The Relative Form: A Conversation with Alfred Nadel

Alfred Nadel Interview by Jill Thayer PhD Artvoices

September 2015 Written by Jill Thayer, Ph.D. for ARTVOICES Magazine, Fall Issue

"Portrait of K," 2009 polaroid emulsion transfer, 20 x 15 inches

“Portrait of K,” 2009
polaroid emulsion transfer, 20 x 15 inches

Alfred Nadel was born in New York City and has maintained a studio in Long Island City for 20 years. He has an M.D. degree from Columbia University, and has taken numerous graduate courses in Art History at Columbia University, New York University, and Hunter College studying with leading art critics and art historians Robert Rosenblum and Leo Steinberg.

Nadel began creating his art in the mid-1980s and has developed a unique approach in working with large-scale Polaroid emulsion transfers that he applies singly, in multiples, or in fragments. His mixed-media work, which includes drawings and paintings is included in corporate and private collections, and exhibited internationally through galleries in New York, Berlin, Boston, Paris, and Santa Fe.

"Embracing 09," 2010 polaroid emulsion transfer, 22 x 26 inches

“Embracing 09,” 2010
polaroid emulsion transfer, 22 x 26 inches

The implication of narrative, the presence or absence of color, the ambiguity suggested by the arrangement or elements in the composition… all classical features of painting…are more likely to transfix the viewer than are moving images or multiple objects in an environment.  – Alfred Nadel

I interviewed the artist from his studio in Long Island City, New York as he discussed his methodologies and the context of his work. 

Jill Thayer: What led you to your career as an artist beyond your practice as a physician of Ophthalmology in New York?  

Alfred Nadel:  I have always had an interest in visual expression. My wife and I purchased our first painting for $100 (paid in four installments) shortly after we were married. Studying Art History stoked my desire to make my own creations.

JT: Your work explores figuration, relationships, and personae. How do you perceive the relationship of the artist, the model or muse, and the viewer?

AN: The initial idea and vision comes from the artist who then directs the model. However, the model can be a participant and an instigator, making suggestions regarding expression, pose and dress (e.g. the earrings in “Girl with a Pearl Earring,” as mentioned in the novel by the same name). If there is sufficient narrative, the viewer is invited into the scene.

JT: How do these narratives come together in the studio?

AN: Again, the initiative is with the artist, but as in a movie set or in the theater, the execution changes as the participants – model and artist – interact.

"Madonna MM," 2004 Polaroid emulsion transfers, collage on paper, 22x30 inches

“Madonna MM,” 2004 Polaroid emulsion transfers, collage on paper, 22×30 inches

JT: Your compositions engage various techniques in drawing, collage, and photographic emulsion transfers. How did you initially engage in these processes?

AN: Using Polaroid or other emulsion transfers as part of my work came from an introduction to the technique by a friend. Mixed media compositions with the emulsions, enhanced by collage, enabled me to break down and to overlay figures to create better a persona.

JT: How do they evolve in your current work?

AN:  Initially, I was hesitant and made few works with varied elements. As I became more confident, I mixed different techniques and resorted even to cutting canvas and paper to refashion images.

JT: I see nuances of Cubism and some of your pieces remind me of the figurative print work of the Abstract Expressionists––the drypoint and engravings of Jackson Pollack, and color etchings and engravings of Stanley W. Hayter. Are you influenced by these genres?

AN: I would say that, historically, I have been influenced more by the early 20th century Austrian and German Expressionists. This connection (at times, because of the erotic undertone) was noted early by Serge Sabarsky, one of the founders of the Neue Galerie in New York.

JT: There is a provocative eroticism and fluidity in many of your pieces such as, “In the Studio” and “A Woman Composed,” reminiscent of Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.” The subjects fit within the constructs of the composition yet fill the space. Describe your approach in producing these mixed media compilations.

AN:  I am quite familiar with “Les Demoiselles” having studied it with Leo Steinberg in class and through his work on its origins. However, my concern with with space within a frame has not so much been its ambiguity as its ability to confine or trap a subject. Filling a canvas or paper with a figure(s) and overlying it with selected collage elements or other media does, indeed, make spatial relations more precarious but, most of all, it challenges and may threaten to overwhelm the figure(s). The placement of additional elements can also suggest or emphasize an erotic context. 

