Salvatore Scarpitta: 1956–64
Luxembourg & Dayan, New York
October 13, 2016 - January 28, 2017
Beginning October 13, 2016, Luxembourg & Dayan will present Salvatore Scarpitta 1956–1964, bringing together early works by the Italian-American artist (1919–2007), whose long career spanned non-objective abstraction, radical realism, and car racing in an oeuvre that achieved a distinctive mixture of material daring and tenderness. The exhibition spotlights a pivotal period of transformation, beginning with Scarpitta’s forays into shaped and bandaged paintings, initiated just before his 1958 return from Rome to his native United States. It concludes with his shift away from the canvas toward constructing racecars in 1964—the culmination of his deep-seated belief in movement as metaphor for life.
On view through January 28, Salvatore Scarpitta 1956–1964 traces two seemingly incongruous trajectories. The artist’s works in these years moved along a discernably linear path of formal growth from abstract wrapped canvases to painterly assemblages incorporating automotive parts. At the same time, Scarpitta’s course was a recursive one of multiple intersections, junctures, and syntheses. The exhibition reveals—and revels in—Scarpitta’s unique ability to exploit the unresolvable tensions between injury and regeneration, the technological and the organic, materialism and myth, a future-oriented optimism and a lingering pessimism, in works of great beauty, sorrow, and wit.
An illustrated catalogue featuring essays by art historians Raffaele Bedarida and Davide Colombo will accompany the exhibition. Salvatore Scarpitta 1956–1964 extends Luxembourg & Dayan’s longstanding engagement with significant European and American artists and discourses of the postwar period.
About the Exhibition
The liminal condition of Salvatore Scarpitta’s art is paralleled by his dual nationalities and cultural affiliations. Born in New York City and raised in Hollywood, Scarpitta traveled to Italy in 1936 to study at the Italian Academy of Fine Arts in Rome. There he rejected fascist-informed realism and looked to precedents in Futurism and Cubism, as well as the abstractions of contemporaries such as Alberto Burri, and the leftist politics of his peers. Though fully immersed in Italian life for more than two decades, Scarpitta nevertheless remained apart from it: During World War II he joined the United States Navy, where he was a “monuments man,” part of a multinational group charged with searching out and rescuing art from the Fascists and Nazis. Interned for a period before spending nearly a year in hiding, he witnessed firsthand the war’s devastation. Yet, Scarpitta also encountered a spirit of aesthetic and cultural liberation in Rome’s postwar artistic community, within which he became deeply embedded. As an Italian-American, having experienced hope born from trauma, he broke from the claustrophobic constraints of the traditional picture plane to interrogate painting’s raw materiality.
Shortly before returning to New York in 1958, while sharing a studio with Cy Twombly in Rome, Scarpitta revolutionized his practice by tearing up past canvases and wrapping them around stretcher bars:
I started ripping up the oil paintings, the canvas that had become an utter enemy for me. It was a necessity connected with my human experience; the war had changed me, the fear and desire for vendetta, I needed to run the risk of leaving fingerprints. I wanted to come into contact with the hidden, most difficult nature of things.¹
This simple gesture initiated a succession of material experiments that would come to be known as his extramurals— contoured paintings made by rending, lacerating, pulling and wrapping bands of fabric around stretcher bars or panels, sometimes with the additional structure of wire armature. Amid a wave of interest in rethinking the two- dimensional surface—embodied by Minimalism and Neo-Dada in the United States, and Art Informel, Nouveau Réalisme, and Arte Povera in Europe—the bulges, ripples, and gashes of Scarpitta’s three-dimensional ‘paintings’ proclaimed their abject physicality.
In select extramurals, such as Helikon (1959), Scarpitta employed medical bandages and cloth strips previously used for swaddling his newborn daughter, transforming his paintings into tourniquets. Here, a taut enveloping ‘skin’ evokes an absent body at once healing and constrained. Violent or punitive gestures double as embalming, curative measures that amount, in the artist’s words, to “staunching a wound.”² As he recounts, his friend de Kooning once proclaimed that, “Burri makes wounds, but you heal them!”³ Made in Rome and first shown at Galleria La Tartaruga, works from this series were exhibited at New York’s Leo Castelli Gallery in January of 1959, precipitating the artist’s return to the United States the December prior.
Upon resettling in New York, Scarpitta was influenced by the omnipresence of Pop and its leading practitioners, who congregated around Castelli Gallery, as well as his new urban surroundings. Inspired by the American practice of taping an “X” on the windows of buildings slated for demolition, Scarpitta employed the cruciform to reorient the rectangular canvas in a series of works known as the X frames, produced largely between 1959 and 1961. As evidenced in X Member (1961), a centralized crossing warns of impending danger while connoting redemptive potential.
The most recent works in the exhibition date from 1964 and mark Scarpitta’s escalating interest in the racecar, an American cultural icon that had captivated him as a child in Los Angeles. Beginning in 1962 and as exemplified in the seminal Tishamingo (For Franz Kline) (1964), he grafted straps and buckles from seatbelts onto select canvases. These display a predilection for industrial dynamism reflective of American Pop Art. As he stated: “I felt that I had something to say in that period of shall we say, the American background as the stimulus of those works, and the racing cars were my way of showing that I, too, knew something of America.”⁴ Yet, as in his extramurals, technologies of armoring the body (belts, harnesses, bandages) are recalibrated to expose their more fragile, organic, and sinister sides. In fact, Scarpitta sourced many of his materials from fatal car accidents, inscribing an American postwar techno-optimism within narratives of trauma and renewal carried over from his Italian experience of World War II.
Salvatore Scarpitta 1956–1964 concludes on the brink of yet another transition: after 1964, Scarpitta would leave the canvas behind, turning instead to sculptural constructions of reassembled racecars and sleds, life-size and often functional. By tracing his development up to that point, the exhibition at Luxembourg & Dayan confirms that a practice of maintaining seeming opposites in perpetual suspension—be they material processes, significations, or cultural worlds—resides at the heart of his oeuvre.
1. Cited in Luigi Sansone, “The engaging cosmos of Salvatore Scarpitta,” in Luigi Sansone, Salvatore Scarpitta: Catalogue Raisonné, (Milano: Mazzotta, 2005), p. 65.
2. Ibid, 66.
3. Oral history interview with Salvatore Scarpitta, 1975 January 31-February 3, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.