Costantino Nivola, Lampoon

Costantino Nivola, the Italian taste. In Orani the reconstruction in 1:1 scale of the Olivetti showroom

The artist will be on display in an exhibition entitled From the Showroom to the Incredible City. At the Nivola Museum in Orani from April 15 to July 15 2022

Costantino Nivola and New York – From the Olivetti Showroom to the Incredible City 

From April 15 to July 15, 2022, the Nivola Museum in Orani is hosting the exhibition Nivola and New York. From the Showroom to the Incredible City (Dallo Showroom Olivetti alla Città incredibile); curated by Giuliana Altea, Antonella Camarda, Luca Cheri and Carl Stein. 

On the occasion of the exhibition, there will be reconstructions and authentic works by Nivola during his fifty years in New York (1939-1988); including sketches, paintings, sketches and reliefs. Completing the exhibition is a selection of paintings and drawings on the theme of New York. In addition to intervening in the streets and buildings of New York with his projects; the connective tissue reconstructed in a timeline. Showing the pervasive presence of the Sardinian artist’s work in the Big Apple. Nivola has returned to the theme of the metropolis on several occasions in his graphic and pictorial production.  

This exhibition is the fruit of collaboration between humanists, scientists and businesses. It is the same spirit of experimentation and constant innovation that characterized Costantino Nivola’s approach and was a distinctive feature of Olivetti. The Ivrea-based company made the combination of art and technology, ancient and modern. A flag in the crucial years of the spread of Made in Italy in the United States.

Nivola Museum in Orani 

Costantino Nivola, ‘Tino’ or ‘Antine’ as everyone called him in the United States. He was a sculptor, muralist and graphic designer born in July 1911 in Orani, a village of barely three thousand people in the province of Nuoro, Sardinia. Here, in 1990, they established a foundation in his honor. In 1995, the museum that bears his name was born.

The Museum is set within an old wash-house in via Gonare, on a panoramic hill that was loved by Nivola. The wash-house was restructured by Peter Chermayeff and Umberto Floris. Further expanded in 2004 with a pavilion designed by Chermayeff. Then again in 2012 with the addition of a third structure; following an international competition won by the Swiss architect Gianfranco Crisci. Orani, the site of an ancient marquisate, was a politicized village full of artistic reflections. A place of unexpected values within the isolation of the Nuoro area of the time. As the son of a mason, from whom Nivola learnt the first rudiments of the trade, one of his deep-rooted ideas. A sort of mantra, was that art should be accessible to everyone. As the director of the Orani Museum, Antonella Camarda, underlines.

Nivola embarking on a collaboration with Adriano Olivetti

«The social mission of art is nourished by that concept of community that Nivola envisioned. Improving public spaces to make everyone’s existence better. Even outside of galleries and sacred places». In 1937, Nivola embarked on a collaboration with Adriano Olivetti in Milan. There he lived, after being appointed director of the graphics department at Olivetti. In 1939, after a short period in Paris Nivola emigrated to the United States, the country that gave him real success. He moved there with his wife Ruth Guggenheim, the alter ego and muse of his artistic parabola. A German classmate he had married the year before; after they were forced to leave Milan due to the anti-Semitic racial laws.

Moving to New York

After some economic difficulties, Nivola moved to New York. In 1941 became Art Director of the magazine Interiors and Industrial Design; a position he held for six years while coming into contact with the arts scene of the ‘Big Apple’. In 1943 and 1947 respectively, his son and daughter were born. Pietro, now a political scientist and father of the actor Alessandro Nivola; and his daughter Claire, now an illustrator of children’s books. A year later, he decided to settle in East Hampton, Long Island.

Setting up home and studio on the slither of land where he remained until his death in May 1988. After the war, he periodically returned to Sardinia and Italy. There he stayed at the American Academy in Rome several times. As well as his Tuscan residence in Dicomano, Mugello. He balanced this time away with his teaching responsibilities at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, from 1954 to 1957; the art department at Columbia University, from 1962; and then at the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts at Harvard University and Berkeley.

