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New York State Theater No. 15 - The Nadelman Statues


“In the New York State Theater, Philip Johnson wanted to counter the highly rectilinear nature of the Grand Promenade with two very large pieces of sculpture in curvilinear forms. He wanted them to be polished, white marble, for, with high-powered spotlights focused on them, they were to serve as one of the major sources of reflected light in the room. So strongly did he feel that the room needed this feature that he decided to contribute the two pieces of sculpture to Lincoln Center as his personal gift. Johnson chose two pairs of female figures, done by Elie Nadelman in the 1940s. He felt these were exactly right in their forms, but much too small in scale for the enormous room." [1]


Photo by Andy Romer

By the 1960s, Nadelman was dead so, "His solution was to commission copies, enlarged to twice their original size, to be carved by Italian artisans in Carrara marble from the same quarry that had been used by Michelangelo. [The name of the actual Italian sculptors who enlarged the sculptures is lost to history.] The sculptural figures arrived in November 1963 and became the most controversial feature of the building; feelings about them were strong, both pro and con as works of art, as enlargements from the artist's originals, and as appropriate to their setting. No one seemed neutral or disinterested in them." [1]


 

Controversy Over the Statues


"Overhearing construction workmen remarking on the naked "goils," Kirstein arranged to have the immense artworks brought into the Theater just before the fourth and final wall was closed up and before the Lincoln Center leadership could order their removal, which, in fact they did; but the statues could no longer be removed. They were here to stay. [2]



"An article in the New Yorker described them:


… holding down the floor ... are two monumental sculptures, each a pair of nude or nearly nude women, made of Carrara marble so highly polished that it resembles. yogurt. I am not sure that they are great sculpture, but they are at least very good substitutes for it, having substantial mass and weight, and reminding one that one is in a place where human beings are still important, namely a theater.


"One critic characterized the figures as "monstrous" and "absolutely pneumatic," but John Canaday, art critic of the New York Times, placed his seal of approval on them:


...the sculpture in the New York State Theater is bang-up...


"[The Elie Nadelman enlargements] are the most satisfying ornaments serving a comparable function since Carpeaux's sculptures on the facade of the Paris Opera nearly 100 years ago. These paired female figures have a combination of high style, sly levity and swelling monumentality that unifies them with the scale and elegance of the architecture and, at the same time, involves them in a kind of amorous badinage with its angularities. In this perfect marriage between sculpture and architecture, either would miss the other in separation. But the sculpture is the dependent partner. As pure sculpture, these superb confections are not much more than deft and devilishly clever, but as architectural adjuncts they are brought to fulfillment.” [1]


 

"These paired female figures have a combination of high style, sly levity and swelling monumentality that unifies them with the scale and elegance of the architecture and at the same time, involved them in a kind of amorous badinage with its angularities. In this perfect marriage between sculpture and architecture, either would miss the other in a separation. But the sculpture is the dependent partner. As pure sculpture, these superb confections are not much more than deft and devilishly clever, but as architectural adjuncts they are brought to fulfillment” [3]






"These present heroic figures, the gift of the architect to his building, were conceived in 1930. After Nadelman's death in 1946, they were cast in bronze for Governor Rockefeller's gardens in Pocantico Hills. From the original models, Italian craftsmen carved our huge ladies, the largest single blocks of marble ever cut and shipped from Cararra, Italy. They embody superhuman stars of the arena in repose; circus archetypes, mistresses of virtuosity, balance and control. They are direct descendants of caryatids on circus calliopes, clipper-ship figure-heads and cigar-store Indians, even with a hint of burlesque queens, classic totems of American popular tradition; the baroque spirit domesticated by democracy. In this temple dedicated to the performing arts, Nadelman's women are true idols, worthy of worship by performers and public alike.] on circus calliopes, clipper-ship figure-heads and cigar-store indians, even with a hint of burlesque queens, classic totems of American popular tradition; the baroque spirit domesticated by democracy. In this temple dedicated to the performing arts, Nadelman's women are true idols, worthy of worship by performers and public alike." [4]


Philip Johnson, “But it's just delightful. The girls with little martinis, having a good time. Well, that's what I think the theme is. Joyful.” [5]



Opening Night of the New York State Theater


[3] Ada Louise Huxtable, New York Times, March 23, 1964

[4] Lincoln Kirstein in 1964-65 Souvenir Program

[5] Philip Johnson: The Architect in His Own Words by Hilary Lewis and Philip Johnson


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