Salvatore Scarpitta

by Luigi Sansone

Taking an overall look at the artistic output of Salvatore Scarpitta, we can divide it into two periods: Italian and American.

The first happens essentially in Rome, and includes a large portion of his production, from the early Expressionist works to the abstract-figurative phase that leads to an Informal approach, with materic paintings, the bulging canvases and, finally, the first “bandaged” paintings, shown at Galleria La Tartaruga of Plinio De Martis in April 1958.

The American period starts with the exhibition at Leo Castelli in New York, in January 1959, and ends in 2007, the year of the artist’s death.

Scarpitta’s American phase, full of creative impulses, extensively develops the theme of the bandages and also moves in four main directions: the geometric configuration of works with the significant “X” structure; the vital grafting of materials from the world of automotive racing (seat belts, exhaust pipes, fragments of cars) in the bandaged works; the construction of racing cars (some “fake” like the Rajo Jack, others functioning perfectly, to take part in many races on the dirt tracks of Maryland and Pennsylvania); the creation of sleds and towing structures influenced by the world of the Native Americans.

 

“The crude, raw canvas”

The final years in Rome are fundamental for Scarpitta’s artistic research. In fact, from 1956 to 1958 he begins to make the extroflected “relief” canvases, including an Untitled (To Cy), 1958, seen in this exhibition, as well as “bandaged” paintings.

Untitled, which on the back bears the inscription “To Cy,” a dedication to the American painter Cy Twombly who shared a studio in Rome with Scarpitta in that period, on Via Margutta, conceals beneath the canvas, left raw, a metal structure that runs almost like an underground current of energy, creating bulges, hollows and puckers.

After the experience of the first oil paintings torn and reassembled on the frame (“I began to tear the oil painting that had become quite hostile in my mind”), Admiral, 1957-1959, and Tension, 1958, Scarpitta launches, in his words, “an effort to clean up what had been a rather exasperated gesture. Somehow I had to recover that lost material, so I cleaned up this idea that was quite iconoclastic and took the canvas from an infamous state towards a more ‘surreal,’ almost abstract condition, due to the crude, raw canvas that was no longer torn, but pulled.”

The raw canvas with all its natural qualities, soaked in organic coloring substances (wine, coffee, lime, tincture of iodine) becomes the main material in Scarpitta’s works, which he bends and shapes to introduce tensions, levitations, braids, hollows and twists, creating original, dynamic compositions, “an artistic genre,” as Gillo Dorfles writes, “that already – back then – clearly stood out from the abstract schemes in use at the time in Rome and its (artistic) vicinity.”

The artist himself remarks on the importance, for him, of this work with “crude and raw” canvas: “I kept the focus on the canvas, to make it always be the protagonist […] though I was not interested in the gesture, I was only interested in the quality of the canvas, of the material […] I have always tried to empathize, more and more, with the material, its way of appearing, of being.”

These statements of Scarpitta are fully reflected in the work Untitled (no. 9), 1958, 65 x 100 cm, shown here for the first time, and one of the first works with strips of canvas made by the artist by manipulating canvas remnants that differed in terms of weight, weave and width. The canvas fragments intertwine, generating a field of opposing forces that from the center radiate outward to the edges, making the innermost energy of the world and things burst to the surface; in this work Scarpitta brings out the grain of the canvas and reduces the color – so strongly emphasized in his materic paintings of the previous period – to a residual trace. The artist resituates his action, starting with the “crude and raw canvas,” which is no longer “torn but pulled” and stretched in tension on the frame.

Scarpitta writes: “To talk and explain, just as the material that is simply the canvas itself reveals its pattern and its force, its weaknesses and lacerations.”The paint is no longer material that expands on the canvas, but becomes “intrinsic to the canvas itself.”The research that began in Italy continues in the United States, in New York, where Scarpitta, starting in 1959, uses not only the strips stiffened with resins and glues, but also elastic belts soaked in polyvinyl acetate adhesive. From the materic quality of the strips, the artist’s focus shifts towards their tension.

As Scarpitta states, “at a certain moment it seemed logical that by pulling the canvas attention was drawn more to the elasticity than to the material […] The idea of stiffening the painting came from the need to make every gesture visible, so the emphasis on the canvas came out more. It was a way of capturing the gesture, more than the stretched canvas.”

In the works Birchbark, Grey Whistle and High Bride, made in 1960 in New York, Scarpitta’s concentration on the organic quality of the material is accentuated through tension: in the first, horizontal and vertical monochrome strips interweave, creating a particularly deep three-dimensional effect between the strips, with wrapping of coils that give the composition a more intense effect of light and shadow, ecologically evoking the vitality of the birchbark of the title in the striations of the fabric; in the other two works, the stretched horizontal bands become a denser coating, achieving “a form of higher tension, less relaxed.”

