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in Springs

COSTANTINO NIVOLA Cover Olivetti showroom, New York, 1953–1954 Detail Back cover Nivola on the beach, East Hampton, 1949


NIVOLA in Springs

Micaela Martegani

The Parrish Art Museum

COSTANTINO NIVOLA in Springs August 9 – October 12, 2003 9 agosto – 12 ottobre 2003 was organized by The Parrish Art Museum in cooperation with the Costantino Nivola Foundation, under the auspices of the Provincial Administration of Nuoro. è stata organizzata dal Museo d’Arte Parrish con il supporto della Fondazione Costantino Nivola e il patrocinio dell’Amministrazione Provinciale di Nuoro.

Frontispiece / Frontespizio Nivola in his garden in Springs, 1964 Nivola nel suo giardino a Springs, 1964 Pages 6–7 / Pagine 6-7 Nivola on the beach, East Hampton, 1970s Nivola in spiaggia a East Hampton, anni Settanta

A list of photography credits can be found on page 112. Una lista di referenze fotografiche si trova a pagina 112.

Published by The Parrish Art Museum and Ilisso Edizioni Printed in Italy / Stampato in Italia Industria Grafica Stampacolor, Sassari

Translation / Traduzione Tiziana Serra

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form or by any means electronic, photocopy or otherwise, without written permission from The Parrish Art Museum. © Copyright 2003 The Parrish Art Museum, Southampton, New York and Ilisso Edizioni, Nuoro - www.ilisso.it ISBN 88-87825-64-5




Prefaces 8 9 10 12

Ugo Collu Francesco Licheri, Tonino Rocca Trudy C. Kramer Katherine B. Crum

8 9 11 12

Ugo Collu Francesco Licheri, Tonino Rocca Trudy C. Kramer Katherine B. Crum





Micaela Martegani


Costantino Nivola in Springs

Micaela Martegani


Micaela Martegani


The Nivola garden

Micaela Martegani

104 Il giardino di Nivola

Alastair Gordon


Works exhibited

Costantino Nivola a Springs

Alastair Gordon


Opere in mostra

107 Exhibitions, public collections and commissions

107 Esposizioni, collezioni pubbliche e commissioni

111 Selected bibliography

111 Bibliografia essenziale

Costantino Nivola in Springs Micaela Martegani Robert Lehman Curator The Parrish Art Museum

The beach, sand, people, and the horizon: larger than the gesture of my open arms. —Costantino Nivola1 When he reached the beaches of the East End of Long Island, the young Sardinian artist Costantino Nivola was mesmerized. He had come from the sea. Sardinia is a rocky island with steep cliffs that drop into the turquoise-blue Mediterranean, but Sardinians were accustomed to looking inward, not outward, afraid of a sea that throughout the centuries had brought only disaster and death. There are few beaches in Sardinia, and those that there are are usually small and wedged between high rocks. The south shore of eastern Long Island was a completely new experience for Nivola—two hundred miles of vast white sandy beach and open ocean. The artist would never forget this first encounter, or the exhilaration of standing on the empty, windswept Atlantic shore. It was the sand that would open his path to sculpture, and the sand that would shape his imagery, the texture and very soul of his work. I knocked on the doors of this wonderful city, and hundreds of doors, windows, and hearts flew open. The customs officer was bewildered by the contents of my luggage, made of naiveté, youth, talent, and foreign accent. —Costantino Nivola, 19802


1. Olivetti showroom, New York, 1953–1954

Born in 1911, Costantino Nivola arrived in New York at the end of the summer of 1939 with his wife, Ruth Guggenheim. He spent hours walking through the streets of the city and drawing scenes of everyday life, in an attempt to make order out of apparent chaos. Nivola had lived in Milan and briefly in Paris, yet New York, as it was for many other immigrants, was more exciting, intoxicating, even overwhelming. Nivola captured the proliferation of people, cars, and noise in a series of large drawings done in thick black pen in the early 1940s (Figures 3, 4). In these years, the United States was still trying to recover from the great economic crisis of 1929, and with war erupting in Europe, prospects were not good. Nivola and his wife struggled to make ends meet. She worked as a babysitter; he found employment in a factory. Soon, though, he was selling hand-illustrated holiday cards to elegant department stores such as Lord & Taylor and Bonwit Teller. Through a recommendation from Bonwit Teller he secured an interview with the publisher Charles E. Whitney, who was then in the process of buying 15


