Nivola in New York | Figure in Field is an exhibition of the work of Italian sculptor Costantino Nivola (1911-1988), known for his large-scale bas-reliefs, murals, and free-standing sculptural installations created in collaboration with architects. The exhibition was on view at the Arthur A. Houghton Jr. Gallery at the Cooper Union between January 23-March 15, 2020. [The exhibition ended on March 13 as Cooper Union closed the school in response to coronavirus (COVID-19)]
The exhibition is the first-ever to tell the story of Nivola’s built New York City projects through models and sculptures, original drawings, site-specific photographs, and related ephemera. The exhibition also features a timeline outlining 64 projects that Nivola made in collaboration with architects over approximately 40 years. New York is home to the largest gathering of Nivola’s public artworks—22 pieces across all five boroughs, at least 17 of which still exist.
“A disciple of Le Corbusier, Nivola believed in the synthesis of the arts, the collaboration between the artist and the architect,” says Giuliana Altea, president of the Fondazione Costantino Nivola. “After the success of his great wall relief for the Olivetti showroom in New York, in 1954, he achieved an international reputation as a ‘sculptor for architects’ and started working with important figures as Josep Lluís Sert, Marcel Breuer, and Eero Saarinen.”
“Nivola championed the idea that art should be accessible to everyone, which is why much of his work was created specifically for public and municipal spaces,” says Antonella Camarda, Director of Museo Nivola. “In fact, 15 of his metro New York projects were commissioned for New York City schools, highlighting the importance that Nivola placed on making his work for the community and in art’s role within civic life.”
Born in Sardinia, Nivola was already a practicing artist in Italy before fleeing fascism with his Jewish wife and ultimately settling in New York in 1939. Eventually he and his family moved to Long Island, where he discovered and perfected his unique cement carving process and sand-casting that included reverse sculpting molds in wet sand and filling them with plaster and concrete. These processes allowed him to work with the materials often shared by the buildings he embellished.
“Both through his methodology and material choices, Costantino Nivola exemplifies how artists’ and architects’ practices are inexorably combined, and through his partnerships with numerous prominent architects of his time Nivola’s legacy in the city cannot be measured,” says Nader Tehrani, Dean of Cooper’s The Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture. “To this end, this exhibition is a unique opportunity to shed light on a mid-20th century master and how his creative process changed our city’s landscape.”
The gallery exhibition highlights four of these projects, starting with Nivola’s first public commission for the Olivetti showroom, the Apple store of its time. For the Fifth Avenue store’s showroom’s interior, he created a 15-foot-high by 76-foot-long wall relief in 1954. After the showroom closed in 1969 the relief was eventually moved to Harvard University’s Science Center. Next is another of Nivola’s early New York projects, a 1958 sand-cast bas-relief cartouche on the south façade of Coney Island’s William E. Grady High School. The third featured work is the Stephen Wise Recreation Area—a public plaza created in 1963 between two housing blocks on the Upper West Side that includes a fountain, a group of cast-concrete horse sculptures, a bas relief, and a sgraffito mural that define specific areas for play and relaxation. The final work on view is Nivola’s last sculptural commission completed in the United States: a series of bronze statuettes and plaques he created in 1986 at the 19th Precinct Combined Police and Fire Facilities on the Upper East Side to document police and fire activities.
Apartment Building Lobby
Raymond Loewy, Designer
1025 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY
The industrial designer Raymond Loewy was hired to create a dramatic entry pavilion for this large apartment building. His task was to give the building, located on 83rd Street, a prestigious Fifth Avenue entrance with front doors facing the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He accomplished this by adding the pavilion on Fifth Avenue and a glazed corridor connecting it to the building, which is inset into the block. For this project, Nivola made seven sand-cast plaster sculptures that form a group, titled The Tenants, measuring approximately 3′ high x 15′ long. They hang in a line on a brick masonry wall set in a lush garden visible from the corridor. This is one of Nivola’s earliest commissions and the only one he made for a private apartment building. The prestige of its location and Loewy’s fame may have helped Nivola secure other commissions. The pieces also have the advantage of being installed in a naturally lit space, almost like a vitrine, which accounts for their pristine state.
William E. Grady Vocational High School
Katz Waisman Blumenkranz Stein Weber, Architects Associated
25 Brighton 4th Road, Brooklyn, NY
The architects of this school made a concerted effort to integrate artwork into the building’s design. Nivola made a heroically scaled, sand-cast bas-relief cartouche, or ornamental shield, for the school’s south facade facing Brighton 4th Road, adjacent to the entrance. The piece is a large figure with detailed, smaller sections that depict educational themes—including the humanities and the industrial arts that the school specializes in—and reference the pages of an open book. Nivola made a number of drawings and three-dimensional studies for the cartouche, some with handwritten notes on the themes he was exploring, including ‘The Great Teachers,’ ‘Art and Science,’ and ‘Crafts.’ A large polychrome glass mosaic by the artist Ben Shahn ornaments the west facade of the school. As noted by the architects, this work echoes the themes of “human dignity of participation in productive effort” that are embodied in Nivola’s contribution, but in a more representational language.
