Nivola: Sandscapes Part 1

This exhibition focuses on the work of artist Costantino Nivola and his pioneering process of sandcast sculpting. Containing pictorial, sculptural, and architectural elements as well as echoes of Sardinian iconography, these works on view bear witness to the artist's prominence as a cultural figure and his lasting artistic influence.

Installation view of Nivola: SandscapesMagazzino Italian Art

This special exhibition explores artist Costatino Nivola's pioneering process of sandcast sculpting. Featuring a selection of approximately 50 works from the early 1950s to the 1970s, including sandcast reliefs, carved concrete sculptures, and rarely seen maquettes of his most important architectural commissions, this focused presentation will examine the artistic process, range of influences, and notable impact that Nivola had on modern urban architecture and design.

The Sandman (2021-04-23) by Enrico Pinna and Andrea Mura, edited by Domenico PalmaMagazzino Italian Art

Untitled [Maquette for the Richard Bolling Federal Building, Kansas City, MO] (1963) by Costantino NivolaMagazzino Italian Art

Untitled [Maquette for the Richard Bolling Federal Building, Kansas City, MO] consists of seven panels of sandcast plaster. These were made in preparation for a large-scale commission for the facade of the Richard Bolling Federal Building in Kansas City, MO.

Nivola completed the project in 1966, three years after he designed the maquette. The full-scale sandcast panels still grace the building’s exterior. The L-shaped portion on the right-hand side of the wall corresponds with the configuration of the large-scale commission. The two panels on the left-hand side, which follow the concave vertices of the wall in the gallery, recall the way that the panels wrap around the corner of the Richard Bolling Federal building. The large-scale commission is titled The Builders, indicating the artist’s interest in and admiration for construction workers.

As the son of a stone mason, Nivola had an intimate understanding of the role that laborers play in any architectural feat. Each panel depicts a vignette comprising a configuration of abstracted figures engaged in various activities that invite the viewer’s imagination to come to life.

The top panel of the L-shaped segment on the right, for example, appears to represent two figures in an act of exchange or collaboration while the third panel of the same section portrays a solitary character standing near a small ladder and facing a steep natural structure or architectural construction. These figures resemble many of the geometric forms and configurations we see in Nivola’s small sculptural works and large-scale commissions.

Untitled [Maquette for William E. Grady Vocational High School, Brooklyn, NY] (1958) by Costantino NivolaMagazzino Italian Art

Nivola was invited to contribute a work to the William E. Grady Vocational High School, following widespread acclaim for his monumental bas-relief for the Olivetti Showroom, NY. Plans for the modernization and construction of schools across the city were approved in 1954 and a four-story building was commissioned by the architect studio Katz, Weisman, Blumenkranz, Stein & Weber for a high school in Brooklyn. Nivola was invited to create a large-scale sandcast measuring ten meters in height.

The artist designed a cartouche or carved tablet, based on an abstracted figure. Smaller sections within the tablet depict educational themes, the humanities and the industrial arts that could be studied at the school. A tribute to the history of proportion is included by the artist through a simplified version after Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man (1490) and Le Corbusier’s Modulor, designed in the 1940s to bridge the metric and imperial systems of measure. The iconic graphic representation of the Modulor, which consists of a stylised figure with an outstretched arm, is instantly recognizable in Nivola’s sandcast and a nod to his mentor, Le Corbusier, whom Nivola had first met in the mid-1940s.

Nivola made both positive and negative casts of his work: the former helped him understand the overall composition; but he would work from the negative cast when he was carving. The sculpture’s placement on the south wall of the building emphasizes the shadows cast by the natural light, animating the bas relief.

Installation view of Nivola: SandscapesMagazzino Italian Art

Untitled [Maquette for the Janesville Gazette Building, Janesville, WI] Untitled [Maquette for the Janesville Gazette Building, Janesville, WI] (c. 1968-1970) by Costantino NivolaMagazzino Italian Art

The five panels of the seven-paneled work correspond to a large-scale sandcast commissioned by the Janesville Gazette, in Wisconsin in 1968. The design for the building was based on a broadly conceived history of communication, from Stone Age drawing and Arabic lettering through printing, radio, television, to electronic impulses, and to satellites.

