Sculptural strands of crimson bandages traverse the surface of Salvatore Scarpitta’s magnificent painting, Housing Developed. Executed in 1960, the work hails from the Italian-American artist’s pioneering series of ‘torn’ paintings, which he first initiated in 1957 while sharing a studio with Cy Twombly in Rome. In this dynamic body of work, Scarpitta radically subverted the genre of painting by deconstructing the canvas, as its traditional support, into strips or bandages that would constitute both subject and medium. Representing the climax of this technique, the dense and rigorous schema of competing and interlocking canvas bands in Housing Developed testifies to a seminal art historical innovation. As author Claudio Cerritelli attests: “[w]rapped paintings by Scarpitta are inventions that have no reference points elsewhere, for the simple reason that their physical identity is the internal identity of the material, its colour, the tension of the visible and invisible parts” (Claudio Cerritelli, ‘La Flagranza dell'opera nell'avventura creativa di Salvatore Scarpitta’ in: Meta: Parole & Immagini, Florence 1994, p. 25). The artist’s revolutionary contribution has been increasingly recognised in recent years, with a major solo show at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, in 2014.
Composed in the year following Scarpitta’s first solo exhibition, Extramurals, at the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York, Housing Developed dates from a seminal moment in the artist’s career. Born in New York and raised in Los Angeles, Scarpitta travelled to Rome in 1937 to train as a painter. His artistic breakthrough was led, two decades later, by a pair of critically acclaimed shows at the Galleria del Naviglio in Milan and the Galleria La Taratuga in Rome in 1957. A year later, an introduction to Leo Castelli in Rome proved invaluable for Scarpitta's career, prompting the artist to return to New York in 1958. Scarpitta was quickly recruited into Castelli's fold and through the revered art dealer became acquainted with the likes of Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline and Mark Rothko. Looking back on the time, Scarpitta recalled: "with Leo a great friendship was born, and a great, immediate interest in my work. Leo and I were like brothers" (Salvatore Scarpitta cited in: Exh. Cat., Radda, Castello di Volpaia, Salvatore Scarpitta, 1992, p. 14).
Scarpitta’s return to New York had a profound impact on his life, and his ‘torn’ paintings became ever more dynamic. He was fascinated by the frenetic metropolis of New York City, with its littered streets, high-rise buildings, and bustling crowds. Indeed, in both title and composition, Housing Developed seems to evoke a sense of the overwhelming vitality of the world’s artistic capital in the 1960s. Harbouring a vivacious and irresistible energy, the work’s lavish sculptural pleats of blazing red – made taut with resin – are evocative of the architectural structures that embellish the city’s skyline, as much as the quintessential chaos and impurity of the streets. As the artist recalled: “In 1959 I moved to New York, and here nothing seemed clean, everything was dirty and I was extremely interested in this dirtiness, since this was human dirtiness, which America was in some way employing as a great material for its painting. I found the synonym for American vitality in the dirtiness, so in order to conserve the Italian vitality, of the raw, pulled and torn canvas, I paralysed it, soaking it in plastic materials, and I blocked the forms to arrive at a higher, less relaxed kind of tension” (Salvatore Scarpitta in conversation with Germano Celant in: Exh. Cat., Turin-Brescia, Notzie – Studio C, Salvatore Scarpitta, 1972, n.p.). Simultaneously, the bandaged modulations of light and shadow express a unique sculptural depth and opulence, reminiscent of the extravagant drapery of Renaissance paintings. Heavy with resin, Scarpitta’s undulating folds, ridges and peaks appear cemented in a state of material metamorphosis.
Scarpitta's radically ‘bandaged’ works signalled a new minimalistic approach to the canvas as a three-dimensional art object. No longer merely a surface upon which to paint, the stretcher became an armature around which swathes of rough canvas were wrapped and criss-crossed as overlapping textural bandages. Alongside his contemporary Alberto Burri, Scarpitta explored the autonomy of the art object and its materiality, therein presaging the Arte Povera movement of the following decade. Furthermore, Piero Manzoni's kaolin-soaked works bear a strong resemblance to Scarpitta's saturated swathes of monochrome canvas. Like many artists of the post-war generation, Scarpitta's artistic exploration was heavily influenced by his experience of war. Similar to Burri's metaphorically torn and stitched Sacchi, the deep crimson bandages of Housing Developed are distinctly reminiscent of blood drenched medical dressings. However, in his destructive treatment of the traditionally flat surface of the canvas, Scarpitta is often compared most closely to Lucio Fontana. Indeed, there is even evidence to suggest that Fontana's first Concetto Spaziale was preceded by a visit to Scarpitta's studio in 1957. Piero Dorazio later wrote of this event: "when Fontana came to Rome I took him to Salvatore's studio... The next year I went to visit Fontana and his studio was full of canvases with the famous slashes, which could only have been suggested by the swathing bands of Scarpitta" (Piero Dorazio, 'For Salvatore Scarpitta' in: Exh. Cat., Arbur, Centro d'Arte Arbur, Scarpitta, 2000, pp. 61-62). Closely allied with the ground-breaking practices of the first generation of artists to emerge after the second world war, Housing Developed is a superlative work from one of the most innovative artists of the Twentieth Century.
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