Nunzio La Spina (1900-1988)
Oil on canvas, 69 x 36 inches. Signed lower right: "LA SPINA/ NY". Dated 1932 on reverse (before relining).
"American Art Collection," Gratz Gallery & Conservation Studio, Doylestown, PA, beginning October 1, 2017.
American Art Review, December, 2017, p. 57 and Maine Antique Digest, November, 2017, p. 1A (advertisements for Gratz Gallery & Conservation Studio); Hittner, Arthur D., "The Art of the One-Hit Wonder," Fine Art Connoisseur, July/August, 2020, pp. 108.
Hittner, Arthur D., "The Art of the One-Hit Wonder," Fine Art Connoisseur, July/ August, 2020, pp. 108-109.
Estate of the artist; to Paul Gratz (through an unidentified Morristown, NJ frame gallery as intermediary), 1988; acquired October 16, 2017 from Gratz Gallery & Conservation Studio, Doylestown, PA.
Reproduction 3-inch gold leaf frame. This was one of a group of La Spina works (including the artist's self-portrait shown
in Fig. 1) acquired from the family of the artist by Paul Gratz through a New Jersey frame shop about 1988. While the other (much less significant) works were consigned by Gratz for sale at Bunch Auctions of Chadds Ford, PA in 2000, Gratz stored this unframed work as a rolled canvas for nearly three decades before it was lined, cleaned and varnished at his conservation studio in preparation for its exhibition and sale in 2017.
Fig. 1 - Nunzio La Spina, Self-Portrait, 1931, oil on canvas, 28 x 15 inches (present whereabouts unknown)
The obscurity of Nunzio La Spina seems unwarranted in light of the quality and impact of his masterpiece, Jackhammer, a tribute to the indispensable contribution of labor to the transformation of the Manhattan skyline in the early Thirties. What possessed an obscure, young artist, known today for just a handful of largely pedestrian paintings, to create this monumental, iconic painting of his adopted city?
Born in Palermo, Sicily, on the brink of the twentieth century, La Spina emigrated to America in July of 1914, two months shy of his fourteenth birthday. His father, Giacchino, had arrived eight years earlier. The artist first appears in census records as a Manhattan resident in 1920, living with his mother and three siblings and making his living as a barber. A 1925 New York census lists a John La Spina (living with his wife, Angeline), both of whom are identified as interior designers. It is likely that John, who is listed as a participant in the Society for Independent Artists annual exhibition of 1928 (as a member of the Art Students League), and Nunzio are the same person.* Family sources indicate that the artist also studied at the National Academy of Design. Military service enlistment records from 1942 identify Nunzio as a draftsman of slight build (5’5” and 123 pounds) with two years of high school education. His service, however, inexplicably terminated within five months, at the peak of World War II.**
La Spina’s Portrait of Lillian, submitted to the Salons of America exhibition at New York’s Rockefeller Center in April of 1934, garnered favorable notice from Edward Alden Jewell, art critic for The New York Times.*** It was one of only a handful of works (from among 5,000 submitted) reproduced in Jewell’s review of the exhibition. Despite this promising recognition, La Spina’s art career never gained traction. Circumstantial evidence suggests that La Spina, like countless other artists during the Depression, was unable to sustain himself as a professional artist. His participation in W.P.A. artist relief programs is confirmed by the existence of two floral still lifes, one bearing a date of 1936, presently in the collection of the New Deal Art Gallery at the Genesee Valley Council on the Arts in Mount Morris, New York. La Spina’s 1937 removal from the rolls of the W.P.A. is documented by a New York Times article in which he is identified as one of a pair of plaintiffs suing for reinstatement to the Federal Art Project, contending “that they were dropped without legal cause and that their constitutional rights were thereby violated.”**** Although the immediate outcome of the legal action is unknown, the artist was once again employed by the federal government by the early 1940s, recorded as having completed work on mural decoration for a ceiling in the lobby of the Psychiatric Building of New York’s Bellevue Hospital under the aegis of the Federal Art Project. While most of the few remaining works in La Spina’s estate (including the Self-Portrait illustrated in Fig. 1) were sold at auction in 2000, nothing even remotely as ambitious as Jackhammer has appeared on the art market.