5. Le Corbusier using Nivola’s sand-casting technique, as Pietro and Claire Nivola look on, East Hampton beach, 1951.

6. Advertisement by Nivola for Olivetti typewriter, 1937. 7. (Right) View of Nivola’s one-person exhibition at Tibor de Nagy Gallery, New York, 1950.



When the showroom opened in the spring of 1954, it was an immediate sensation (Figures 1, 8, 9, 10). Articles on this unusual space ran in numerous design magazines, all expressing amazement at the novel concept and rich execution.11 The showroom looked so different from everything else in Manhattan that the buzz extended well beyond the design community; mention was made even in society columns. All the furniture and materials had been shipped from Italy, and it was difficult not to marvel at the extraordinary details: the pedestals for machine display, which emerged from the highly veined green marble floor like stalagmites (one pedestal was even placed outside, on the sidewalk, as if to invite customers into the showroom); the door, a thin walnut panel, sixteen feet high (five meters), which interrupted two continuous glass walls; the brightly colored, long and conical Venini handblown glass lamps, hanging like stalactites from the ceiling to meet the stalagmites below; the sign, a weathered bronze banner stretching between two pillars outside the showroom, with the cut-out letters of the Olivetti logo across it; the large wheel that helped bring machines up from the basement with no apparent effort; and finally, the immense sand-cast relief covering one of the two long walls of the showroom. Critic Olga Gueft described the entire as “a great piece of showmanship, a stupendous display, and wonderful theater.”12 It was audacious to attempt a work at such a scale and in such lavish surroundings as his first public commission, but Nivola succeeded. He devised a modular system of panels to divide the composition, which made the work manageable in terms of weight and cost-effectiveness. The gigantic mural could hardly go unnoticed. No article failed to mention it, and comments were generally glowing.13 To the respected architectural historian Ada Louise Huxtable, “the most successful and significant element of the design” was Nivola’s relief sculpture.14 Olga Gueft called the showroom “one of the most successful collaborations between artist and architect in modern times,” and perceptively and poetically observed: “Nivola’s beautiful bas-relief has a richly variegated surface suggesting, in some areas, the mark of rilling water left in sand, of leaves, twigs, thorns, seaweed, and crushed flowers caught by the tide with sea birds and star fish. In the rich and complicated surface stand great primeval figures making gestures of welcome, and sexual symbols all intertwined.”15 Surviving documentation indicates that Nivola initially had a more decorative approach for the relief and had devised a simple repetitive pattern on the theme of writing (Figure 11). Although one can discern a few motifs that would be developed in the final work, nothing tells us how this much safer first approach evolved into the powerful composition we know today, where abstract and biomorphic forms alternate with stylized human figures. On exhibition here are two large maquettes and a series of small studies that refer to sections of the final composition (pages 48–49, 50, 51, 52, 53, 54–55). When we view these against a photograph of the sand-cast panel, we can distinguish individual figures and motifs and see how they developed. The comparison also highlights the great freedom and improvisation with which Nivola worked. None of the studies is identical to the final



