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A Genesis of Modernism through the art of B.J.O. Nordfeldt

By March 16, 2022September 16th, 2023No Comments

By Deborah Ultan, Arts & Design Librarian


B.J.O. Nordfeldt. Green Woods, 1950. Oil on canvas, 401/4 x 52 in.

Walking through the retrospective currently on exhibit at the Weisman Art Museum (February 11 – July 10, 2022), “B.J.O. Nordfeldt: American Internationalist,” is like catching a train of artistic explorations across Europe, the Mediterranean, and the United States. By framing Nordfeldt (b.1878-1955) as an Internationalist, Professor Emeritus and Curator Dr. Gabriel Weisberg brings to light how the Swedish-born Midwesterner so swiftly captured the zeitgeist of painting at the very genesis of the modern era where color, shape, pointillism, cubism, and abstraction beckoned new ways of seeing and responding to life and landscape. Weisberg describes Nordfeldt’s legacy as “Bridging the gap between American and European imagery… throughout his career.”

In his years as a professor at the University of Minnesota (1985-2017), Dr. Weisberg taught students how to exercise deep scholarship of art and history, and how to unwrap the treasures of that scholarship into exhibitions. This latest show models Weisberg’s historical and studied approach to curating with an installation organized per Nordfeldt’s wanderings around the country and the world, his dips into art colonies, and his various homesteads. If you’ve ever had the good fortune of studying modernism with Professor Weisberg (I’m one of the lucky), you will be well-schooled to see in the work of Nordfledt so much of what you would have learned about art at the turn-of-the century from the Aesthetic Movement and Japonisme to Fauvism and the beginnings of abstraction.

Why hasn’t this prolific artist been recognized more robustly, I inquired with the curator. “Nordfeldt spent more time in the Midwest than he did on the east coast, for one, and was not in the least interested in self-promotion. If he had stayed in New York City, he would have become widely known and probably added to the art history cannon.” Dr. Weisberg also noted, “Nordfledt wasn’t a pure abstractionist, which may have, also, been a reason he wasn’t added to the cannon like his other contemporaries such as John Marin and Arthur Dove.”

An art spy of sorts, Dr. Weisberg and his wife, Yvonne, have made a lifetime commitment to uncovering lesser-known artworks, artists, and art workshops, pulling diamonds out of the rough. Weisberg’s research and exhibition on Siegfried Bing at the Smithsonian Museum in 1986, and P.A.J. Dagnan-Bouveret exhibition at the Dahesh Museum in 2002, are examples of some of their groundbreaking discoveries. This first retrospective on Nordfledt at the Weisman Art Museum is a culmination of years of research championed by the refined exhibit and beautifully designed exhibition catalog rich in scholarship. Because of this latest exposition, Nordfledt is finally visible on the map with other American Modernist painters.

Weisberg first learned about B.J.O. Nordfledt when he saw photographs of his prints and paintings spread all over the house of the scholar and photographer Van Deren Coke, in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Weisberg pocketed that bit of information. When he moved to Minnesota, he sought after the work of Nordfeldt after finding out that his collection had been gifted to the Weisman by his second wife, Emily Abbott Nordfledt, along with a special fund that continues to support the mission of the museum. While there have been smaller exhibitions mainly of the woodblock prints inspired by the ukiyo-e style, and pieces included in key museums around the country, there have not been any shows of this breadth and depth. Six years in the making, the Weisberg’s traveled where Nordfeldt lived, studied, and worked to create a superbly elegant exhibition that traces Nordfeldt’s life story, craftsmanship, and artistic influences that reflect the aesthetic tendencies of the early twentieth century.

Minnesotans are encouraged to see this exhibit and celebrate the most significant collection of works and archives of B.J.O. Nordfeldt at the University of Minnesota’s Weisman Museum of Art. Given that Nordfeldt taught at the Minneapolis College of Art (now MCAD), married the artist daughter of the prominent lawyer and University of Minnesota law professor Howard Strickland Abbott (1863-1944) and mother Mary Louise Johnson (1869-1948), this is a collection and an artist locals will want to know. Shimmering next to the Mississippi river, the Frank Gehry-designed Weisman Art Museum, under the curatorial expertise of Dr. Gabriel Weisberg, is the first to narrate the colorful wanderlust lifestyle and artistic achievements of B.J.O. Nordfeldt embedding the artist’s relevance to American Modernism.

The first book on Nordfeldt by Van dere Coke, the new exhibition catalog, and the notebooks from the letters of B.J.O. Nordfeldt may all be found in the general collection at the University of Minnesota Libraries. For more research on American art and modernism please contact Deborah Ultan, Arts & Design Librarian, ultan004@umn.edu.

 

Karen Carmody-McIntosh

Author Karen Carmody-McIntosh

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