New York is home to the largest gathering of Nivola’s public artworks — 21 pieces across all five boroughs, at least 17 of which still exist. So it is with great excitement and anticipation that we look forward to the opening of The Cooper Union’s next exhibition, Nivola in New York I Figure in Field ~ the first-ever to tell the story of Nivola’s built New York City projects through maquette and sculptures, original drawings, site-specific photographs, and related ephemera.
The exhibition also features a timeline outlining 62 projects that Nivola made in collaboration with architects over approximately 40 years. In addition to the exhibition, The Cooper Union will present a variety of related programming including a panel on the role of public art, as well as off-site educational workshops and tours of Nivola’s work throughout the city. A free pocket guide will be produced for Nivola in New York: Figure in Field, to encourage visitors to learn more about all of these works and see them in situ.
“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 Nivola Foundation. “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.”
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 sandcasting 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.
“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.”
“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 1953. After the showroom closed in 1970 the relief was eventually moved to Harvard University’s Science Center. Next is another of Nivola’s early New York projects, a 1953 sandcast 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 1962 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 1984 at the 19th Precinct Combined Police and Fire Facilities on the Upper East Side to document police and fire activities.
While the Nivola in New York Walking Tour is over, you can follow this list and map to view six sites in Manhattan and Brooklyn, to do your own, self-guided walking tour.
The site located at Stephen Wise Towers, a NYCHA complex on West 90th/91st Streets between Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues was home to the 18 cast-concrete horse sculptures. In March 2021, these sculptures were cut down at the knees and removed from the plaza. Edward FitzGerald, an architectural conservator with the firm of Jablonski Building Conservation, Inc. is in the process of restoring the horses, with hopes to reinstall them at the NYCHA plaza in the Spring of 2023 when work on the plaza has been completed.
Nivola in New York: Figure in Field is co-curated by Steven Hillyer, Director, The Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture Archive at The Cooper Union and Roger Broome, a Brooklyn-based architect and alumnus of the school, with scientific advice from Giuliana Altea and Antonella Camarda. The exhibition will be on view from January 23 through March 15, 2020.
Opening Reception + Panel will be held at The Cooper Union on Thursday, January 23, 2020 at 6:30pm in The Great Hall, with Reception to follow in the Arthur A. Houghton Jr. Gallery, 2nd Floor, 7 East 7th Street, NYC.