narrow path dug deep into the earth. As they proceeded, they would encounter small sculptures of local stone offering moments of respite, until they reached a construction from which they could visually embrace the entire island. All Nivola’s works are underscored by a clear and simple symbolism, which actually conveys considerable richness and depth. In this design the incisions in the earth refer not only to the trenches of World War II but also to the profound physical and psychological wounds inflicted by it; the long and tortuous path summon the harsh and exhausting experience of war, but the freestanding sculpture at the top offers hope and catharsis.33 Nivola’s reputation for being “an architect’s sculptor,” as Richard Stein liked to call him, was arguably what prompted Eero Saarinen to write to him, on November 2, 1959, professing to be “an admirer of [his] work” and asking him to contribute to a current project of his, Ezra Stiles and Morse residential colleges at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. In his letter, Saarinen stated: “I am not looking for one piece of sculpture, nor am I looking for just wall decorations, I’m looking for a whole atmosphere created by sculpture and bas-reliefs in relation to architecture.”34 After a visit to the campus, Nivola was commissioned to design forty-seven artworks, ranging from three-dimensional freestanding sculptures (thirteen) to wall panels (twenty-five), lanterns (six), and special pieces (three). Although during the two-year period the project was scaled down to a total of thirty-five works, it remained the most comprehensive of Nivola’s interventions in public space (Figures 20, 21, 22). An example of a related work appears in this exhibition (page 61). The residential colleges, Saarinen’s last buildings (the architect died in 1961, before they were completed), met with mixed reviews. They have an unusual, almost medieval severity. In his letter to Nivola, Saarinen himself spoke of buildings that “[remind] one of the hill towns of Italy.” All Nivola’s works for the project were executed in the same mix of concrete, sand, and color aggregate as the buildings, and, as the artist intended, they blend with the architectural setting yet never forfeit their presence. The sculptures wrap around walls, extend above entryways as classical friezes, and several are freestanding. Some are so close to the viewer that one might bump into them; others are inaccessible. Some are introduced gradually, a detail at a time; others appear unexpectedly. Some hold water, others lights. These sculptures account for the various perspectives of the wandering student, as they are meant to be viewed from below, from above, or at eye level. In the academic world of Yale, at that time still a men’s college, we find Nivola’s geometric male figure the embodiment of rational thought. The forms here are massive, monolithic, of an earthly Cubism, and in Saarinen’s solid architecture they seem to have found their perfect counterpart. In the colleges, architecture and sculpture merge so well that it is hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. As much as each of the single pieces is a work in itself, clearly they were all conceived as part of a general plan that kept in mind artistic value, architecture, and the surroundings. Consequently, Nivola’s work at Yale must be viewed, enjoyed, and judged in its totality.35 30

20. Concrete sculpture, Ezra Stiles and Morse Colleges, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, 1960–1961.


At about the same time, Nivola started a series of small terracotta sculptures, meant primarily for private enjoyment, and it is surprising to see how he moved from monumental public projects to the diminutive format and delicacy of these works. The timeless roughness of clay—this ancient mixture of earth and water—is the ideal counterpoint to the contemporary roughness of concrete. Nivola claimed that he created these terracottas in pauses between public commissions, as diversions. Their immediacy and informality offered respite from the planning and formality required by larger works. They are exquisite mementos of the artist’s sensibility at its purest. In the first plaques from this period, from the series Beaches, the shore is a magnificent expanse of white sand, uncontaminated and deserted (pages 76, 77, 78). Nature rules, and humans, when they do start to appear, are tiny figures, barely visible, lost in the silent vastness engulfing them. Gradually nature lets itself be approached; waves, dunes, and clouds assume anthropomorphic connotations (pages 80, 81). A feeling of respect for the transcendental power of nature is palpable in these early plaques; in their reduced proportions, humans bow to its might. The plaques look rugged and eroded like places that have yet to be tamed. The tone is direct and warm, the scale intimate. The clay was fired but left unglazed to preserve the roughness of its texture, and the natural light pink color speaks for itself. The objects lie flat on the ground, where they resist being singled out as sculptures: they seem to long to remain connected to the earth that created them. As is consistent with Nivola’s ongoing concern with unpretentiousness and immediacy, these small works sacrifice the verticality usually associated with sculpture. Their horizontality conveys the expanse of the Long Island landscape. In the early 1970s, Nivola started to use a deep-red clay. In these later works, any slight reference to the divine, the supernatural, is abandoned in favor of an earthly approach. In these Beaches—which are far from deserted—the ocean is no longer visible, the dunes and the clouds are gone, and every available square inch is occupied by human bodies stretched out in the sun. Concurrently, Nivola started the Swimming Pool series (pages 82, 83), where bodies, lying around or floating languidly in a clearly defined pool, signal the sovereignty of a man-made world gradually overtaking nature. The handling of the material here is quicker than before. Simple small coils of clay indicate the bodies. This direct manipulation of the material brings to mind the artist’s fascination with the ancient rite of bread-making. In a sunscorched land with poor soil, bread represented the survival of the community. On several occasions, Nivola recalled how, as a child, he would watch his mother and other women knead dough and shape beautiful forms for holiday breads, apparently without paying attention to their labors, but rather singing, talking, and looking elsewhere.36 Another major series of terracottas is the Beds. Here Nivola turns from an observation of social behavior to a careful view of family relationships. The bed is customarily considered the center of the family, the most sacred and private part of the house, the stage for the enactment of diverse passions and activities—love, hate, rage, reflection, 31


