Sunday, January 31, 2010

Peter Agostini

(Peter Agostini, 151 Avenue B, 1960)

"That is the prime thing—to generate 'up'—leverage, elevation. The balloons rising, clothes on a line being picked up by the wind. The same with my horses. Whatever use they are, my horses are about flight, bursting out."
(Peter Agostini)

(Balloon Fountain, 1962, plaster)

Peter Agostini exploded on the New York art scene in 1959 with his first one-man show at the Galerie Grimaud. He was 45 years old. In 1960, he began showing at the Stephen Radich Gallery and, over the next few years, was celebrated by Time and Art News and participated in the 1964 World’s Fair exhibition, alongside Roy Lichtenstein and Robert Mallary.

Prior to his debut, Agostini worked as a mold and mannequin maker, skills he learned during the Depression as part of the WPA. He made sculpture in his kitchen, which doubled as a studio. In this tiny space he made horses, burlesque queens, and heads in clay and wax.

"One person who really motivated my mind was Michelangelo. Raphael was another. And Botticelli. What about their works? I have no idea . . . the essence—the life force—that they imbued into their pieces. They made what was, real. I’m not talking about realism. I’m talking about creating a reality." (Peter Agostini)

(Marina head, 1945, bronze)

(figure, 1957, bronze)

Peter Agostini was born in Hell’s Kitchen, a then-tough neighborhood on New York’s West Side, in 1913. His mother died when he was three, and he spent some time at a school for orphans before his early education in a Catholic school, which ceased after the eighth grade. Agostini was a self-taught artist whose only art training was one year at the Leonardo Da Vinci School in midtown, a school run by the sculptor Onario Ruotolo and sponsored by Benito Mussolini. Ambitious from the start, he made a 40” plaster figure, The Swimmer, while in attendance. At Leonardo Da Vinci, Agostini met artists George Spaventa and Nicolas Carone, with whom he had life-long friendships.

In the late 1950’s, Agostini moved into his first studio on 10th Street. His work of that time was impulsive, and to accommodate its spontaneity, he began fashioning sculpture directly in plaster, working it in its fluid state. In the 60’s, his plaster work was distinctive for its extreme immediacy. Anticipating Pop Art imagery, he cast and assembled with incredible assuredness newspapers, balloons, egg cartons, clotheslines, pillows, corrugated cardboard, truck inner tubes, bottles – all sorts of disparate objects – “frozen from life.” He made “instant sculpture” whose characteristics were speed, luminosity, and explosiveness that ran the gamut from figurative to abstract. He had a great gift for enlivening inert matter, and a fluid control of the unyielding materials he used.

"His forms totally are seductively inviting. They are nerve-wrackingly intense, made now, for now . . . live now, die later." (Art News, Dec. 1960)

(Squeeze, 1963, bronze)

(Saracen, 1960, bronze)

In 1960, Agostini was hired by Andre Racz at Columbia to teach sculpture and drawing. He had had no previous teaching experience and had to invent his own way. His approach was to direct the student’s observation through demonstration, without giving any verbal instruction. This hands-off teaching style appealed to many young students, including Christopher Cairns, Bruce Gagnier and Jonathan Silver. As a teacher Agostini combined an intense charismatic charm with a certain detachment, always putting emphasis on personal expression. His approach had no artifice and his presence was electric. He consequently had many devoted students. In 1969 he joined Spaventa on the faculty of the New York Studio School where he often worked from the model alongside his students. Agostini also taught for many years at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro and was a Distinguished Visitor at Haverford College.

In the 1970’s and 80’s, Agostini returned to figuration, producing a series of old men, female heads and large horses. For Agostini, there was no difference between representation and abstraction. In their commitment to mass and form and in the masterful modeling technique employed, these works were as related to his “swells” and “squeezes” of the 1960’s, as they were influenced by Michelangelo and Leonardo. Grounded in his lifelong habit of drawing from the figure, and reflecting his personal experience of aging, these works demonstrate consummate observation and distillation of form, and marriage of subject to that form.

"Meaning is always a big problem. Like in art, you don’t really know how to get it. But when it happens, it’s already enough. The power of meaning is a very, very difficult thing to approach." (Peter Agostini)

(Apollo, 1975, bronze)

Agostini showed regularly at the Radich Gallery until 1969, when the gallery closed. He subsequently showed at the Zabriskie and Bernice Steinbaum Galleries, among others. By the end of his life, Agostini’s work would appear in more than 25 one-man shows and more than 100 group shows world-wide. His work can be found in numerous private and public collections, including those of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim, and the Walker Art Center.

(Winter Wall, 1962, plaster)

(Burlesque Queen, 1965, plaster)

(The Hurricane, 1962, plaster)

Peter Agostini died in 1993 at the age of 80 at his home in Manhattan.

Text adapted with permission from an essay in the exhibition catalog for the 2006 show Five Sculptors.

Additional photos of Peter Agostini’s work can be viewed on our Flickr page.

The 2nd, 8th, 9th and 10th photos (from top) were taken by Don Cook.

See also:
Agostini in Soho (a guest post by Scott Sherk)


  1. You can see Agostini's "Winter Wall" (from 1962) on the terrace at the Walker here in Minneapolis.

  2. One of Agostini's best plaster pieces of the early Sixties was a commission for the 1964 World's Fair in Flushing Meadows. It was a large conglomeration of balloons and flying drapery called A Summer's Day. This amazing piece visually destroyed the exterior wall on which it was mounted. At the end of the World's Fair, A Summer's Day was given by the artist to the University of Minnesota, who immediately put it into storage. Most likely it is in some landfill in Minneapolis.

