Salvatore Scarpitta - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale London Wednesday, June 29, 2022 | Phillips

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  • 'The work, if it is one, has to make that transition from matter to spirit that is the main passage of art.' 
    —Salvatore Scarpitta

    Born in 1919 in New York, Salvatore Scarpitta was an exceptional artist that embraced both his Italian heritage and American identity. At the beginning of the century, his father Salvatore Cartaino Scarpitta Sr. moved from Palermo to the United States. Having studied architecture, he was a successful sculptor himself and became a great influence on the artist’s work. Scarpitta reminisced, ‘He was a sculptor, and I would watch for hours as he carved stone. We were two opposite personalities. […] But apart from these clashes, my father was always a fundamental point of reference to me, and it as partially to follow in his footsteps that I decided, at the age of seventeen, to go to Italy and attend the Fine Arts Academy, the same one where he had studied, and partially to retrace my bloodline, to discover my roots, because I could sense their impact in my life.’i At a young age, his father also introduced him to the importance of cultural awareness through their visit to Native American reserves in Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico where they had many friends. Scarpitta’s fundamental experiences from his youth would certainly impact his artistic practice and in turn, his relationship with his own daughter.

    'I was at the Academy in 1939 and when 1940 rolled around, Italy itself was imploded into war. It was to become my own war for survival. […] It began its music of deception and exalted despair for all in the world to join in a chorus of delirium. Which way out? Which way in? I was swallowed up by the earth I was standing on.' —Salvatore Scarpitta

    Alberto Burri, Sacking S, 1953, Artist's Collection. Image: Bridgeman Images, Artwork: © Fondazione Palazzo Albizzini Collezione Burri, Città di Castello – DACS 2022
    Alberto Burri, Sacking S, 1953, Artist's Collection. Image: Bridgeman Images, Artwork: © Fondazione Palazzo Albizzini Collezione Burri, Città di Castello – DACS 2022


    Embroiled with the current of his time, World War II became an introspection to Scarpitta’s identity as an American citizen living in Italy. His body of work conceived in the post-war era was thus further influenced by his service in the United States Navy as he was enlisted as a ‘Monuments Man,’ charged with identifying, recovering and cataloguing art looted by the Nazis during this period. The exposure to such depth of art under exceptional circumstances was no doubt significant to Scarpitta’s creative development in his expressive use of medium and ideology. Often compared to Alberto Burri, there was a clear focus on the wounding of the canvas- an intentional act of imbuing the artist’s presence through materiality and not merely through paint. Executed in 1959, Tête de nègre is representational of Scarpitta’s style in its corporeal effect. The small gaps peeking through the bindings leaves the viewer wondering of the narrative and wanting more.


    'I returned to America with paintings, but they were the result of Italian work […]. They were the first relief canvases they had seen here, because they just didn’t exist. […] But the relief painting was perhaps the thing, filling space right from the wall, that gave Minimal Art its starting point, because it no longer invaded space in a pictorial sense, but in a sense I would say was almost architectonic.'  —Salvatore Scarpitta


    The origins of Scarpitta’s bindings was perhaps unravelled by Piero Dorazio, a good friend of the artist when they met in Rome in the early 1940s. Predominantly focused on flat abstract art in his early career, Scarpitta made a turning point when he became a father to Lola. Dorazio revealed that sometime between 1954 and 1958, the artist took bands of cloth used to swath his baby to the studio and wrapped them around a wooden frame. He then stiffened them with flue and painted them monochrome, leaving gaps between the layers of the wrapping. He noted that these spaces were like open cuts or wounds.ii It is within Tête de nègre which a viewer can glean a glimpse into the intimate love a father has for his daughter. Despite the muted monochromatic colour of the surface, the dedication on the reverse of the canvas, ‘a Lola mia tuo papá,’ demonstrates the affection Scarpitta felt when completing this work. Furthermore, the title alludes to the artist’s own childhood memories as he encountered distinct ethnicities on his regular visits to the reserves with his own father. From this perspective, it may seem that the wrappings are covering the wounds caused by the traumas of the War. That Lola was now in his life reminded him of his own childhood and provided the healing Scarpitta needed.


    Lucio Fontana, Spatial concept-expectations, 1961, Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, Rome. Image: © Stefano Baldini / Bridgeman Images, Artwork: © Lucio Fontana/SIAE/DACS, London 2022


    It was in December 1958 that Scarpitta returned definitively to the United States, shortly before the seminal year of 1959 where he found maturity in his style and crystalised his reputation. At this point, the artist was already close with dealer Leo Castelli who championed his work and introduced him to an array of his contemporaries. In January 1959, Castelli celebrated his friend with the artist’s first solo show in the United States, Salvatore Scarpitta-Extramurals. The results were stupendous as his body of work was considered completely original within the canon. Critics wrote, the ‘wrapped paintings of Scarpitta, made in 1957-89, 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.’iii Masters such as Lucio Fontana was also inspired by Scarpitta’s style. Art Historian, critic and curator Giorgio Di Genova concedes, ‘when in 1957 in Rome Scarpitta began to tear canvases into strips, Fontana had not yet begun to make his incisions.’iv Indeed it was during the seminal year of 1959 when Tête de nègre was conceived and executed. Through his works, Scarpitta invites us to delve beyond the surface, past the gaps and into something deeper.


    As one of the greatest Italian artist of the post-war period, Salvatore Scarpitta’s work bridges many central art movements of the 20th Century, including Minimalism, Abstract Expressionism and Arte Povera. It is in its intense materiality that Scarpitta’s wrapped canvases laid important groundwork for the Arte Povera movement. Examples of the artist’s works reside in major institutions worldwide including the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Civico Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Milan and the Tryon Center for Visual Art, Charlotte, North Carolina. The artist was most recently celebrated at a solo exhibition hosted by A arte Invernizzi gallery, Milan from December 2021 to February 2022.


    Salvatore Scarpitta at A arte Invernizzi gallery, Milan


    i Luigi Sansone, ed., Salvatore Scarpitta Catalogue Raisonné, 2005, Milan, p.52

    ii Luigi Sansone, ed., Salvatore Scarpitta Catalogue Raisonné, 2005, Milan, p.68
    iii Luigi Sansone, ed., Salvatore Scarpitta Catalogue Raisonné, 2005, Milan, p.67
    iv Luigi Sansone, ed., Salvatore Scarpitta Catalogue Raisonné, 2005, Milan, p.68

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    • Description

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    • Provenance

      Lola Scarpitta, Los Angeles
      Stella Scarpitta Cartaino, New York
      Acquired from the above by the present owner

    • Literature

      Luigi Sansone, Salvatore Scarpitta: Catalogue Raisonné, Milan, 2005, no. 244, p. 172 (illustrated)


Tête de nègre

signed, titled, dedicated and dated 'S. Scarpitta (due volte) 1959 Tête de Nègre a Lola mia tuo papà' on the reverse
mixed media on canvas on panel
57.8 x 76.2 cm (22 3/4 x 30 in.)
Executed in 1959.

Full Cataloguing

£200,000 - 300,000 ‡ ♠

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20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale

London Auction 29 June 2022