Willem de Kooning, ‘Untitled’, 1978, Sotheby's

Property from the Collection of Costantino Nivola

From the Catalogue
The collection of sculptor Costantino Nivola (1911-1988) is distinguished by works he was given by fellow acclaimed artists, his close friends, several of whom were celebrated masters of the New York School and the European avant-garde. Nivola was among the first wave of artists in the 1940s to transfer his home and studio from New York City to the East End of Long Island where he lived and worked in close proximity to Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Saul Steinberg, among many others. His collection is a testament to the rich exchange between the artists in that community. The works represent some of the pivotal developments in art of the 20th century.

Nivola's home in the village of Springs, where he settled in 1948, became a hub for the artists and intellectuals within his circle. His prolific output and the work of his contemporaries that he gradually received over the years, defined the unique aesthetic of his surroundings. Le Corbusier painted a fresco mural on the central interior walls of his home. Numerous artworks which have remained within Nivola's collection similarly shaped the character of each room of the house as well as the surrounding garden.

Costantino Nivola was born in Orani, Sardinia in 1911. He and his wife, German-born artist Ruth Guggenheim, fled fascist Italy in 1939 for the United States, settling first in Greenwich Village, New York. With a background in art, having studied sculpture as a pupil of Marino Marini in Milan, he began his professional life in New York as a designer and quickly earned a position as art director of Progressive Architecture and Interiors magazines. There he came into contact with some of the era's most influential Modern architects including Le Corbusier, Jose Luis Sert and Eero Saarinen with whom Nivola would eventually collaborate on extensive sculpture commissions.

Nivola's work for much of his career focused primarily on the production of large scale sand-cast bas reliefs in concrete where Nivola employed a technique he developed in the 1940s. In 1944, Nivola had his first exhibition of paintings and sculptures at Wakefield Gallery in New York followed by a show in 1950 at Tibor de Nagy Gallery in New York. He also exhibited at Quadriennale in Rome, Triennale and had a retrospective in 1999 at the P.A.C. Museum in Milan, Stable Gallery in New York and Signa Gallery in East Hampton. Nivola created several private and public commissions including a 75-foot-long wall relief made for the Olivetti showroom (New York), as well as works for the Mutual Hartford Insurance Company (Connecticut), Harvard University, McCormick Plaza Exposition Center (Chicago) and Yale University. He enjoyed much success and acclaim, especially in the U.S., and his work is currently on permanent display in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. In 1995 a museum dedicated to his art was opened in his hometown, Orani.

Sotheby’s is honored to offer two exceptional works from this exquisite collection, beginning with the present work, Willem de Kooning’s Untitled from 1978 (lot 19), and continuing with an Alexander Calder mobile, Untitled, 1960, to be offered in the Contemporary Art Evening auction on October 5th in London. Known to his friends as Tino, the present work is one of the many personal gifts made for Nivola by his East Hampton contemporaries.

Willem de Kooning’s Untitled from 1978 exhibits a stirring testament of the artist’s remarkable mastery of painterly expression. Created in the years when de Kooning announced an entirely novel approach to abstraction, this work belongs to an explosive outpouring of creativity that produced an illustrious series of large-scale, color-saturated canvases which rank among the finest achievements of his prodigious career. In these spectacular paintings, de Kooning’s unrestrained abstraction collapses the distinction between the optical and the tactile, carrying the genre of landscape painting to a new plane of sensory rapture.

De Kooning’s deep contemplation during this crucial period of artistic change is made evident in the present work, which richly captures the atmospheric serenity of the artist’s seaside environs and a new sense of sanctuary that he found outside of New York City. Although de Kooning established his permanent home and studio in East Hampton in 1963, he was struck anew by its beauty in the 1970s, remarking “When I moved into this house, everything seemed self-evident. The space, the light, the trees—I just accepted it without thinking about it much. Now I look around with new eyes. I think it’s all a kind of miracle.” (The artist, translated from Dutch, in Exh. Cat., Washington, D.C., National Gallery, Willem de Kooning: Paintings, 1994, p. 197) Thick passages of jubilant yellow and ardent red-orange blossom across the composition, powerfully summoning the radiant heat of the summer sun upon fragrant seaside blooms; these glistening hues are punctuated by gestural splashes of textural white pigment that recall the foamy crests of ocean waves upon the beach. Standing before Untitled, the viewer is immersed in colorful abstraction as, like blooms opening in the sun, the full breadth of de Kooning’s mastery freely unfurls across the painting.
—Courtesy of Sotheby's

Signature: signed, dated September 5 '78 and dedicated FOR TINO, Bill

Costantino Nivola, East Hampton (gift of the artist)
Thence by descent to the present owner

About Willem de Kooning

A first-generation Abstract Expressionist, Willem de Kooning is one of the most important artists of the 20th century. In 1950s New York, when painters like Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline were moving away from representational imagery toward pure abstraction, de Kooning maintained a commitment to the figurative tradition, developing a signature style that fused vivid color and aggressive paint handling with deconstructed images of the female form—a then-controversial body of works that has become known as his “Women” paintings. “Flesh was the reason oil paint was invented,” he famously said. Influenced by Arshile Gorky and Pablo Picasso, de Kooning was often thought to have blended Cubism, Expressionism, and Surrealism in his signature style, paving the way for generations of gestural figurative painters like Cecily Brown. Following his “Women” series, de Kooning pursued non-objective lyrical abstraction until his death in 1997.

Dutch, American, 1904-1997, Rotterdam, Netherlands, based in New York and East Hampton, New York