Salvatore Scarpitta

Dated 1961 and created the year after Salvatore Scarpitta’s second solo exhibition at the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York, Guard is an early example of the influential ‘bandaged canvasses’ series started in 1957. Its distinctive wide openings are the result of torn canvas strips wrapped and interwoven to form discontinuous and open surfaces. Using the color red combined with black and natural pigmentation, the work expressively evokes the idea of the wounded canvas, heightened by the irregular surfaces, and belongs to a group of works that anticipates the artist’s interest in incorporating car racing into art. 

Referring to the canvas openings, Piero Dorazio states that “these empty spaces were like open cuts, like wounds (…)They represented the first case of a step forward after the provocation of Burri” (Piero Dorazio, “For Salvatore Scarpitta” in: Scarpitta, Centro d'Arte Arbur exhibition catalog, 2000, ppg. 31-32). He explains that Scarpitta used his newly born daughter’s swaddling bands, which he stiffened with glue and painted before wrapping them around the stretchers, often creating wide openings. These were often referred to by the artist as windows: “For me the cut was always due to this kind of claustrophobia (…), the claustrophobia of being closed in a rectangle. Opening the painting was not a matter of elegance, it was a way to open a window, a haven” (G. Celant, Salvatore Scarpitta, Gallerie Notizie exhibition catalog, Turin, Studio C., Brescia, 1972, unpaginated). It is in fact no coincidence that Scarpitta’s pioneering canvas ‘openings’ developed in parallel with the end of the war and the emergence of the baby boom generation. 

This fusion of sculpture and painting is often associated with Lucio Fontana’s ‘cuts’. According to Piero Dorazio, Scarpitta’s torn paintings may have had an influence on Fontana’s work: ”when Fontana came to Rome I took him, as well as Leo Castelli soon after, to Salvatore's studio. The next year I went to visit Fontana and his studio was full of canvasses with the famous slashes, which could only have been suggested by the swathing bands of Scarpitta" (Piero Dorazio, “For Salvatore Scarpitta” in: Scarpitta, Centro d'Arte Arbur exhibition catalog, 2000, ppg. 61-62).

The meeting with Leo Castelli in 1958 resulted in a breakthrough in Scarpitta’s life, and strongly influenced his decision to move back to the US. In New York he became involved with the circle of artists associated with Castelli, in particular Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg whose works highly resonated with that of Scarpitta’. He was also admired by various abstract expressionist artists such as Mark Rothko, Franz Kline and Willem De Kooning. The latter in fact stated “Burri makes wounds but you heal them!” (Scarpitta, quoted in L. Sansone, Salvatore Scarpitta: Catalogue Raisonné, Vol. I, Milan, 2005, ppg. 65-66). 

The works from the period of the late 1950s to the early 1960s are considered the most significant within Scarpitta’s oeuvre. Another work dated 1961 and also characterized by contrasting strips of colors is Longhorne, which takes its name from a track for racing cars in Pennsylvania which Scarpitta often visited at the beginning of the 1960s. Originally from the Leo Castelli Gallery and exhibited in 1985 in the Padiglione d’Arte Contemporanea in Milan, the work is now part of the permanent collection of the Stedelijk Museum. The importance of works such as Guard and Longhorn lies in the fact that through the minimal aesthetic of black canvas strips evoking racing tracks or car seat-belts, they anticipate Scarpitta’s interest in incorporating car racing into art.

These empty spaces were like open cuts, like wounds...They represented the first case of a step forward after the provocation of Burri.

—Piero Dorazio