About the artist:
Nivola was the son of a mason, born in 1911 on the island of Sardinia. He initially trained there as a painter, before moving just outside Milan in 1931 to continue his studies on a scholarship. While at university, Nivola refused to make the fascist salute and was suspended for six months. Returning to school, he met his future wife, a Jewish woman from Germany named Ruth Guggenheim (who was not related to those other Guggenheims). In 1939, the pair fled Italy for a new life in the United States, where Nivola became the art director of Interiors magazine. He met many famed artist-emigrés, such as Walter Gropius, Josef Alberts, Marcel Breuer, and László Moholy-Nagy. He also became fast friends with abstract expressionists such as Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, and Lee Krasner.
For four years, Nivola shared a studio with Le Corbusier, the Swiss-French architect who abandoned decorative styles in favor of purified, functional, and minimalist designs. Le Corbusier became a mentor and friend who guided Nivola toward an epiphany in the 1950s, when he came up with a unique sand-casting technique of sculpting, which involved pouring plaster or concrete into molds of wet sand. Nivola’s innovative approach required speed and precision. He once compared sand-casting to “explorers who put plaster on the footprints of animals.” The results were often akin to cave painting, with natural elements such as shells or a handprint that complemented the colors and shapes he used. Nivola became known for his joyfully abstract depictions of democratic ideals, often celebrating themes of heroism and unity with a diversity of symbols and humanoid figures.
In 1954, Nivola created an enormous sculptural relief for the Olivetti Showroom on New York’s Fifth Avenue that helped to launch his career. That same year, he became the director of Harvard University’s design workshop. (The school later became a steward of Nivola’s legacy by installing a few of his creations on campus, including the relocated Olivetti relief.) But appreciation for the artist has dwindled. In 2006, Harvard Law School covered its Nivola work with a plain wall adorned with modern art.
Throughout his career, Nivola endeavored to create a world where art binds communities together, and he often partnered with architects to raise money for monumental works. “Nivola championed the idea that arts should be accessible to everyone,” says Antonella Camarda, director of Museo Nivola in the artist’s hometown of Orani, Italy. “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 the art’s role within civic life.” In 1968, for example, Nivola collaborated with the architect Richard G. Stein to create a playground for a public school in Queens. The men proposed a system of color-coded murals that segmented the space into different zones for play and rest. These paintings would include Nivola’s enigmatic graffiti, populated with humanoid figures and hieroglyphic doodles that expressed the type of roughhousing and fun of recess time.
Many artists avoid creating public art because it is expensive, bureaucratic, and time-consuming; politicians often underfund the work, and public criticism can ravage an artist’s reputation. Nivola did it anyway—at a moment when he could have made an otherwise lucrative career in the art market. He recognized the way that public art can humanize urban spaces. Seventeen of the artist’s works still exist in New York, yet despite their importance, many are in a state of disrepair.
Nivola spent a lifetime championing the virtues of good governance. It is a sad irony that now, the very institutions that he supported through his artworks seem to be uninterested in preserving them. “A work designed for a public space is less a work of art than a civic act,” the artist once said. “It concerns the ways in which we live together, and in which we influence each other.”
Biography courtesy of Atlas Obscura.