6. Concrete wall with graffito mural.


and Motherwell. But while primarily abstract, some of the forms used by Nivola suggested the female nude. Indeed, there was an underlying hint of eroticism throughout this modern pleasure garden, with soft, curvaceous forms playing against the planar geometry of the architectural elements. In an area near the back of the garden, Nivola built a brick terrace and a traditional Sardinian bread oven (Figure 12). He also placed a powerfully totemic wall as backdrop for this setting, painted black with highlights in white and red. This sculpture, measuring about five feet by five feet,

7. Central part of the garden, with fountain.


was carved and cast with primitive/Picassoid shapes in what appear to be opposing female and male forms—at least the breasts and pubis of the female figure are clearly evident. As color faded in the sun and rain, Nivola would simply paint over the old murals and create new ones. And he wasn’t the only one painting murals. Le Corbusier stayed with the Nivolas on several occasions, and during his first visit, in 1950, he offered to paint a mural inside the house. “Vôtre maison est très jolie mais elle a besoin d’un mural,” he said: it was a very pretty house, but it needed a mural. The Nivolas generously obliged, and using cans of leftover paint, Le Corbusier covered two plaster walls with a composition of bright colors and abstract forms. This sort of impromptu performance was a fairly common occurrence at the Nivola house (Figure 13). The perimeter of another outdoor room, toward the southwest, was defined by a wooden pergola that created a U-shaped enclosure with

8. View of central garden “room” with concrete wall and wood-slat fence.



STUDY FOR OLIVETTI PANEL / STUDIO PER PANNELLO OLIVETTI [A68], 1953 Plaster, sand / Gesso, sabbia 123,5 x 76 x 10 cm (49 3/8 x 30 3/8 x 4 inches) The Nivola Family / Famiglia Nivola


STUDY FOR OLIVETTI PANEL / STUDIO PER PANNELLO OLIVETTI [A71], 1953 Plaster, sand / Gesso, sabbia 78 x 127 x 6,5 cm (30 3/4 x 50 x 2 5/8 inches) The Nivola Family / Famiglia Nivola


MASCULINE FIGURE / OMINE, c. 1958 Concrete / Cemento 81,5 x 52 x 25,3 cm (32 1/8 x 20 1/2 x 10 inches) Collection of the Stein Family, New York / Collezione Famiglia Stein


MASCULINE FIGURE / OMINE [M31], c. 1958 Concrete / Cemento 37 x 24 x 21,5 cm (14 5/8 x 9 1/2 x 8 1/2 inches) The Nivola Family / Famiglia Nivola


LITTLE BED / LETTINO [*D6], 1962 Terracotta 6,2 x 13,2 x 17 cm (2 1/2 x 5 1/4 x 6 3/4 inches) The Nivola Family / Famiglia Nivola


DREAM NO.2 / SOGNO N. 2 [*D18], c. 1962 Terracotta 6,5 x 11,7 x 16,4 cm (2 5/8 x 4 5/8 x 6 1/2 inches) The Nivola Family / Famiglia Nivola


BED / LETTO [*D46], c. 1962–1963 Terracotta 6,7 x 13,3 x 18,2 cm (2 3/4 x 5 1/4 x 7 The Nivola Family / Famiglia Nivola