His otherwise meager artistic accomplishments notwithstanding, La Spina’s Jackhammer is as satisfying as it is ambitious. Nearly six feet in height, the painting depicts a muscled construction worker, possibly an Italian immigrant like the artist himself, operating a pneumatic drill against an iconic background featuring the nearly-completed Rockefeller Center on the right and the George Washington Bridge (opened in 1931) on the left. Flanked by heavy construction equipment and silhouetted by an exaggerated sunrise (reminiscent, perhaps, of the halo frequently appearing in Renaissance art), the nameless laborer, as indestructible as his handiwork, is heralded as the hero by whose sweat the architectural and engineering marvels of the city have emerged.
* New York Times art critic Edward Alden Jewell made note of an exhibition in November of 1929 featuring modern landscapes and portraits by “John N. La Spina, a young Italian artist,” at the Little Carnegie Playhouse in Manhattan. See Jewell, Edward Alden, “Art in Fourteenth Encyclopaedia Britannica,” The New York Times, November 17, 1929.
** The bulk of the information in this paragraph was accessed through online resources at www.ancestry.com.
*** Jewell, Edward Alden, “The Realm of Art: More Than Five Miles of Pictures,” The New York Times, April 15, 1934; Jewell, Edward Alden, “A Salons Valedictory,” The New York Times, April 29, 1934.
**** “Sue to Keep W.P.A. Jobs,” The New York Times, July 23, 1937.
A small, black-and-white photo appeared in an article in Antiques & the Arts Weekly in the early autumn of 2017. The article, based on a press release, announced the opening of an exhibition at Gratz Gallery & Conservation Studio, a well-established dealer and conservator of American art in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. The image in the photograph was iconic: a bare-chested construction worker brandishing a jackhammer against a background bursting with symbols of the burgeoning city of New York; Rockefeller Center and the George Washington Bridge were the most prominent landmarks depicted. The artist, Nunzio La Spina, was as obscure as they get.
I called the gallery almost immediately. I wasn’t the first to do so, but I was early enough to get a foot in the door before the publication of full-page advertisements featuring the painting in Maine Antique Digest and American Art Review. Paul Gratz told me how he’d acquired the painting, along with a group of other La Spina artworks, from the artist’s estate (through a New Jersey frame shop as intermediary) some thirty years earlier. He’d disposed of most of the other paintings by auction shortly thereafter, but retained Jackhammer. Gratz, whose gallery is also known for its art restoration services, put away the rolled-up canvas in anticipation of eventually restoring it. He probably hadn’t planned on waiting thirty years to do so, but he finally undertook the restoration shortly before offering the work for sale.
I wavered on this possible acquisition, negotiating with my wife (“where the heck are we going to put a six-foot painting?”) and consulting a couple of my collecting friends. To some, the image was as phallic as it was iconic. To others, it was emblematic of the energy that had physically transformed the City of New York until the onset of the Depression. Paul Gratz was accommodating: he’d obviously googled me and was aware that we’d amassed a significant collection of Thirties/Forties art. He trimmed his asking price and gave me several days to ruminate. When the first full-page advertisement appeared, he received a number of additional inquiries. Time was running out; I had to make a decision.
In the time I had available, I researched Nunzio La Spina, discovering very little. He’d seemingly disappeared from sight following a brief and very modest entry into the art world during the Thirties. He’d been employed intermittently by the W.P.A. An unimpressive resume, to be sure, but I’ve always much preferred the masterpiece of a nobody to the mediocrity of a master. Still, I remained on the fence.
Hours before the deadline arrived, I made my decision. I chose the more daring route, convinced that it would be a long time before something this impactful appeared on the market. I chose a wall and, within a matter of days, covered it with almost twenty square feet of boldly painted canvas.