In 1965 Scarpitta makes Cocoa Dust, a composition of woven strips treated with organic pigments (the title indicates one of the substances with which he made the painting) that change color in time or according to environmental conditions (heat, humidity). In this work, besides experimenting with the use, in art, of unconventional substances (cocoa), an experience explored years later by artists like Joseph Beuys and Dieter Roth, Scarpitta makes a horizontal opening, a “slit” in the dense weave of the strips, almost as if to allow air and light to circulate, a gesture of freedom that breaks up the sense of claustrophobia that plagues the artist with respect to the canvas.

Piero Dorazio, who knew Scarpitta since his early period in Rome in the 1940s, has often spoken of the importance of his work, and regarding the bandaged works and the “slits” he narrates: “Towards 1954-58, after the birth of his daughter Lola, Salvatore had brought to his studio all the swaddling bands used to wrap the child, and after wrapping them around frames he stiffened them with glue and painted them, as monochromes, in white, dark red, or blue, leaving openings between one coil of the strips and the next. These gaps looked like open cuts, like wounds. I was very impressed by those works for their originality and for their value as an extension of his experience with painting: they represented the first, exemplary step forward after the provocation of Burri. When Fontana came to Rome I took him to Salvatore’s studio, just as shortly thereafter I brought Leo Castelli to the studio as well, who had just opened his gallery in New York. The next year I went to see Fontana and his studio was full of canvases with the famous cuts, which must have been suggested by Scarpitta’s strips.”

The artist also makes large openings in the canvas in works from subsequent periods, like Underwood, 1960, Backstop, 1961, Guard, 1961, Racer’s Pillow, 1963, Harness for Loving, 1964 (the latter two include seatbelts from the world of auto racing Scarpitta frequented with great enthusiasm), and in works made in the 1970s and 1980s, Pouch and Settlement Sled, Dalton Sled, Equinox, Snowshoe Sled, all from 1974, Conveyer, 1976, Eco Sled, 1976-1990, and Cow Catcher and Canvas, 1989.

He explains the meaning of these “openings” himself: “The opening of canvases is not a factor of elegance, but the opening of windows, as an opening to a way to find salvation.”

Already in 1993, invited by Achille Bonito Oliva to participate with his own room at the 45th Venice Biennale, in an interview Scarpitta dwelled on the meaning of the “big holes” of his canvases and the coexistence between conceptual and materic aspects in his work: “My art is about content. Based on content, i.e. the reference to life itself, when you act as an artist the material still has to be invented, precisely as we did, starting from scratch in ‘45, also living in America, in Siberia or, like Robinson Crusoe, on a desert island. The material is what you are given precisely to objectify the situation, the content that has to be conveyed. I don’t want to talk about formalism, but a result without form would be a failure. The difficulty lies in the ability to make the content last, to make it live a long time, not for just one season, by along a trajectory. And here I would like to cite the feminine world, the trajectory of women, which traces the continuation of life. It is precisely from women that we men have much to learn, also on an intellectual level […] If an artwork expresses only the male polarity, it is a failure. My canvases are canvases of birth. The big holes I make in the surface, which some might interpret as spaces of a television, underline the moment of birth.”

The X Frames

The installation works in large format by Scarpitta, all made in 1961, composed of various juxtaposed or overlaid “modules,” with a structure in the form of an X (the forerunner of this series is X Core, made in 1959 in New York, immediately after his definitive return to the United States), are the X Frames, 1961, Kite for Invasion, 1961, Gunner’s Mate, 1961, and Untitled (Diogenes Arriving), 1961. Of these four installations, only Gunner’s Mate still exists today in its original form; the other three were dismantled by the artist during that period, and today only the individual pieces remain, since Scarpitta intended the installations to be flexible, composed of X-shaped “modules” that could be taken apart and reassembled in different, interchangeable sequences.

The works with the title of X Frames are panels or frames covered and wound with canvas, in which diagonal crosses emerge from the surface, like ribbing, in relief. These works reflect the pursuit of a rigorous minimalist style, as opposed to the works of previous years, a desire for essential quality and balance.

Some of them were shown for the first time in the exhibition Sculpture and Relief (with Bontecou, Chamberlain, Higgins) held at the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York, in May-June 1961, and then at the Dwan Gallery in Los Angeles.