BED / LETTO [*D46], c. 1962–1963 Detail / Particolare

BED / LETTO [*D64], c. 1962 Terracotta 6,4 x 12 x 17,5 cm (2 5/8 x 4 3/4 x 7 inches) The Nivola Family / Famiglia Nivola

BED / LETTO [*D72], 1971 Terracotta 11 x 19,3 x 23,3 cm (4 3/8 x 7 5/8 x 9 The Nivola Family / Famiglia Nivola



BED / LETTO [*D72], 1971 Detail / Particolare

BED / LETTO [*D78], 1971 Terracotta 11 x 18,9 x 22,7 cm (4 3/8 x 7 1/2 x 9 inches) The Nivola Family / Famiglia Nivola

MOTHER / MADRE [N3], 1981 Travertine / Travertino 94,4 x 100,7 x 12,4 cm (37 1/4 x 39 1/4 x 4 The Nivola Family / Famiglia Nivola




MOTHER’S SECRET / SEGRETO DI MADRE, 1986 Rose marble / Marmo rosa 61 x 79.4 x 19.1 cm (24 x 31 1/4 x 7 1/2 inches) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Timothy Anther and Alycia Kiley, 1989 (1989.179ab) Dono di Timothy Anther e Alycia Kiley


MASCULINE FIGURE / OMINE [P82], 1960, cast in 1997 Bronze / Bronzo, 6/6 54,7 x 44 x 21,5 cm (21 5/8 x 17 3/8 x 8 1/2 inches) The Nivola Family / Famiglia Nivola


WIDOW OF MISFORTUNE / VEDOVA DELLA SFORTUNA, 1980 Bronze / Bronzo 61 x 53,5 x 5 cm (24 1/8 x 21 1/8 x 2 inches) Collection of Judith and Alvin Krauss, New York Collezione Judith e Alvin Krauss


UNTITLED / SENZA TITOLO [*CC10], 1985 Collage on paper / Collage su carta 76,5 x 95,5 cm (30 1/8 x 37 5/8 inches) The Nivola Family / Famiglia Nivola


Costantino Nivola a Springs Micaela Martegani Robert Lehman Curator The Parrish Art Museum

La spiaggia, sabbia, gente, e l’orizzonte: più largo del gesto delle mie braccia aperte. Costantino Nivola1

Quando raggiunse le spiagge dell’East End di Long Island, il giovane artista sardo Costantino Nivola fu ipnotizzato. Era venuto dal mare. La Sardegna è un’isola rocciosa con falesie scoscese che si tuffano nel Mediterraneo turchese, ma i sardi erano abituati a guardare verso l’interno e non verso l’esterno, timorosi di un mare che nel corso dei secoli aveva portato solo disastri e morte. Ci sono poche spiagge in Sardegna, e quelle poche sono in genere piccole e incuneate tra alte rocce. Per Nivola la costa sud della parte orientale di Long Island era un’esperienza completamente nuova: duecento miglia di vaste spiagge dalla sabbia bianca e l’oceano aperto. L’artista non avrebbe mai dimenticato questo primo incontro o l’eccitazione di trovarsi sulla vuota costa atlantica spazzata dal vento. Era la sabbia che gli avrebbe aperto la strada verso la scultura, e ancora la sabbia che avrebbe dato forma alle sue figure, alla struttura e alla vera essenza del suo lavoro.

… ho bussato alle porte di questa città meravigliosa e centinaia di porte, finestre e cuori si sono aperti. Il doganiere era sconcertato dal mio bagaglio composto di ingenuità, gioventù, talento ed accento straniero. Costantino Nivola, 19802