Costantino Nivola, Lampoon
Double totem, independent wall with a polychrome relief in cement, garden of Nivola’s home in Springs, ca. 1951. Courtesy Fondazione Nivola

The molding technique invented by Nivola: sandcasting

On his native island, he documented an anti-malaria campaign for Fortune magazine. With a series of drawings promoted by the Rockefeller Foundation. In 1968 he obtained the Fine Arts Medal from the American Institute of Architects. Magazzino Italian Art – the Cold Spring museum in Philipstown Upstate New York; dedicated to Italian art – devoted in 2021 a vast monographic to Nivola.

The exhibition entitled Nivola: Sandscapes, opened on May 8. 2021. Curated by Teresa Kittler, Magazzino’s 2020-21 Scholar-in-Residence in tandem with Chiara Mannarino. The focus revolved around the original molding technique invented by Nivola. Sandcasting, a sculptural process using volumes of molded, wet sand, solidified by casting plaster or cement on the surface. A technique he undertook in the Fifties and later became his signature. The exhibition presented fifty artworks from the Fifties to the beginning of the Seventies.

Nivola and the network of friendships around him

It showcased sculptures and maquettes, amongst which are unpublished works, by the Master. His most celebrated work is his relief wall. Designed in 1953 for the Olivetti store on Fifth Avenue in New York. A project by the BBPR Studio (Banfi, Belgiojoso, Peressutti and Rogers). Later dismantled and transferred, in 1973, to the Science Center at Harvard University. Vittorio Calabrese is director of Magazzino. An institution founded in 2017 by collectors Nancy Olnick and Giorgio Spanu. «This exhibition on Nivola is part of a program. With the aim to amplify the voices outside the traditional art narratives; analyzing lesser-known themes in Italian culture from the post-World War II era to the present. It examines Nivola’s artistic dynamic, range of influences and impact on modern architecture and urban design».

Nivola was at the center of a network of friendships and dialogues. Between key personalities of the international debate in the mid-twentieth century, such as Jackson Pollock and his wife; the abstract expressionist painter, Lee Krasner, Willem de Kooning, Alexander Calder and illustrator, Saul Steinberg. Crucial, too, were his partnerships with Le Corbusier and Bernard Rudofsky. A Moravian-born American, who between 1951-52 renovated Nivola’s East Hampton house using sandcasting. He also participated in the design of the panoramic garden, a series of outdoor rooms and a solarium. 

Costantino Nivola and Giovanni Pintori

Mediterranean hues and middle European Bauhaus rationalism mixed with Le Corbusier’s libertarian and archeological conquests. Nivola took on new energy in the United States’ intellectual scene; in the years immediately before and during World War II. In order to better understand the genesis of Nivola’s poetics. We must look further back to the roots of his expressive vision. The first step, in 1926, corresponds with his apprenticeship with the painter and engraver Mario Delitala. Five years later, the award of a scholarship granted by the city of Nuoro led Nivola to Monza.

Here, in 1936 he graduated as a graphic designer along with fellow countrymen Salvatore Fancello. A ceramist, sculptor and painter who lived a short life. Then also the painter and designer Giovanni Pintori, who also worked for Olivetti. He produced hundreds of posters, brochures and ads, and designing exhibition stands and fairs. Pintori’s graphic design, marked by his research of German rationalism, influenced Leo Lionni. Later responsible for the spreading out of the Olivettian image in America. Marino Marini was one of Nivola’s teachers. It could be said that Nivola’s propensity for the monumentality of domed forms and archaic volumetric projections; along with graphic elements that look back to Sardinian ancestry and semantic abstractions projected towards the future, came from him.

