Vittorio Scarpati, Untitled, 1989, felt-tip pen on paper, 8 1/4 x 5 1/8".

Vittorio Scarpati, Untitled, 1989, felt-tip pen on paper, 8 1/4 x 5 1/8".

Cookie Mueller & Vittorio Scarpati

Vittorio Scarpati, Untitled, 1989, felt-tip pen on paper, 8 1/4 x 5 1/8".

“Putti’s Pudding” names a group of forty-five felt-tip drawings culled from the pages of the Italian artist and cartoonist Vittorio Scarpati’s notebooks. They were made in 1989, while Scarpati was hospitalized, dying of pneumonia as a complication of AIDS. A repeated motif is the bedbound artist, his lungs rigged up to so many pipes and machines that they bubble with water “like tropical fish aquariums,” in the words of his wife, Cookie Mueller, who would also die of AIDS-related causes just two months after her husband. The drawings were first published that same year, with an extended preface by Mueller, here excerpted as a handout. Together, the text and illustrations combine honest exposition, black humor and whimsy and bear witness to the realities of living and dying with AIDS in the 1980s.

In the 1970s Mueller was one of John Waters’s key Dreamlanders, acting alongside Divine in Pink Flamingos (1972) and Female Trouble (1974). By the 1980s she was a beloved fixture on the downtown scene in New York, famously described by Waters as “a writer, a mother, an outlaw, an actress, a fashion designer, a go-go dancer, a witch-doctor, an art-hag, and above all a goddess.” Mueller was a brilliant writer of occasional art criticism, short stories, and autobiographical vignettes, as well as the regular Ask Dr. Mueller advice column for the East Village Eye.

In this first showing of the “Putti’s Pudding”drawings outside the US, curated by Paul Pieroni, Scarpati’s drawings were hung on the interior walls of a small white room-within-a-room, the intimacy of their display demanding that viewers press up close in order to make out their details and read the small, handwritten speech bubbles. Cherubic putti cling fast to the repeated image of Scarpati’s naked body, trailing fleshy tubing as he prays, or clutches a TV monitor to his naked torso. In one drawing, a bird’s-eye view of his prone body reveals inflamed lungs through transparent skin—one filled with an angel, the other with a vista depicting a deserted, beautiful beach, which, like the angels, recurs as a deliberately hackneyed, if heartfelt, motif.

The drawings are a love letter to Scarpati and Mueller’s relationship, and her voice takes equal part alongside his through the printed excerpts of her writings. Their voices dovetail, producing a shared dialogue as striking for its optimism as for its strident honesty. One depiction of a roaring fire surrounded by empty armchairs has Scarpati’s oversize face pressed against the window, a painting of bloodred lungs above the mantel. “He is outside in the mean cold looking in,” Mueller wrote. “The life force returns. The lungs are safe. Dreams set you free. . . . I arrived at the edge and jumped off.”  Scarpati filled three notebooks over the course of his four months in the hospital. Deprived by his illness of the ability to speak, he instead found his voice with these drawings, capturing a sense of anger and despair, but also love and hope that mark the series as a whole. too SAD/MAMMA MIA! chirps a red cardinal perched on a tree. REALLY THE WORST runs the tagline below, haloed above a lone dolphin being ridden (by Scarpati?) into the ocean at sunset. The scribbled sign-off at bottom reads simply, with confusion. But Scarpati is perhaps best remembered instead in another drawing he made depicting himself in full whip-wielding mode, triumphantly riding a snail-pulled chariot that seeks to flatten all in its wake. For Scarpati’s drawings also creep up on you slowly, their cartoonish humor giving way to deeply moving—indeed, at times, utterly devastating—reflections and rages against the aids crisis then decimating his and Mueller’s world.

Jo Applin