Nato nel 1911, Costantino Nivola giunse a New York alla fine dell’estate 1939 con sua moglie, Ruth Guggenheim. Trascorse ore camminando per le strade della città e disegnando scene di vita quotidiana nel tentativo di mettere ordine in un caos apparente. Nivola aveva vissuto a Milano e, per un breve periodo, a Parigi, eppure New York, così come per molti altri immigranti, era eccitante, inebriante, addirittura travolgente. Nivola catturò il proliferare di gente, macchine e rumore in una serie di grandi disegni fatti con pennarello nero nei primi anni Quaranta (figg. 3-4). In quegli anni gli Stati Uniti stavano ancora cercando di riprendersi dalla grande crisi economica del 1929, e con la guerra che stava scoppiando in Europa le prospettive non erano tanto buone. Nivola e sua moglie lottarono per sbarcare il lunario. Lei lavorava come babysitter, lui trovò lavoro in una fabbrica. Tuttavia, ben presto egli riuscì a vendere cartoline illustrate a mano ad eleganti grandi magazzini quali Lord & Taylor e Bonwit Teller. Grazie ad una raccomandazione offertagli da Bonwit Teller, si assicurò un colloquio con l’editore

Charles E. Whitney, che allora era in procinto di comprare la rivista Interior Decorator. Whitney assunse Nivola come direttore artistico e nel novembre 1940 pubblicarono la rivista con un nuovo titolo, Interiors, e una immagine nuova e moderna. In breve tempo Nivola rivoluzionò la rivista non solo dal punto di vista grafico ma anche editoriale, includendo tra le pagine l’architettura moderna. Col crescere della sua reputazione, gli venne offerta, ed egli accettò, la direzione artistica di altri giornali: la rivista femminile You nell’agosto 1941 e la pubblicazione di architettura Pencil Points (che più tardi sarebbe diventata Progressive Architecture) nell’aprile 1944. Nivola entrò a far parte della scena artistica attiva di New York nei primi anni Quaranta, stringendo amicizia con, tra gli altri, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Esteban Vicente, Fernand Léger, James Brooks, Jackson Pollock, Hedda Sterne e Saul Steinberg; si incontravano spesso a pasteggiare e conversare.3 Col numero di Interiors del novembre 1945, che segnò il suo quinto anniversario presso la redazione, Nivola prese una decisione importante: lasciò la sicurezza di un lavoro fisso per dedicare il suo tempo completamente all’arte. Fu sicuramente un momento di incertezza per Nivola: la guerra era appena finita, l’economia era traballante e lui aveva una moglie e due figli da mantenere. Nel gennaio dell’anno successivo, Nivola capitò ad una cena organizzata in onore dell’architetto Le Corbusier arrivato di recente a New York per lavorare nella commissione deputata alla scelta del sito dove sarebbe sorto il quartier generale delle Nazioni Unite. Anfitrione della cena, tenutasi al ristorante Dal Pezzo, era l’architetto Josep Lluís Sert, amico di Nivola sin dai tempi di Interiors.4 Questo incontro casuale con Le Corbusier si sarebbe rivelato di grande importanza per Nivola.5 Le Corbusier si sarebbe presto trovato a vivere un periodo difficile. Il processo di scelta del sito procedeva molto lentamente ed egli si sentì tradito e rifiutato quando ciò che aveva sperato fosse il suo primo grande incarico negli Stati Uniti sfumò, diventando un’impresa collettiva. La commissione incaricata della realizzazione del complesso finì per includere dieci architetti internazionali guidati da Wallace K. Harrison.6 A Le Corbusier New York non piaceva e non riusciva a comprendere “lo stile di vita americano”. Per due anni usò lo studio di Nivola nell’Ottava Strada a Manhattan come se fosse stato il suo, e quello studio diventò il suo rifugio. Molto è stato scritto sul rapporto tra Nivola e Le Corbusier, e molto è stato fatto riguardo al presunto ruolo zelante del primo come allievo del più vecchio maestro. Nei suoi stessi racconti, Nivola lodava sempre Le Corbusier come mentore e descriveva i loro frequenti incontri e discussioni come “magistrali seminari”. A Nivola piaceva molto ricordare la saggezza di Le Corbusier. Quando l’architetto gli fece visita per la prima volta nel suo appartamento, riferì più tardi Nivola, esclamò: «Monsieur Nivola… lei ha talento; credo che avrà delle possibilità. I suoi lavori sono come burattini e lei deve imparare a tirare i fili;


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