Whilst many of the elements of the design are abstracted, Nivola’s characteristic tectonic figures are discernible along the bottom row. Some of the identifiable motifs include a satellite, a dove-like bird in outline and the cast of small components including a nail. These figures along the bottom row are separated by a vertical division, containing text and symbols—an eye, lips and an ear.

However, Nivola stressed that the symbols were “suggestive, not finite.” The center panel forms the focal point of the work, a crowd of figures—the recipients of information and the media. In the full-scale version, the central panels are flanked on both sides by “guardians of the media” and separated by what appear to be a newspaper column and perforated tape.

A number of variations are visible between the working model and the final version that are indicative of Nivola’s spontaneous approach:
the figures in the central panels hold placards in
the full-scale work that evoke contemporary events; the design has been connected to a series of drawings that Nivola made of protests in Chicago in 1968, as well as to the history of the Janesville Gazette whose workers took strike action in this period; other variations include a panel of modern day hieroglyphs or symbols—a peace-sign, a raised hand, and a pointing finger—
in the full-scale model.

The vertical divisions in the design correspond to the number of panels for the full-scale work, 39 in total covering an area of 120 square meters. The panels were made at Nivola’s home in Springs before they were packaged and sent by train to Wisconsin. Nivola followed to put the finishing touches to the work before it was unveiled to the public in August 1970.

Untitled [Totem] (1953) by Costantino NivolaMagazzino Italian Art

Nivola began developing his sandcasting technique shortly after moving to Springs, East Hampton, New York in 1948. Just two years later, the artist would exhibit his early sandcast works for the first time at Tibor de Nagy Gallery in New York.

Untitled [Totem], created in 1953, is an example of these preliminary experimentations with sandcasting. It includes several elements that Nivola would go on to explore further in his work, namely the use of color and the incorporation of both abstract and figurative features.

Nivola’s ambiguous yet suggestive forms subtly reference the human figure. This quality is present throughout the artist’s oeuvre and, especially, in his later sculptural work.

Installation view of Nivola: SandscapesMagazzino Italian Art

Untitled [Study for the Olivetti Showroom, New York City, NY] (1953) by Costantino NivolaMagazzino Italian Art

Untitled [Study for the Olivetti Showroom, New York City, NY] is a detailed study of a single abstracted figure that recalls some of Nivola’s earliest sandcast experiments. Nivola employed a semi-abstract idiom but a figure is discernible, one that evokes the history and traditions of his native Sardinia.

The dark face covering recalls the masks worn by carnival figures such as the Mamuthone. The design incorporates a range of textures and patterns and there are small areas of highlighting in yellow and black.

The band of yellow behind the head also evokes the sgraffito technique of mural design, a form of decoration made by scratching through a surface to reveal a lower layer of a contrasting color. This was typically done in plaster or stucco on walls and Nivola was familiar with
this technique.

Installation view of Nivola: SandscapesMagazzino Italian Art

Untitled [Study for the Olivetti Showroom, New York City, NY] (1953) by Costantino NivolaMagazzino Italian Art

Nivola worked on several studies as he developed his design for the Olivetti Showroom mural. A number of abstracted figures recur across the studies and Nivola experimented with their size and configuration.

Untitled [Study for the Olivetti Showroom in New York] incorporates another
work on exhibit here within its design but at a much-reduced scale. The richly patterned figures against a vibrant backdrop of yellow and orange appear in the heart of a large, winged figure.

There is much that remains of the composition in the full-scale work, with the exception of color. The work in situ was left unpainted to preserve the overall balance of the space designed by the architect studio BBPR.

Untitled [Study for the Olivetti Showroom, New York City, NY] (1953) by Costantino NivolaMagazzino Italian Art

In its original frame, Untitled [Study for the Olivetti Showroom Mural], is another example of a detail that Nivola worked up, as he developed the overall composition for the Olivetti showroom mural. It comprises two figures; on the right side, one figure appears straddling an animal, perhaps a horse; on the left, a winged figure, or representation of nature as it has been referred to in the literature.

Credits: Story

On view at Magazzino Italian Art from May 8, 2021, through January 10, 2022, Nivola: Sandscapes includes rarely seen work from the artist's family estate as well as major institutional and private loans. The exhibition is curated by Magazzino's 2020-21 Scholar-in-Residence, Teresa Kittler, with Chiara Mannarino, and is organized in collaboration with the Nivola Foundation and with the support of the Embassy of Italy in Washington D.C.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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