Place a racecar in the middle of an art gallery, and it’s bound to draw attention. Especially if all the other works in that art gallery are bandaged paintings and sleds—each made by the same artist. Visually they may possess similarities, but connecting the dots that motivates the artist to go from bandaged paintings, to cars, to sleds, and back to cars—eventually assembling a racing team—is a challenge. This is the difficulty of Salvatore Scarpitta’s recent retrospective (or, reintroduction, as some call it, since the exhibition is rather small) that opened in July at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.
Scarpitta, one of Leo Castelli’s original ten artists, never got the same public recognition as the likes of Rauschenberg or Johns. Despite five decades of rather good press, after 1970 most articles written about his work talk about him in terms of being unknown or under recognized. It’s no wonder that articles reviewing this most recent exhibition require reintroduction; this article is no different.
Born in New York, raised in Los Angeles, Scarpitta eventually traveled to Italy in the late 1930s to study art at the Academy of Fine Arts in Rome. When Italy declared war on the U.S. during the second World War, Scarpitta stayed, despite a price on his head, fought in the resistance against Mussolini, and eventually became a Monuments Man. After the war, he returned to school in Rome and struggled through a variety of academic styles to find his voice. Eventually, he found inspiration in Alberto Burri and Lucio Fontana, and began making paintings from strips of canvas bandaged around stretchers and stained with coffee, tea, and iodine. Castelli eventually brought him back to the U.S., and in 1964 Scarpitta built and exhibited several racecar replicas because he liked watching racecars as a kid. He remained obsessed with racing throughout the remainder of his life and eventually bought and managed a sprint car team in the twilight of his career. The end.
At least, that’s how it feels his life has been reduced, and it’s not all together malapropos. The leap from racecar to sled Scarpitta explained away by describing the sled as nothing more than a racecar without wheels. However, recent articles explaining his leap from bandaged canvas to racecar—because he went to a few racing events as a kid—seems incomplete. Fortunately, there is more to the story.
Scarpitta attended sprint car racing events in California as an adolescent, but it wasn’t just a few. He was there weekly for four years. Sometimes he found his way into the racing pits and got kicked out by the pit crew. As he recalled in an interview with Barbara Snyder in 1986, he and his friends would draw pictures of racing cars and pretend to have races during math lectures, complete with oral sound effects of screeching tires. Just like the pits, they got kicked out of math class, too.
As a student in Italy he wasn’t drawing racecars. He had to wrestle through the Classical traditions, as well as more contemporary approaches of Cubism and Futurism. However, it’s likely racing remained on his mind long before he returned to the United States in the late 1950s, as Leo Castelli’s voluminous archives illustrate. In a letter to Castelli in May, 1959—while still living in Italy—Scarpitta expressed his desire to work with Castelli’s gallery, writing, “White flame. Black flame—backfired backfired but you’re the motor and that’s what counts. The gas-mixture of our life is either too rich or too lean. Let’s register our carburation. But the motor is us. And that’s what counts.”
Once he returned to the U.S., Scarpitta returned to the racetracks, and by 1962, including pieces of Sprint Cars that crashed during races. In 1963, when Bobby Marvin was killed in a crash, Scarpitta was there to witness the tragedy. As he told Joe Scalzo of Open Wheel Magazine in 1994, he wandered onto the track after the race and discovered Marvin’s racing cushion, as well as some of the seat fasteners. All were included in a painting entitled “44,” Marvin’s racing number. Including racing belts and cushions in his paintings was not a big departure from the canvas strips in his previous Extramurals: a fitting name for a body of work produced beyond the academic scope of the 1950s. Later inclusions of pipes and other large objects made sense, especially when considering Scarpitta’s relationships with Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. The resulting assemblage was a significant clue of the cars to come.
So were the titles of his works. The Extramurals seldom hinted at an interest in racing—with oblique titles like Moby Dick, or Untitled. By 1960, after his return to the states, Scarpitta’s titles are undoubtedly influenced by cars and racing, even if some of the racing references relate more to horses than motorcars: Halter 1, Halter 2, Double Halter, Straight Away, Pole the Rail, Franz’s Ferrari (a reference to the Ferrari’s Franz Kline bought, but didn’t know how to drive).
Sprint car races were not the only racing events Scarpitta attended. On May 30, 1963, Scarpitta sent Castelli a post card from the Indianapolis 500. The verso simply stated
I loved it
you would to
The shift to make a car finally came in 1964. As he told Paul Cummings in an interview from 1975, he pushed the assemblage as far as he could, and “stopped the painting abruptly… and went out and built a facsimile of a racing car” using original car parts, wood, and plastic. As he recalled to Scalzo in 1994, a photograph of Rajo Jack’s racecar from the 1930s surfaced in his studio. Scarpitta reproduced Rajo Jack’s car, as well as several other racecars and exhibited them in Castelli’s gallery in 1965. By then, the New York art scene had seen Castelli exhibit bronzed beer cans and wooden Brillo boxes. The cars were greeted with a bit of a yawn, with exception to Charlotte Willard, who wrote in the New York Post in 1965, “Detroit may get some pointers from the Scarpitta show, and the family car will perhaps begin to look less like a cake of toilet soap and more like a motor vehicle.” Scarpitta didn’t share the sentiment, admitting to Scalzo that he thought his cars looked more like cans of baked beans than the elegant machines made by Alfa Romeo, Talbot, Mercedes, and Jaguar. Regardless, those baked beans went to the Venice Biennale in 1972—the first racecars ever seen and sold in Piazza San Marco.
Scarpitta’s work often has some social and political content projected onto it, even by Scarpitta himself. The bandaged canvases were as much a natural progression of Arte Povera as they might also have been subconscious reflections of things the artist witnessed during World War Two. The racecars seemingly possess less political underpinnings, but it isn’t impossible to project onto them as well. For instance, Rajo Jack was prohibited from racing at the Indianapolis 500 in the 1930s because he was black. It’s probably only coincidence Scarpitta reproduced Jack’s car first in 1964: the same year the Civil Rights Act was passed. Using Marvin’s racing cushion might raise awareness of the dangers of the sport for some. This year the deaths of Jason Leffler and Kevin Ward have created headlines, and some NASCAR owners don’t want their drivers in sprint cars. But the act had more to do with remembrance and memorializing the tragic death of the driver on the track.
The truth of the matter is that Scarpitta’s choice to build a series of racecars was then the closest he could come to fulfilling a childhood dream. As Scarpitta told Cummings in 1975, “I had very strong desire to even become a racing driver as a little kid. People want to be firemen. Little kids want to be policemen…. My desire was racing cars…” That desire never ran out of gas. In 1986, at the age of 67 and with Castelli’s sponsorship, he purchased a sprint car team and competed for the next 15 years on dirt tracks across the Mid-Atlantic.