The use of industrial sand

Giorgio Spanu remarks. «My wife Nancy and I met Ruth Guggenheim-Nivola at the beginning of the Nineties. When she came to us asking for help with the restoration of a mural. Painted in 1950 by Le Corbusier on two walls in the kitchen of their Spring’s house in East Hampton. They were a close couple and their children called them Babu and Birdie. Delicate and with a prominent nose, Ruth looked like a sparrow. However she had strength to spare and was always the manager. The main curator and organizer of her husband’s work».

«Through our relationship with Ruth, we were able to delve deep into the universe of Costantino Nivola’s art as well as aspects of the man. The artist’s grandson, painter Adrian Nivola, involved in this adventure. We are connected to Nivola by being islanders, a fact not to underestimate. I’m Sardinian and Nancy is from Manhattan. We all come from a place enclosed by water. The work that Le Corbusier did for the Nivolas embodied the meaning of a friendship and the scope of a confrontation».

Just sand from the dunes of the Hamptons

«Thanks to Le Corbusier, Costantino Nivola became more involved in architecture. In the meantime, he discovered the possibility of supplying himself with an infinite and free material; drawing on the sand from the beaches by the ocean, just a stone’s throw away from his house. Perhaps he understood this when he played on the Atlantic shore with his children; forming ephemeral constructions with piles of wet sand».

No more stone to carve, just sand from the dunes of the Hamptons. Imprisoned by the thickness of plaster or cement. Then patiently modeled in the negative, as if it were lost wax or clay. This process allowed him to identify with the same materials used in the construction sites of the buildings on which he was called to intervene. He believed in the synthesis of the arts, in an experimental contamination that ranged into different areas. The first series of sculptures fell apart in his hands due to the presence of the salt in the sand. From then on, he always used industrial sand which he probably acquired – less lyrical but more efficient.

Fifty-eight projects during forty years of work

Giorgio Spanu adds. «The connection to architecture and to public commissions made a difference. It allowed Nivola to work with Marcel Breuer, Eero Saarinen and the Catalan expat, Josep Luis Sert. He was close to him because of his community belief. He had arrived in New York in exile in the same year, 1939. Fifty-eight projects completed by Tino Nivola during forty years of work. There were the commissions for hospitals, schools – including the sandcasting of the southern façade in Coney Island; the recreational enclave in the residential Stephen Wise Towers (1962) by Richard G. Stain on the Upper West Side – articulated in a bas-relief and in graffitied concrete walls. A group of cement equestrian sculptures and a fountain».

On March 10 2021, the recreational playground of the Stephen Wise Towers was destroyed. Not by vandalism but an authorized ‘renewal’ of the area. Nivola’s equestrian sculptures have been removed, torn from the ground. This act of institutionalized vandalism seems even more inexplicable at a time when great attention is paid to Nivola’s work.

Located in a degraded area of New York. The awaited redevelopment of the Towers, should be carried out with respect for history and art. Especially considering the social message of cohesion pursued by Costantino Nivola throughout his career. The playground, which even appears in some rappers’ music videos, is symbolic of the Sixties and its socio-political implications. The Nivola Museum in Orani, along with the Nivola family, immediately contacted those responsible to try to stop the destruction. Or at least recover what had already been devastated.

Costantino Nivola, Lampoon
Sebastiano Satta square, Nuoro, 1967. Architect Richard Stein

The Olivetti showroom 

Located within two floors of a small building between Fifth Avenue and 48th Street. The Olivetti showroom in New York, reinforced Nivola’s relationship with Adriano Olivetti. The result of an American dream long cherished by Olivetti. Where the typewriter Studio 44, designed by Marcello Nizzoli; placed like a monstrance outside the main entrance. On a granite stand that rises from the green Runaz marble of the floor. A space that showcased the best of Italian manufacturing with its BBPR design. Pink and green marble, modern furniture and Venini’s Murano lighting that hung from the ceiling via long cables. The Herald Tribune didn’t hesitate to call it the most beautiful, though short-lived, store in the world. Dismantled in 1969. 