Ezra Stiles & Morse Colleges
Eero Saarinen and Associates, Architects
Yale University, New Haven, CT
In 1959, when Saarinen invited Nivola to collaborate on his project for the Morse and Stiles Colleges at Yale, he asked him not to make a sculpture or a piece of decoration, but “a whole atmosphere created by sculpture and bas-reliefs in relation to architecture.” Nivola worked closely with Saarinen’s office to create 35 pieces—including cornerstones, light fixtures, embedded panels, freestanding sculptures, a fountain, and other details—that punctuate the dormitory complex. With the exception of a few cast and forged bronze pieces, most of Nivola’s work was either sand-cast or sculpted concrete carefully matched to the color and texture of the dorm’s exterior. The overall effect is akin to a medieval Italian village, as Saarinen intended. Nivola’s details carefully complement the architecture and strike a delicate balance between blending into their environment and creating focal points that guide circulation through the complex.
Stephen Wise Recreation Area
Richard G. Stein, Architect
117 West 90th Street, New York, NY
This large public space—a landscaped playground for tenants and neighbors—spans a full city block within the Wise Towers public housing complex. Nivola used different elements to define specific areas for play and relaxation that, together, form a carefully composed plaza. A deeply incised cast concrete wall with geometrical figures separates the recreation area from West 90th Street. On the 91st Street side, a group of cast concrete horses forms a small playground. A long sgraffito mural lines the east side of the space and, in the center of the area, Nivola placed a fountain made of two polygonal elements. Nivola used colored sand, cast in layers, to enliven and emphasize the concrete surface of the fountain and the nature of its construction. Overlooking the composition at the northeast corner of the space is a large concrete figure titled The Nanny.
Bridgeport Post Newspaper Building
Fletcher Thompson, Architects
A horizontal assembly of 20 sand-cast panels forms a bas-relief mural approximately 64′ x 13′ along the top of the building’s second floor facade. Nivola revived his skills as an art director to create a relief reminiscent of a magazine spread. A detailed description explained the content of each section: at upper left are the editor and the newspaper’s initials, followed by the news, covering a wide range of subjects. Nivola’s usual figures—groups of students, the family, the mother, and teachers—have been reworked and adapted for the commission. He treated them not as universal symbols but rather as featured figures in a local newspaper, where they could have appeared any day of the year. There is also an advertisement (bottles representing a liquor ad), an American flag, and allegorical figures representing society, customs, fashion, and brotherhood. All of it, Nivola wrote, was interpreted sculpturally so that it would “harmonize with the architecture and the civic environment” and, most importantly, “serve an independent artistic and aesthetic purpose.” Nivola prepared the panels at his home and studio in Springs, Long Island, completing the work in a record time of two months thanks to the help of a team of assistants drawn from the Hamptons arts community.
Janesville Gazette Building
Waterman, Fuge & Associates, Architects
For this commission, Nivola assembled 33 sand-cast bas-relief panels into three horizontal bands above the building’s entrance. The work represents different modes of communication, from cave drawings to Arabic writing to radio, satellites, and television. Nivola organized the imagery into a nearly symmetrical whole with finely textured text passages separating geometric and human-like figures.
NIVOLA IN NEW YORK FIELD GUIDE
① Children’s Psychiatric Hospital
② Intermediate School 183
③ New Family and Criminal Courts Building
④ House of Italian Handicrafts
⑤ Olivetti Showroom
⑥ Apartment Building Lobby
⑦ Junior High School 13
⑧ Stephen Wise Recreation Area
⑨ West Side High School
⑩ 19th Precinct Combined Police & Fire Facilities
⑪ Junior High School 8
⑫ Public School 17 Playground
⑬ Beach Channel High School
⑭ Intermediate School 33
⑮ William E. Grady Vocational High School 100
⑯ Public School 46
⑰ Junior High School 294
⑱ Public School 1
⑲ Junior High School 320
⑳ Public School 345
㉑ Public School 55
㉒ South Richmond High School
Co-curators: Steven Hillyer (Director, The Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture Archive at The Cooper Union) and Roger Broome (Brooklyn-based architect and alumnus of the school)
Scientific advice: Giuliana Altea and Antonella Camarda
Organized by: The Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture at The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, the Fondazione Costantino Nivola, and the Italian Cultural Institute of New York
Support: New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and the New York State Legislature
Dates: January 23 – March 15, 2020