The above-mentioned installation work Kite for Invasion was formed by six parts of different sizes; the large background painting, was joined, to the right and left, by two other paintings with the X form, while a fourth central painting composed of two joined isosceles trapezoids covered the central part, and two small triangular forms were inserted, below, at the corners of the large base painting. The installation as a whole was published on the poster that accompanied Scarpitta’s exhibition at the Dwan Gallery in 1961.

At the time, this work was striking for its original structure, which broke with the traditional schemes of the rectangle and the square. In a short article from that time, we read that with Kite for Invasion “Scarpitta has broken with the conventional scheme using extremely interesting forms (illustrations 1 and 2), very close to the experiences of the most ‘magical’ New York School: forms that await confirmation in the future, but for the moment appear to be endowed with indubitable artistic qualities.”

Scarpitta, in a conversation with Carla Lonzi that took place in the artist’s studio in New York in 1968, discusses the experience of creating the X paintings: “the modules: I did them too, there were here, I did the exhibition at Castelli, in 1961. The modules, namely formal repetitions of one single factor, multipliable, so as to be put into sequence or anti-sequence, in an almost mathematical sense of 1, 3, 5 or 2, 5, 1 or 1, 4, 6. In this sense, already interrupted sequences, they were already standing in 1961 at Castelli. Yes, isn’t it so? For sure, Carla, and I did two exhibitions: one at Castelli and another, with the same stuff, at the Dwan Gallery in Los Angeles […] And then, as I was saying, Carla, these modules I did then, in ‘61, were based on the X, were interchangeable, in the sense that you could make a freer display. Someone who put those things of mine in their home could arrange them in numerical or anti-numerical order, as they saw fit […] it was quite a new development, for me, to leave up to those who displayed the paintings the taste, if you will, of arranging these things in the way they thought was best. Of course when I did the exhibition, then, I contradicted myself, because I put them in the sequence I would have liked […].”

Looking at Scarpitta’s X installations, true architectonic structures in painted form, we can seen affinities with and harbingers of certain typical themes of the American Minimalists (Donald Judd, Dan Flavin, Richard Serra, Bruce Nauman, Frank Stella) who directed their research, with different modes and materials, towards basic shapes and elementary structures, accentuating the concept of the series and multiple compositions.

Scarpitta narrates that the works with the elastic belts, made in the period 1959-60, were followed by “the X paintings, shown in an exhibition at the Dwan Gallery in Los Angeles in 1961. The X Frames consist of a commercial painting frame lined with cardboard, with an X-shaped support at the center. I don’t know for what reason, but I made two or three of them every day, and piled them up next to each other; the idea was that anyone could organize them, as he liked. I wanted to convey a relative view of the work and the idea was to be less involved in the final arrangement of the work. […] The stimulus to make them, though it sounds absurd today, meant something for me. In an American building, before it is demolished, they put Xs on the windows. The Xs are there to tell people that the building is condemned. Something about those barely noticed Xs struck me that year, to the point where I took a frame and put an X inside it. […] The insertion of that X grafted into my work changed the obligatory configuration of the rectangle, then, so the immediate consequences in the next work, presented at Leo Castelli, still in 1961, were paintings that were no longer quadrangular, but open to different shapes. Breaking with the constraining scheme of the rectangle, which at the time was the only possible field of operation, I wanted to make air circulate where the canvas, with its form, had become oppressive.”

But why does the form of the X, one of the most ancient symbols of humankind, become a constant in Scarpitta’s work? Before answering this question, I would like to briefly summarize some of the meanings the X has taken on in our culture.

In mathematics the X takes the place of any number, positive or negative, and its function is that of the unknown, in the sense that it is the number that has to be found. The X (by) is used to indicate multiplication, in arithmetic. In biology, the pair of XX chromosomes characterizes female mammals, while in birds it determines male individuals.

The X is also found in the “monogram of Christ” or “Chi-Rho,” generated by two Greek letters: the “X” (“chi” in Greek) and the “P” (“rho”), which represent the initials of the word Khristòs, which in ancient Greek meant “the anointed one,” a word used to identify Jesus. Furthermore, the Saint Andrew’s Cross (crux decussata, in Latin), thus called because it was on a cross of this form, with its arms placed diagonally in an “X” and not perpendicular, that the apostle Andrew was executed, bound or nailed with arms and legs spread; famous painted renditions include The Martyrdom of Saint Andrew (1675) by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (Museo del Prado) and that of Mattia Preti (Church of Sant’Andrea della Valle, Rome), while Carlo Dolci, in Saint Andrew Praying before his Martyrdom (1646), conserved at Palazzo Pitti, Florence, shows the saint kneeling before the imposing cross.

