The Sands of Time

Tucked away in a pastoral setting in Cold Spring, NY sits Magazzino, a private art institution open and free to the public. The museum is currently hosting a special exhibition on the work by mid-century artist Constantino Nivola and I learned a great deal, not only about this artist but about the specific work he did in New York as well as across the United States.

Titled Nivola: Sandscapes and curated by Teresa Kittler, the collection showcases the artist’s skill in sandcasting, a technique he began developing in the early 1950s while visiting various Long Island beaches with his children. Pioneering a new genre, he discovered that sandcasting made for beautiful sculpture pieces that could stand alone as independent artworks or be incorporated into architecture.

Compacting wet sand into a mold and carving into it in reverse, he would then pour plaster into it to produce a direct cast. In doing this, a fine layer of sand was locked onto the surface of the cast, imbuing texture and color (when painted) onto a shallow sculptural relief.

Untitled (Maquette for the Olivetti Showroom, NYC), 1953

Experimenting with small, abstract figures at first, he eventually broadened his carvings to include ancient totemic and heraldic forms, iconography from his native Sardinia and influences from his circle of artist colleagues, such as Saul Steinberg, Willem de Kooning and Lee Krasner.

As he began to work with scale and upgraded his medium from plaster to concrete, he was able to realize more substantial works that could be used on the interiors or exteriors of buildings as part of the architectural surface, providing textural interest as well as figurative expressions that provided a human touch to otherwise anonymous mid-century buildings.

"Imama," 1953
Untitled (Maquette for Morse and Stiles College, Yale University, New Haven, CT), 1960

The sculptures are indeed unique and dramatic. They do invite close study as the closer you get the more you see, whether in delicate or hard execution. I found one piece to be particularly striking as it looked like a classic example of Picasso’s Cubism painting and yet it was in three dimensional form. Nivola managed to make the piece look like both a painting and a sculpture—genius!

A close up view of two faces

In addition to the pieces that hang on the gallery walls, there are free standing works that are equally alluring.

Untitled (Maquette for the Legislative Office Building, Albany, NY), 1972

The show is a lovely tribute to an artist of endless imagination and skill, who was certainly ahead of his time, using a simple renewable resource and acting as a “green” creative in urban settings. Constantino Nivola really knew how to make a day at the beach a day at the beach!

Special Note: Feature Image for this blog post courtesy of Fondazione Nivola. Photo by Dan Weiner, late 1950’s.