See Inside Artist Adrian Nivola’s Bushwick Studio and Home

On the eve of his sculpture show at the Drawing Room.

Photo: Wendy Goodman
Photo: Wendy Goodman

For artist Adrian Nivola’s first show of sculpture, opening on August 1 at the Drawing Room in East Hampton, he was inspired by the magical thinking of the early aviators who crafted improbable flying machines. Growing up, he and his brother — actor Alessandro — were privy to the magical thinking of their grandparents, Costantino and Ruth Nivola, and their great friend, Saul Steinberg. Click through the gallery ahead for a tour of his studio and home and a preview of works in the upcoming show.

“This is really my first dive into sculpture,” artist Adrian Nivola tells me in his Bushwick studio. It’s filled with the drawings and paintings he’s been working on for the past ten years, along with new pieces he’s finishing for his upcoming show, which opens August 1 at the Drawing Room and is curated by Emily Goldstein and Victoria Munroe. Nivola, grandson of the late sculptor Costantino Nivola, and his artist wife, Ruth, grew up in the midst of his grandparents’ circle of creative friends, chief among them Saul Steinberg.   Nivola painted this portrait of his father in 2013.
Some of Nivola’s finished pieces were waiting to be packed up for the show. “The thing that triggered the idea of working on flying machines was that I came across these incredible photos of inventions that predate the Wright brothers; they were made by inventors who had no concept or understanding of the science of flight, so their ideas were based more on observations of birds and more fanciful ideas about what might hurl someone into the air.” 
Saul Steinberg lived across the street from Nivola’s grandparents in Springs, on Long Island, where Nivola and his brother, Alessandro, spent lots of time; the brothers would go over and visit. “He would give us little presents, me and my brother, throughout our childhood. He would really make a kind of ceremony out of our visits. He’d have us over for tea and have a tableful of objects he would present to us. He made wooden flowers and wooden vases.” Nivola showed me a group of objects that included a wooden box Steinberg had made for him (inscribed “For Adrian”) and a poster Steinberg signed to his grandparents.
Nivola recalled opening his gift from Steinberg. “He did something that sort of shocked me and stayed with me ever since. As you can see, this looks like a simple present: a wooden box. And when I opened it up, it said ‘Saul’ and nothing else. So I said, ‘Saul, there is no message to me or anything?’ And so he snatched it out of my hand and scribbled ‘Love from’ with a ballpoint pen. I thought I had done something wrong. He did it in a kind of angry way. The more I think about it in hindsight, I think he was teaching me the difference between a poetic gesture and a Hallmark card.” 
Nivola cites the influence of Steinberg, as well as Calder’s Circus, on his sculptures. 
One of the show’s pieces, Flyer for a Dangerous Romp With J.W.’s Sweetheart.    Photo: Jenny Gorman/Jenny Gorman
“These new sculptures are intended to be appreciated as an experiment,” Nivola says, “as well as for the levity and humor and joie de vivre that I hope they express, in the spirit of the Steinberg drawings.”
Nivola’s grandparents’ house in Springs was an artists’ hangout; it was where family friends, including Jackson Pollock (who gave Nivola’s grandfather Costantino his first bicycle), Willem de Kooning, and Le Corbusier (who painted a mural on the living-room wall), all congregated. Nivola has many pieces of furniture from that house in his Bushwick apartment, including a chair and woven bull’s head that his grandfather had had since the ’50s.
If you look closely, you can spy more Steinberg treasures on the dining-room table in Nivola’s apartment. 
Steinberg made this wooden matchbook for Adrian, while the tuna and salami were gifts Steinberg made for Alessandro when the actor was 5. 
Steinberg made two Now clocks — one for Adrian and one for Alessandro. “They are both at his place,” Nivola says. “Sandro and I lent each other objects a while ago. He took my Now clock for the salami and tuna.” 
Nivola’s apartment has a simplicity and serenity about it that’s similar to his grandparents’ Springs house. His grandfather made the couch, which is now in Nivola’s living room.
Nivola’s portrait of his late grandmother, Ruth, done in 2004. Ruth designed exquisite woven jewelry objects that Nivola always admired.
This piece is called Homage to the Aldasoro Brothers. Explains Nivola, “I think some of my grandmother’s work has this combination of pathos and elegance and humor that really appeals to me, and is part of what I am trying to capture in these sculptures.” Photo: Jenny Gorman/Jenny Gorman
See Inside Artist Adrian Nivola’s Home Studio