The strength of Nivola in New York: Figure in Field, running until March 15 at the Cooper Union, lies not in treasures borrowed from distant museums but in the focus on much unlikelier sites: in Brooklyn, Tottenville, Brighton Beach, Bedford-Stuyvesant, and in Jamaica, Queens. Of course, there are excellent, rarely seen models, paintings, and sketches of the Italian-American sculptor drawn from private collections, but they are not where curators Steven Hillyer and Roger Broome have placed their emphasis. Instead, it’s the hidden-in-plain-site, public nature of Nivola’s corpus that takes center stage.
Born in 1911 in Sardinia to a stone mason, Nivola worked in advertising for Olivetti before he emigrated to New York City in 1939, an imperative step for an Italian antifascist with a Jewish wife. He was employed as a magazine art director until a series of commissions brought his art to popular renown: a 1947 mural at the Italian House of Handicrafts that is sadly long-gone; the 1954 Olivetti showroom bas-relief, fortunately since reinstalled at the Harvard Science Center (there’s a large photo of this at the exhibit); and a group of sand-plaster sculptures for a Raymond Loewy building across from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, still there and wonderful. Nivola was in high demand, and he was soon collaborating with the Breuers, Serts, and Rudolphs of the world. But in steady alternation with these high-profile, increasingly international commissions were low-key works sprinkled across New York City’s five boroughs.
Nivola benefited from a patronage system exceptional in the history of the city’s school architecture, one in which independent architects were responsible for the selection of art and given funds to pay for it. The introduction of the Percent for Art Program in 1982 stripped architects of this responsibility, handing it off, for better or worse, to appointed panels. It was a different era, predating even the term “public art.” For less-notable design outfits, Nivola’s talents were a boon; a small Italian luxury accessory will improve even a budget wardrobe. These firms were often very talented to be sure, as is evidenced by the curatorial attention afforded to Frederick G. Frost, Jr. & Associates; Katz Waisman Blumenkranz Stein & Weber, Architects Associated; and Richard G. Stein.
The New York works form the basis of Figure in Field, but it also provides a sampling of Nivola’s material methods, especially his trademark sand casting. The discovery of sand casting is near mythic in Nivola’s biography: He began working on the beach near his Long Island home, boxing off portions of wet sand to sculpt and then filling them with plaster. Beach sand proved too soft, however. Shifting casting to his backyard, and using purchased, coarser sand, he made countless plaster and concrete works, beginning notably with his Olivetti panels.
His commission for that work indicated he wasn’t to use color, so he was forced to rely on a panoply of textures. (“[R]ough, porous, smooth, streaked, granulated,” as a wall text puts it.) His pal Le Corbusier thrilled to the rough, honest finish that sand casting produced and made a number of them himself. Indeed, several of the Nivola maquettes on display at Cooper Union look rougher than the final products, with a cornmeal-like surface that barely sublimates its origin material.
The turn to sand casting yielded some of Nivola’s most memorable works and restored a material commonality between building and art. “The re-purposing of concrete,” reads another wall text, “into a fine art medium allowed Nivola to seamlessly insert his artwork into the architecture of the buildings it adorned.” This seamlessness was at times a disadvantage to his own reputation—for instance, his 35 pieces at Saarinen’s Morse & Ezra Stiles Colleges at Yale fit in so well that they have been misattributed as the architect’s work.
An excerpt from the Arts Commission of New York’s entry about his garnishes to the Junior High School 13 in Manhattan ventured an explanation of his methods:
In developing his designs, Mr. Nivola starts his modelling with representations of an idea. As he develops the forms, they become less and less representational and more and more abstract until in their final state they may be regarded as pure abstractions which may or may not have meaning for each person viewing them.
This is all true, although it sounds a little too much like a textbook synopsis of basically all midcentury sculpture. Moreover, it’s often the steps backward from abstraction or forward to something else that distinguish Nivola from his peers. Some of his greatest works are highly abstract, while others are palimpsests and jumbles of symbols and signs. A regrettably demolished work at a Children’s Hospital in the Bronx could be interpreted in all sorts of ways, even if just literally (amid the abstract figures were very clear renderings of medical tools). A marvelous cartouche on the William Grady High School in Brighton Beach features all sorts of ambiguous shapes but also a very clear image of Da Vinci’s Vitruvian man. There’s no guesswork required to identify the Massachusetts state crest in the bas-relief in the Hurley Federal Building, part of Paul Rudolph’s endangered Government Services complex in Boston.
In the sand-cast works, the accidental—a handprint and seashell in the Olivetti relief—sometimes overrides the figurative or abstract. Nivola himself explained his early thinking about sand-casting as a relic “of explorers who put plaster on the footprints of animals.” There is a very real flavor of cave painting and the archaeological to Nivola’s work that he embraced rather than avoided. These “natural” elements accentuate our awareness of the dual-stage nature of cast art, where the object is not worked on directly, in contrast to the image of the heroic sculptor breathing life into an inert block of stone, chisek in hand. Henry Moore might have been right or wrong when he wrote that “It is only when the sculptor works direct, when there is an active relationship with his material, that the material can take its part in the shaping of an idea,” but Nivola revealed the tremendous possibilities of what might be transmitted otherwise.
Which isn’t to say that Nivola never took up the chisel himself. He shaped pre-hardened “green concrete” into fruits and clam shells at a Staten Island school, although these have been lost. Some of his more conventionally crafted travertine sculptures anchor the four corners of the Brutalist New Family and Criminal Courts building in the Bronx.
The show offers glimpses into other materials and mediums. There are two uses of glazed ceramic panels, and one very figurative bronze work at the 19th Precinct Police and Fire Precinct showcased here. He didn’t give up work in two dimensions either: There are some great, very Corbusian murals at Public School 46 in Brooklyn, today a modest walk away from Wegman’s. Nivola was also given to incising lines into his works, which somewhat resemble those on Dubuffet’s sculptures; both cut against the impression of monumental solidity that large blocks of concrete tend to provide.
Elsewhere, one of his numerous marble sculptures of female figures—easily the smoothest object in the gallery—offers evidence of his skill at all sorts of surfaces. The smattering of sketches and other preparatory elements are illuminating: See several paintings from the collections of Claire (his daughter) and Alessandro (the actor, yes, his grandson) before they take them back.
A catalogue essay by Giuliana Altea and Antonella Camarda (of the Fondazione and Museo Nivola in Sardinia, respectively) alerts us to an artist “interested in the public and communitarian dimension of art and opposed to the self-referentiality of the abstract expressionist canon.” It’s a welcome stance at a time mawkish public art prevails. Do pick up a copy of the catalogue, whose legacy will outlast this exhibition, in surveying the numerous Nivola works out there waiting for your admiration.