Nivola embracing the will of Olivetti

«The Olivetti store in the Big Apple – continues Antonella Camarda, takes on symbolic meanings for Adriano Olivetti. Both on a material level, an alchemy of sand, fire, stone and glass; as a vindication of that ‘Italian fantasy’ of which Gio Ponti talked about. Archaic, ancestral and geological as well as contemporary. Like bringing the Mediterranean to 584 Fifth Avenue. Nivola embraced the will of Olivetti, reinforced by a common history. Conceiving the twenty-three meter long relief in panels cast in sections on Long Island».

«Filling wooden forms with wet sand and making the drawings before pouring plaster over them. Letting it dry to achieve a rough, grainy and sandy skin. It depicts a theory of semi-abstract entities enclosing small human figures in their laps, making broad gestures of welcome. In its objective, the exhibition that Magazzino is dedicating to Nivola differs from the one focused on his interface. With architecture and urbanism recently held at Cooper Hewitt in New York. It plays on a dimension that is less functional to the urban and collective space. More aimed at the purely aesthetic side. It puts in the foreground the maquette as an art object, in a bright and rarefied context; permeated by the peculiar optics of Nancy and Giorgio Spanu».

Maria Lai and Nivola

«The exhibition – remarks Spanu – investigates the relationship that Nivola has with another Sardinian artist. Maria Lai, whom he met in the Seventies. Together, they rediscovered and interpreted atavistic fragrances and community visions and, over the years, built the Communal Wash-house of Ulassai». Going into more depth Giuliana Altea, art historian, president of the Nivola Foundation and leading expert of the artist recounts.

«Maria Lai and Nivola met in Rome in the Seventies, but perhaps they had known each other before. More than a friendship it was a furrow of respect and discipleship. A mutual and mirror-like deepening interwoven with affection and curiosity. Made for one another, they wrote each other letters even on intimate topics. Such as when Nivola told Maria about his convalescence after a cancer operation».

«It is a fact that the coordinates and creative achievements of Maria change after meeting this man she used to call ‘the Giant’. Maria’s work becomes more relational. The analogies between the blue plinth that connects the houses of the Pergola Village; conceived by Nivola in 1953 as a work of environmental art. Intended to reinforce the sense of community of the citizens of Orani. Also the common thread of the performance of Legarsi alla Montagna (Bind to the Mountain). Which Maria Lai staged in Ulassai in 1981, spring to mind».

The start of the project

This green weave, both physical and interpersonal, that passes through the streets of the historical center and leads to the square, has remained unrealized until now. A system ahead of its time, a utopia that aims to transform the relationships between people and to strengthen community cohesion. In 2020, the Municipality of Orani decided to approve the project; conceived on the basis of that of the artist’s vision, along with the Costantino Nivola Foundation.

The task was entrusted to a group of professionals composed of Stefano Boeri Architetti and the engineer Alessio Bellu. Antonella Camarda concludes. «the Square, dedicated to the poet Sebastiano Satta, was a commissioned to Nivola in 1965 by the Municipality of Nuoro. Completed in 1967, in which he was intent on recovering the archaic and pastoral civilization of the area. On the stone structure of Piazza Satta square, Nivola installed roughly hewn granite boulders chosen from Mount Ortobene. He wanted them intact to house eight bronze statuettes which are reminiscent of Nuragic bronzes. A prophetic anticipation of the Land Art movement, which began shortly after. It allows us to understand the value and all the poetic foresight of this artist».

Costantino Nivola

Costantino Nivola (July 5, 1911 – May 6, 1988) was an Italian sculptor, architectural sculptor, muralist, designer and teacher. Born in Sardinia, his major sculptural work is abstract, large-scale architectural reliefs in concrete. Made in his own sandcasting and cement carving processes. These were erected in and on American buildings between the late 1950s and early 1970s.

Cesare Cunaccia

The writer does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article.