Caption: Costantino Nivola at his farmhouse, Dicomano, Italy, 1981. Photo courtesy of Richard Ingersoll.
Costantino Nivola at his farmhouse, Dicomano, Italy, 1981. Photo courtesy of Richard Ingersoll.

TINO THE GIANT (PART ONE)

 

Memories of the sculptor and painter Constantino Nivola, a friend of Corbu, a neighbor of Jackson Pollock, and in the 1970s a lecturer at Berkeley CED.

 

 

Costantino Nivola, known to his friends as Tino and to his intimates as “Titino,” came from the small and impoverished town of Orani in the rugged interior hills of Sardinia, where he was born in 1911. By American standards he was considered short, a bit over five feet tall. Back in Sardinia, where most people were even shorter, he seemed a giant. The story of his cultural evolution makes him loom larger in retrospect. Few Sardinian artists have had quite such a cultural impact beyond their provincial origins.

 

In Orani in the 1920s, where the best one could do was work in the talcum mines, Nivola’s pursuit of a vocation in the arts required immense courage and a lot of luck. Amid the Sardinian underclass, where the most important matter was to keep bread on the table, be it through honest work like that of his family of masons, or else like some of the hill people who resorted to banditry, his wanting to be an artist appeared frivolous, if not immoral. Today, however, there is hardly a household in Orani that does not proudly possess an original work by Nivola. And thanks to the Nivola Foundation, established by his widow Ruth, the town now boasts a wonderful museum in his honor. Opened in 1995 and designed by Peter Chermayeff, it is currently being expanded.

 

I had the great fortune to meet Tino while I was a student in Berkeley in 1978. He had been invited by Dean Richard Bender of the College of Environmental Design to give a course in cement sculpture. He had the students mix a batch of cement, pour it into card­board forms, let it dry for a few hours, and while still fresh, a period of three or four hours, sculpt through subtraction with knives, spoons, and sponges. Although I was not able to take the course, I spent a lot of time in his studio, and found that we shared an interest in Italian folksongs and rustic cooking. We became fast friends, eating together almost every night during that semester, and up until his death a decade later we saw each other frequently, sometimes in New York, sometimes in Italy.

 

When I first met Tino, I had no idea of his prominence in the arts. Al­though he toted around a few drawings by Le Corbusier and seemed to have known every important artist and architect of the mid-20th century, it made no difference to me at the time. I just thought he was great fun and full of wisdom. I found his stories of life in Greenwich Village in “cold water” flats during and after World War II riveting. He deflated the era that had previously seemed to me so heroic, giving it a much more lusty and human aspect. From Orani, where most people were poor and struggling to get by, he found him­self in Manhattan’s Village, where all of the artists were likewise poor, but instead were struggling to get discovered.

 

The tale of his near arrest for espionage during the war years, when he and Saul Steinberg, likewise a rather short European with a heavy accent, were apprehended making sketches of battle ships in the docks of lower Manhattan, kept me chuckling for weeks. There they were, dressed in the dark overcoats they had brought with them from Italy (Steinberg, although Rumanian in origin, had studied architecture in Milan before his immi­gration), chatting away in Italian, at that time a language of an enemy, as Steinberg imagined secret weapons spouting Coca-Cola. Had it not been for a fan of Steinberg’s drawings in the military, they might have been deported—or worse. Beyond this humorous mix-up, the metaphor of the artist as spy struck me as a profound modus operandi. While sketching, one always sees things that other people miss. Throughout his life in the US, Tino remained an outsider, observing the world around him with the attention of a secret agent.

 

Many of the artists Nivola knew in New York in the 1950s and 1960s were becoming rich and famous, but this did not greatly condition his sense of himself as an artist. He had an attitude toward work that was much like that of his family of masons, putting in the correct number of hours per day to get the job done. In the 1940s he served as the art di­rector for two different magazines while searching during his free time for his artistic iden­tity. Steinberg, Jackson Pollock, Bernard Rudofsky, Fredrick Kiesler, Robert Motherwell, and dozens of other important figures in the world of modern art gravitated to him as friends and neighbors, caught up in the same struggle to come up with an original angle in the arts.

 

The “fruit” at Nivola’s house in Springs, NY. Photo courtesy of Richard Ingersoll.

