New York

Sal Scarpitta

Annina Nosei Gallery, Leo Castelli

Sal Scarpitta’s art, which is simultaneously idiosyncratic and in touch with major European and American art movements, such as Futurism, arte povera, and Minimalism, has yet to be fully recognized in America. His deepest roots are in Futurism and in the quintessentially Modern impulse to represent speed that motivated that movement. And yet, like two other major postwar Italian artists—Piero Manzoni (it is not clear who influenced whom, or if they arrived at their “wrapped” or bandaged work independently) and Alberto Burri, who was a decided influence—Scarpitta is also a product of an art history that was interrupted and to some degree destroyed by World War II. Despite the fact that he was born in New York, Scarpitta’s connection with Modern Italian art, resulting from his decade long stint in Italy, has impeded his recognition in America. Here, Scarpitta has always been viewed as an anomaly, someone whose work stands outside the various postwar movements that have occupied our attention. This two-gallery exhibition presented by Collins & Milazzo, consisting of a survey of work from the ’50s through the ’70s at Castelli and 15 recent sculptures at Annina Nosei, presents us with an opportunity to take another look.

Though far from inclusive, the survey had an important early work, Isola (Island, 1957–58), a wrapped or bandaged stretcher frame, which prefigured later wrapped works such as X-Member, 1961, and Day Rider, 1978. With the exception of the upright sled, which stood well over ten feet tall, the survey tended to emphasize Scarpitta’s practice of wrapping various frames. In this sense, the focus was formal and geared toward a particular technique that Scarpitta developed in the late ’50s, shortly before he started showing in New York. If the show had focused on subject matter instead, and thus had emphasized Scarpitta’s engagement with both mechanized and nonmechanized vehicles (sleds, race cars, skis, hockey sticks, snowshoes, and roll bars), as well as car parts, it might have clarified Scarpitta’s responsive relationship to modern history. Certainly, it would have underscored his interest in machines and his involvement with metaphors of migration and exile. Scarpitta’s response, particularly evident in his recent work, is to milk the humor out of catastrophe and disorientation. An altered baby’s high chair on a pair of skis, with an overturned helmet of excrement placed beneath a potty-hole functions as a self-contained object (a witty deflation of self-referential art), with all of the accoutrements necessary for survival. In this case, the baby’s helplessness becomes both the psychic and the formal core of the work. The keynote of the recent works is survival. Wrapped and weathered looking, The Bog Skis, 1991, lean against the wall. Is it a relic, evidence of someone’s attempt to escape or to make some impossible journey?

Scarpitta’s works suggest numerous, often conflicting readings; they are paradoxical, and therein lies Scarpitta’s strength. His Isola is a mummification of painting as well as a mysterious object withholding some final disclosure. Is it because there is nothing to disclose? Or because in the end all we have is our mortality, which underscores all art? There is an immense humor in Scarpitta’s work, one that is simultaneously generous and critical, sweet, and scornful. In this respect, it is very different from the sorts of humor (cynical, smug, and faux naive) that we are used to seeing in art, all of which are attempts to absolve the artist of responsibility. Scarpitta’s work dares us to read it, but quashes any attempt to domesticate it via a particular discourse.

John Yau