JT: How has your artwork evolved since you began in the 1980s?

AN: I started, as many artists have done, with the still life and the portrait. As I began to do more and to experiment more, I have introduced a greater sophistication and vitality to the images.

JT: What is the relationship of your work to contemporary culture?

AN:  In our culture, individuals take greater pains to align themselves with fashion and charismatic individuals whether by dress, by marking (e.g. tattoos and makeup, and, more recently, by relentless self photography. The use of mixed media in much of my work and the role of a model reflect the variety of appearances (personae) an individual can show to the world.

JT: Leo Steinberg wrote:

“It is in the nature of contemporary art to present itself as a bad risk,” in “Contemporary Art and the Plight of Its Public” (1962). “And we the public, artists included, should be proud of being in this predicament, because nothing else would seem to us quite true to life; and art, after all, is supposed to be a mirror of life.”

How do you see Mr. Steinberg’s observation in today’s media-driven environment?

AN: Steinberg seems to suggest that the contemporary world is a maelstrom of conflicting and confusing elements, which is reflected in our art. This is more true in the media driven age than it was in 1962. Thus, if current art seems scattered, solely commercially or technologically, driven, self-indulgent – in fact, “over the top” – that is to be expected and is neither good nor bad.

JT: What was your takeaway from graduate work with these influential figures in art criticism?

AN: I learned how difficult it is to create good works of art, but also, how small things such as gesture, posture, expression, and the placement of elements within the piece can be effective in projecting a point of view (the artist’s) as well as evoking an emotional and intellectual response from the viewer.

JT: Alfred, please tell me about a few of your pieces.

"Untitled Portrait," 2008 Enamel on panel, 24x20 inches

“Untitled Portrait,” 2008 Enamel on panel, 24×20 inches

“Untitled Portrait,” 2008, Enamel on panel, 24” x 20”. 

AN: This is one of my earliest attempts to exaggerate a facial expression and mood. In this case, I used only enamel paint but I left an opening in the face, I overdrew, and I used schematic patterns for shading.

JT: “Portrait of K,” 2009. [

AN: This is just a portrait but, in using an emulsion transfer, I have been able to give the subject’s appearance a more intriguing character (fitting to him).

JT: “Madonna MM,” 2004. 

AN: This image is part of a series I did with Marla, the model I have worked with most. As a whole, they reflect the wide range in which she can present herself. In this case, with one Polaroid emulsion transfer superimposed on another and with added collage, her expression takes the quality of the Madonna.

JT: “Embracing 09,” 2010. 

AN: This belongs to a series done both as emulsion transfers and as drawings. Each image involves a male and female figure of recognizably different ages in an embrace, which may or may not be accommodating for each person. Intended is an ambiguity, which engages the viewer and forces him/her to be a voyeur.

"Snapshot #76: At the Seashore," 2013 Mixed media, collage on paper, 9x14 inches

“Snapshot #76: At the Seashore,” 2013
Mixed media, collage on paper, 9×14 inches

JT: “Snapshot #76: At the Seashore,” 2013”. 

AN: The Snapshot series, now numbering more the 120 images, represents personal reflections of events in the studio, which connect in some way with past experiences and with the outside world. In this case, the drawing of a figure in the studio is reminiscent of a scene at the beach.

JT: “Resting Marla,” 2010. [See Image – “Resting Marla,” 2010, Acrylic on canvas, 30”x22”

"Resting Marla," 2010 Acrylic on canvas, 30x22 inches

“Resting Marla,” 2010
Acrylic on canvas, 30×22 inches

AN: I literally folded the preparatory drawing for this piece to blend parts of the figure with the background. In this case, only paint, not other media, was used.”

JT: What projects are you currently working on?

AN: This past year, I have focused on small mixed media drawings in black and white portraying one or two figures and using a greater variety of materials and techniques. I hope to transfer the mixed media experience on paper to canvas using paint and collaged elements (including portions of other canvases). This will enable me to use color and heightened texture to facilitate the representation of my figural images.

JT: Anything else you wish to discuss?

AN: No. I think we have covered the nature of my work adequately.

JT: Thank you Alfred.

Alfred Nadel Studio

Alfred Nadel Studio

Alfred Nadel, 2015

Alfred Nadel, 2015


Alfred Nadel Portfolio –