassed by the curves as one is by candy images that melt. They are immensely clever just the same."13 

Among the immigrant artists who became interested in folk art through Field, Laurent, and their circle was the Lithuanian-born sculptor William Zorach. He later reminisced of the 1920s that "all of us were picking up early American furniture and early American paintings, because they were not only more beautiful than the manufactured products that were being sold, but they were also very cheap."14 Zorach had seen carved African figures in Paris and in a shop in Provincetown, Massachusetts—where he and his family frequently summered—and recalled at one point having "spent the only $50 I had to my name on a book of twenty photographs of African carvings that Charles Sheeler had made."15 What was important to Zorach about these works was not their cultural significance but their aesthetic appeal: "We have a consciousness of world Art from an Art point of view and not from the usual historical point of view," he wrote.16 Zorach himself began to carve in wood in 1917 and in stone in 1921. Two years later he and his wife, artist Marguerite Thompson Zorach (1887-1968), purchased an old house in Robinhood, Maine, and William reveled in the immediacy of his contact with local materials, carving "directly in the glacial boulders of Maine."17 His direct carving process recalls the non-Western and folk sculpture he and his circle collected. Two mahogany sculptures he carved in the early 1920s, Figure of a Child (Fig. 8) and Floating Figure (Fig. 10), are similar to Laurent's contemporary works in that both men created sensuous forms by exploiting the warmth and softness of the wood in which they worked.

An even more enthusiastic collector of traditional carving was the Polish-born sculptor Elie Nadelman. Like other transplanted European artists, Nadelman had spent time in Paris, where he was exposed to non-Western art. After moving to New York in 1914 he experienced anti-Semitism, and as late as 1920 he was described in print as "this young Polish sculptor, a late-comer to our shores,"18 despite the success he had already enjoyed as a result of such works as Man in the Open Air of about 1915 (Fig. 2).19 Perhaps to engage more fully with the culture of the United States, and certainly with the aid of the funds he earned as a successful sculptor and accessed through his marriage in 1919 to the wealthy Viola Spiess Flannery (1878-1962), Nadelman amassed a folk art collection that quite dwarfed those of his contemporaries-and showed the Nadelmans to have been as voracious collectors as the legendary Henry Davis Sleeper (1878-1934), whose house, Beauport, in Gloucester, Massachusetts, they visited in 1920 or 1921.20

Nadelman's sculptures like Circus Performer (Fig. 1) recalled for many the work of his European contemporaries—especially the stylized depictions of performers by Georges Seurat (1859-1891); but there is also a relationship to be observed between the figures Nadelman made and those he collected, such as the anonymous wood carving Harry Howard, Chief Engineer, New York City Volunteer Fire Department shown in Figure 11. Nadelman's Tango (Fig. 15) also echoes the stylized mechanical waltzing figures on a windup toy he owned (Fig. 13). He captured his dancing couple as though they had stopped mid-movement, much like wound-down toy dancers so to speak, while Laurent in Flirtation (Fig. 9) similarly captured a man and woman in contemporary dress but suggested the figures' stiffness and awkwardness rather than their gracefulness.   

[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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