 

Pollock was the first to follow Tino out to Springs—now Amagansett—on Long Island. Like many of the artists and architects of the period, Pollock drank heavily. His violent behavior toward his wife, the artist Lee Krasner, was an embarrassment to all. Yet Pol­lock showed a soft side whenever in the presence of Nivola’s children, Pietro and Claire, and one day as a gesture of friendship brought over one of his paintings. It was an “action” paint­ing with violent drips of chartreuse and red. Pollock, who was just on the verge of becoming one of the most highly paid painters of his times, said, “Tino, why don’t you try it out, and if you don’t like it, give it back, and I’ll give you another one.” After a week passed of children inexplicably bawling, wife suffering nightmares, and unprecedented household arguments framed by the new backdrop of the action painting, Nivola decided to return it with apolo­gies, an act that Pollock’s wife never forgave. That painting today would sell for tens of millions of dollars, but for the Nivola family the domestic peace achieved by its removal was worth the loss.

 

While Steinberg and Kiesler remained Tino’s close friends and significant influences throughout his life, the catharsis in his artistic career did not really occur until his chance meeting with Le Corbusier in 1946. The most famous architect of the 20th century had di­rectly inspired numerous architects, but Nivola was probably the only serious artist to be coached by him in the fine arts. The Swiss-French master had just turned 60 when they met and was ready to share whatever he knew about art with the young artist. At Tino’s age, Corbu had launched the Purist Manifesto with Amadée Ozenfant that placed him soundly within the Parisian avant-garde. His vision remained Cubist, tempered with an interest in the primitive and the surreal, acquired during the 1920s.

 

Nivola’s garden in Springs, conceived with Bernard Rudofsky, 1953–1956. Photo courtesy of Richard Ingersoll.

 

Corbu’s best friend was the painter Ferdnand Léger, with whom he went on numerous sketching tours, while throughout his ca­reer he looked with envy on the formal innovations of Picasso. Despite his active career in architecture, Corbu insisted on spending half of every day drawing and painting. During his long sojourn in New York, a 14-month period, he attended the site selection committee meetings and later participated on the international committee that designed the United Na­tions Headquarters complex, but had enormous amounts of free time on his hands. He sought sanctuary from all the bureaucracy in the Nivola’s Greenwich Village studio/flat, where he revealed a creative process to Tino that became his lifetime resource.

 

Tino once mentioned to me that he had learned very little in art school before leaving Italy. Among his teachers in Monza and Milan was Marino Marini, who would come into the studio, look at the students’ work, and repeat with cynical conviction, “coraggio, ragazzi” (“courage, boys”) before moving on. Corbu on the other hand spent hours with him investigating through drawings the secrets of good composition.

 

Two things had particular appeal to Tino: first, Corbu confronted a blank page as if taking a walk with the line, moving his pen or brush around the surface without lifting it. This concept had a more famous architecture analogue as the “architectural promenade,” which one finds in many of Corbu’s buildings, such as the Villa Savoye, where all of the different spaces are linked by an articulated path that allows one to view across space. In compositional terms it meant that the space of the whole was integrated. The second idea came closer to daily life: to compose a painting like setting the table, having dinner, and observing the remains. Here the notion of “the marriage of con­tours,” where the lines of one object would intersect and overlap with another, resonated with the joyful world of the Nivola kitchen. As Corbu’s friendship with Tino grew, the mas­ter unloaded more and more of his works in the young artist’s studio, often coming from France with a suitcase full of drawings. He also painted in situ, leaving behind a significant treasure. During his stay at Nivola’s farmhouse in Springs in 1950, Le Corbusier produced an enormous mural covering two walls. The following year he discov­ered Nivola’s innovative sand-casting technique, and after completing a small relief with this method commented: “Don’t let Picasso know of this or he’ll fill up the entire Mediterra­nean.”

 

Sculptural elements in Nivola’s garden in Springs, 1953–1973. Photo courtesy of Richard Ingersoll.

 

Tino was both in the thick of the New York art world and aloof from it, and he had the same reticence about dealing with artistic patrimony. But as my friendship with him grew, he decided that I should do something with his story of Corbu and with the hundreds of artifacts and documents he possessed. This led to an exhibition and catalogue devoted to his Corbu col­lection, produced in Houston and Cambridge in 1989, a year after his death.

 

Richard Ingersoll’s memoir of Tino Nivola will continue in a second post.

Comments

  1. Thanks! I found this memoir very interesting. Nivola was a giant, really. I hope to read the second part soon.
    Marco, from Sardinia

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