All of Scarpitta’s work is pervaded by a sense of the sacred. The artist himself stated that the “bandaging” of his paintings “were an Italian experience, among the most religious. In my memory the first link is with the handkerchief of Veronica on the face of Christ, but back then, believing I was an atheist, I did not intend the religious sentiment, if not in a secular sense.”

This sense of the sacred is well expressed in Panciera (Girdle), 1959, a small work in which Scarpitta covers the “X” base with a large bandage (“handkerchief”) that leaves a glimpse of the intersection of the two diagonals that form the cross of Saint Andrew, a sign of suffering for which the protective crosswise band offers comfort.

Also in other works, such as St. Andrew’s Staples, 1961, Box Kite, 1961, Homage au bœuf écorché (14), 1961 (the latter inspired by the painting The Slaughtered Ox, 1655, by Rembrandt), Avon X, 1962, X Caged Poncho, 1974, Bandolier, 1979, the “X” structure recurs and reconnects to an initial sacrality associated with the Saint Andrew’s Cross, as is clearly expressed in the three paintings entitled Saint Andrew’s Cross made in 1959. In these three works, Scarpitta combines the figure of the X with the presence of many sharp cuts that represent a more vividly sensed reality, a painful inner presence from which it is not easy to escape: “in spite of the desire for self-control that had led me to ‘cool down’ a certain Expressionism in my painting, from the earlier ‘ectoplasms’ all the way to the ‘Saint Andrew’s Crosses,’ I have often been hastily defined as an Expressionist. But my background, as for Fontana, was classical. If we then consider the cut, for him it was a gestural matter, while in my case, instead, the need to open the canvas serves to make a form of greater reality tangible, not a matter of ‘style’ but a different concreteness of content.”

The X, as Scarpitta explained, also alludes to the sense of exclusion, to all the obstacles and impediments he encountered in his life as an artist, like the drama of the blockade set up by the New York art world, which he had to face after his return to the United States at the end of 1958, after over twenty years spent in Italy; furthermore, since it is bandaged, the X also represents a protection, a defense, a barrier against invasion and highhandedness, to safeguard his own life: “When I came back, for me America was a completely new country, to be discovered. […] It wasn’t easy to get reaccustomed to American life. At the start I felt alone, the sense of community I had in Italy was absolutely lacking […] They no longer recognized me as an American, it was a period when people were all damned jingoistic imperialists!”

Extramurals: between painting and sculpture

A few weeks after his return to the United States the exhibition Salvatore Scarpitta – Extramurals opened at the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York, in January 1959. It was to be the first of a long series of solo and group shows, reflecting four decades of work and friendship between Scarpitta and Leo Castelli. Reviewing the show for the “New York Post,” Bennet Schiff considered the originality of Scarpitta’s work: “The art of Salvatore Scarpitta is something completely new with respect to what has been done thus far […] So in the year 1959 we have something new.”

The three-dimensional works shown at Castelli, called Extramurals, invaded, as Scarpitta put it, “space no longer in a pictorial sense, but in I would say an almost architectural sense.”

Scarpitta is actually much more a painter than is generally assumed: almost always, his compositions are nimble and pondered structures, where a figural element (belt, car fragment, hook) is associated with painterly elements (resin, painted marks, sprays, organic mixtures made with coffee, tea, iodine), contributing to form a completely unified whole, as for example in Barefoot and Harness for Loving, both dated 1964. These two works, in particular, but also others in this period, are inspired by the world of auto racing and foreshadow the construction of racing cars, and his participation in the 1980s in races on tracks in Maryland and Pennsylvania. They are works that transmit a complete expression of the vastness of his inner world: from the deep cuts to the tightly wound strips that border them, to belts, buckles and bolts that connect and protect.

The practice of incorporating car fragments in his works, for Scarpitta, is a way of commemorating and extending the life of young drivers killed in accidents on the tracks: “I began to use certain things attached to the canvas, like seatbelts, racing harness buckles, parachute clasps, aeronautical or racing car tubes, exhaust pipes, and I grafted these things into my canvas, as if to bring me back towards a world that could better ratify my presence here, in America […] I made a bit of use of my environment that I sought, an environment of human protection in an organic-mechanistic world.”

The work Outrider, 1970, is the start of a series in which the horizontal subdivision of space, in this case defined symmetrically by four bandaged parts, is interrupted by a central cylindrical structure, also wrapped, placed vertically to conceal the point of intersection of the arms of a decussate cross. This compositional scheme, with variations, is reprised by the artist in other works made in the second half of the 1970s (Day Rider, 1978, Baton Noire, Breast Plate, Trolley, Bendix, Archer and Chalice, the latter six done in 1979).

 

Following insights and notes in the exhibition catalogue