COLD SPRING, NY – Adrian Nivola recalls the long hours his grandfather, Costantino Nivola, spent in the studio in the 1980s watching the artist capture a mother’s warm hug in a wooden sculpture while country singer Tammy Wynette sang over the stereo.
The music and the man came back into focus earlier this year when he was working on nearly two dozen previously unseen sculptures from his grandfather’s studio, cast from wet sand into the shapes of animals, people and abstract natural forms. Adrian cleaned them of mold and mildew for the exhibition currently on view at Magazzino Italian Art, a museum of post-war and contemporary art in the Hudson Valley.
“Nivola: Sandscapes”, available until January 10, is a family attempt to raise the profile of their patriarch, a forgotten representative of modernism who enjoyed working with the architect Le Corbusier as much as with celebrities like Marilyn Monroe. The exhibition celebrates the artist’s pioneering sand casting technique, which involved Nivola carving in wet sand and filling its cavity with cement or plaster of paris. It was a cheap and efficient method of making large sculptural reliefs that he put on buildings across the country.
“This is the story of an Italian refugee who made America his home and found like-minded people in a community of artists and architects,” said Teresa Kittler, curator of the exhibition, which told how the Sardinian artist fled fascism to New York in 1939 and embed yourself in the city’s cultural scene.
From his Long Island home, Nivola often hosted parties with close friends such as artists Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, and Lee Krasner. While his colleagues explored the parameters of Abstract Expressionism, Nivola worked out the traditions of Mediterranean sculpture with cuboid cutouts in cement, humanoid figures reminiscent of his Sardinian neighbors, and a constellation of prehistoric symbols.
Nivola became an outlier of the art-historical narrative du jour – neither a strict modernist nor an abstract expressionist like de Kooning, Pollock or painters of the “second generation” of the New York School – which let his reputation fall into oblivion after his death in 1988. And while he never received a major retrospective in the United States, evidence of his talent can be found in dozens of public art installations in schools, government buildings, and public housing estates across the country. An exhibition at Cooper Union last year discussed many of these projects, but some of these works are at risk. In March, the New York Housing Authority removed some of his horse sculptures from a property during construction, adding to the importance of the Magazzino exhibit.
“It was hard to work with because I grew up with models of these horse sculptures,” said Adrian Nivola, a painter and sculptor. “Seeing her chopped off the legs was just horrible, but the silver lining is that the controversy has drawn more attention to my grandfather’s work.”
For more than 30 years, conservationists have criticized the city for neglecting Nivola’s public works of art. (Carl Stein, an architect advising the damaged horse sculptures, said there were plans to return the statues on the Nycha property to their original positions.) Other sculptures the artist gave to friends and institutions have been lost.
While researching their exhibition, Magazzino’s curators discovered one such sculpture, a 1953 maquette for the Olivetti Showroom on Fifth Avenue. The design, showing a procession of hieroglyphic gods and decorative patterns, was found in the storage rooms of the Addison Gallery of American Art at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, where it has been since it was donated in 1974.
“It’s a fabulous example of Nivola’s style,” said Kittler, adding that the maquette is just one example of how the artist has constantly adapted his designs to strike a balance between futuristic cubist figures and ancient Sardinian abstractions. “He had a very democratic idea of what art should be and wasn’t really valuable to his work.”
For the artist’s daughter, Claire Nivola, the tour of the Magazzino exhibition was a long-awaited reunion with the art of her father, whose lessons in the studio inspired her career as a children’s book illustrator and author.
“He never let me use an eraser when I was a kid because he didn’t want me to be a perfectionist,” she recalls. “He had a childlike joie de vivre; Everything we did together felt like a mixture of work and play. “
Nivola: sandy landscapes
Until January 10, 2022 at Magazzino Italian Art, 2700 US 9, Cold Spring, NY 845-666-7202; magazzino.art.
More sandstone sculptures by Nivola
Until June 30th at the Eric Firestone Gallery, 4 Newtown Lane, East Hampton, NY 631-604-2386; ericfirestonegallery.com.