  3. He was the Art Professor of my Art Professor

  4. Thank you for the page on Peter Agostini. He was my mentor and professor at UNC-G during my graduate school years in the early to mid 70s; I was his TA and studio assistant: I mixed plaster and clay for him; I also fired his students’ work – not Peter’s. I mixed the plaster for his Old Apollo and drove it to NYC. I did not realize he had it cast into bronze; Peter originally wanted it in clay to rival the Chinese clay sculptures; unfortunately it broke apart in the kiln. The same thing happened to his Horse years later. Peter made a quick decision to recast the Apollo into plaster and this is the piece I drove up to NYC in a U-Haul; I want to say Virginia Budney was the other driver but I am not sure.

    When he passed away, we former students who knew him held a memorial service at Setsuya Kotani’s home: we ate Duncan Donuts coffee and donuts: he lived on Duncan while working in the studio.

    Peter was inspirational not only for sculptors but painters as well.

  5. This is a fine blog.
    I knew Peter Agostini back in the late 1970's and early 80's when he taught sculpture at the New York Studio School. I didn't study with him, but those who did seemed to fall into two distinct categories: those who "got" what he had to offer and those who didn't. Peter was first and formost a sculptor, and I often had the feeling that even while he was at the school, he was really planning his escape back to his studio. Unlike most of the teachers of his generation at the Studio School, Peter was completely independent of the school culture, and went about his teaching duties in his own fashion, ignoring or shrugging off the often overbearing pedagoical ideas of the dean, Mercedes Matter. That was no small feat, since Mercedes had very strong opinions about how each student should be handled. I happened to be in the office one day when a small group of sculpture students came in to talk, or rather complain to her about Agostini. They were upset that he would come in and set a pose with the model and then either sit down and read his newspaper or leave entirely. They somehow thought this wasn't teaching. Mercedes took Agostini to task over this, presenting the students' point of view. His reaction was just to look back at her, saying nothing, and then walking out of the office. He didn't look angry or upset, just gave her a sort of bemused, steady stare. This was precisely the right move. I don't think she ever criticized his teaching methods again.

    My sense was that Peter gave feedback to those students he felt worked hard enough, and had enough going for them to deserve it. He didn't waste his time on those who felt they had earned his attention by simply paying their tuition. In other words, he was an artist who happened to teach. Those who understood that fact learned a great deal, mostly from the example he set of putting his work ahead of everything - including teaching.

    1. Agostini's approach to teaching at CooperUnion in the late 60's was to check in the first class of the year , then never show up again.
      The first two years I attempted to study with him I was disappointed.
      The third year I signed up for his class I did so because I knew he wouldn't be bothering me. As it happened, he didn't even bother coming to the first class.
      That is neither teaching or inspiration.
      I found him to be extremely dishonest

  6. As Peter's last teaching assistant at UNCG I taught his classes by his methods while he was in NY. That was half the time. He did favor students he felt had something but also students that approached him for advice. When he was in Greensboro I was something of a personal assistant. He'd say "do you have your car?" which meant we were going to the grocery store or Duncan Donuts. It was away from the studio that I learned the most from him. A lot of bravado but a lot of insecurity. He loved his work one day and hated it the next. He was constantly trying to reinvent himself. Thankfully my wife and I visited him shortly before he died. He really liked her. He would complain to me about women and then say,"but not Tammy." Truly an irreplaceable relationship and influence in my life. I have been a professional sculptor since 1983.

  7. As Peter's teaching assistant from 1983-85, I remember long conversations at Duncan Donuts. Lots of theory and philosophy in the conversations; how to break through stereotypes and see uniqueness in everything. He also, had a lot to say about women. I would teach his Greensboro classes while he went to teach at the Studio School for a couple of weeks each month. The trips we had together from Greensboro to New York and back were crazy. In New York there were always old friends and galleries to visit. At this time he was in his seventies and frustrated with how diabetes had affected his art and life.

  8. I studied with Peter Agostini as a graduate student at UNC-Greensboro beginning in 1980. I very quickly considered him one of the three mentors I’ve been lucky enough to have in my life. In 1984 I did a long interview with Peter that was published in the campus arts magazine Coraddi. It was based on hours of private discussions that we had over a several day period, which I recorded on cassette tapes. When faced with distilling the tapes into a cogent interview, I felt I had to transcribe the hours of tapes first. All of this while I should have been working on my graduate thesis show.

    But I did this interview both for my own development as an artist, and to honor Peter. Many of the stories I had heard before, because the way Peter taught was to work and to talk. If you had any sense you watched him work, and you listened when he talked. But in our conversations during the interview process, I got a wealth of new stories and more of his unique vision of the world. He also gave me the gift of opening up his files to me. I saw photos from every period of his life, as well as news articles and exhibition reviews, and personal letters. Many of these personal photos were published in Coraddi.

    At some point Peter became my friend as well as my mentor. I continued to have regular contact with him until I moved from Greensboro to Frederick, Maryland in 1987. I visited him in his Greene Street loft in Manhattan in the winter of 1999, three years before he died.

    Peter was born on February 13, 1913, so two days ago he became 99 years old.

  9. Peter is my Great-Great Uncle, and I have so enjoyed learning about him through accounts of his former students and friends. I lived in Florida for the majority of my life, so I never got to meet him and instead heard about him from my grandmothers, who were so very proud of him and his art. I just moved to New York City, and am anxious to get around to all of the museums where his art is displayed to pay homage to my ancestor and a truly great artist.

  10. Thinking of Jeff Koons balloon dog it is useful to be reminded of Agostini's use of balloons.... not sure it make me think more or less highly of the dog.