Salvatore Scarpitta - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Friday, October 14, 2022 | Phillips

    "I started ripping up the oil paintings, the canvas that had become an utter enemy for me. It was a necessity connected with my human experience; the war had changed me, the fear and desire for vendetta, I needed to run the risk of leaving fingerprints. I wanted to come into contact with the hidden, most difficult nature of things."
    — Salvatore Scarpitta
    Executed in 1961, Red Freight is a rare and arresting example of Italian-American artist Salvatore Scarpitta’s iconic three-dimensional wrapped paintings that brought him international renown on his return to the United States in 1958. Composed of wide, sculptural bands of deep, wine-red strips of canvas dried leather-hard and wound in a sequence of alternating horizontal and diagonal directions like bandages across a body, the work captures the balance between tension, depth, and plasticity that characterises Scarpitta’s most powerful work.


    Adding an especially emotionally charged element, the work’s title, Red Freight, compounds visual associations between the composition and the wooden boards of the red Deutsche Reischban freight trains repurposed under the Third Reich to transport weapons, goods, and, more tragically, people as the Nazi program of industrialised genocide intensified across Europe. In this respect, the corporeal dimensions of Scarpitta’s wrapped canvases take on an added poignancy here. In its visual proximity to the wounded body, Red Freight not only underscores the impact of the events of World War II on Scarpitta’s artistic development, but also points to the optimistic note of healing and regeneration that these works strike in their post-war context. In violently ripping into his canvases and repurposing the remnants in this way, Scarpitta not only deconstructed and subverted painterly convention, but in reinstating the canvas itself as the primary subject, opened radical new directions for art to take in the following decades.


    War Wounds

    "Burri makes wounds, but you heal them!"
    —Willem de Kooning to Salvatore Scarpitta
    Although American by birth and raised in Hollywood, in 1936 Scarpitta returned to his ancestral Italian home, studying and working in Rome throughout one of the city’s most artistically dynamic and exciting periods. During his two-decade stay in the city, Scarpitta contributed to a vibrant post-war art scene alongside the likes of Alberto Buri, Lucio Fontana, and fellow American Cy Twombly, who Scarpitta shared a studio with on the Via Margutta.


    Conceived, as he would lyrically put it, under the cloud of the Great War, Scarpitta, came to maturation in the long shadow of World War II, where the ‘dramatic scenes and images of wounded or dead soldiers’ that he had witnessed as a child came back to him with renewed force.i Like fellow Italian post-war artist Alberto Burri, Scarpitta had seen active service during World War II, although this was somewhat complicated given his status as an American citizen in Italy. Serving in the United States Navy, Scarpitta was also enlisted as a so-called ‘Monuments Man’, charged with identifying, recovering, and cataloguing art looted by the Nazis during this period. Such careful attention to the material life of paintings no doubt had a significant impact on Scarpitta, and it is certainly possible to read his careful wrapping of these post-war paintings as a direct echo of this important restitutional work, and as a sign of protection and recovery in the face of destruction and violence.


    [left] Alberto Burri, Combustione plastica (Plastic combustion), 1958, Citta di Castello, Fondazione Burri, Italy. Image: Luisa Ricciarini / Bridgeman Images, Artwork: © Fondazione Palazzo Albizzini Collezione Burri, Città di Castello – DACS 2022 [right] Detail of the present work
    Left: Alberto Burri, Combustione plastica (Plastic combustion), 1958, Citta di Castello, Fondazione Burri, Italy. Image: Luisa Ricciarini / Bridgeman Images, Artwork: © Fondazione Palazzo Albizzini Collezione Burri, Città di Castello / DACS, London 2022
    Right: Detail of the present work

    Like Burri, Scarpitta’s wrapped and bandaged canvases speak to a fundamental interest in the materiality of the artwork, Red Freight in particular drawing close to the corporeality of Burri’s Sacchi. Lucio Fontana’s slashed canvases offer another point of comparison, although as Piero Dorazio has suggested, Fontana’s earliest Tagli canvases might in fact have been inspired by a visit to Scarpitta’s studio in 1957, the ‘famous slashes […] suggested by the swathing bands of Scarpitta.’ii However, where both Burri and Fontana focused on the wounding of the canvas, Scarpitta saw this gesture through to its restorative conclusion, describing ‘canvases as scars that needed to be bandaged.’ Understood as part of an ongoing dialogue between key figures in this particularly dynamic phase of Italian art, Scarpitta’s wrapped paintings were highly praised for their originality and formal beauty from the outset, representing ‘the first case of a step forward after the provocation of Burri.’iii


     Lucio Fontana, Concetto spaziale, Attese, 1959, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Image: The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation/Art Resource, NY/ Scala, Florence, Artwork: © Lucio Fontana/SIAE/DACS, London 2022
    Lucio Fontana, Concetto Spaziale, Attese (Spatial Concept, Expectations), 1959, Fondazione Lucio Fontana, Milan. Artwork: © Lucio Fontana/SIAE/DACS, London 2022


    Meeting Leo Castelli


    As Luigi Sansone compellingly describes in the artist’s catalogue raisonné, 1957 and 1958 were absolutely pivotal years for Scarpitta, witnessing a decisive breakthrough in his art practice as he moved away from the dominant trends of Abstract Expressionism and towards the careful attention to material, plasticity, and colour that we see in a work like Red Freight. This sea change in Scarpitta’s practice was first announced in his 1957 exhibition at the avant-garde Galleria La Tartaruga, and the presentation of ‘his recent painting [which] establishes a relationship with the world in an increasingly intense, confidently lyrical way: free, simple, concentrated in a sign, in a thickening of material, a contrast of colour.’iv Building on this promise, the following year Scarpitta presented his first ‘bandaged’ paintings, which deeply impressed themselves on the legendary art dealer Leo Castelli when he visited the artist’s studio the same year.

    "… with Leo a great friendship was born, and a great, immediate interest in my wok. Leo and I were like brothers."
    —Salvatore Scarpitta
    Spurred by this meeting to return to the United States, Scarpitta quickly moved into close personal confidence with Castelli, who would prove to be one of the greatest champions of his work and a dear friend to the artist throughout his life. Through Castelli, Scarpitta was introduced to the most influential American artists of the day, including Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning, and after his first exhibition with the gallery in 1959 would go on to contribute to several group shows and present nine further solo exhibitions with Castelli. Exhibited at the Dwan Gallery in Los Angeles shortly after its execution in 1961, Red Freight has also been included in significant retrospectives over the years, including the 1977 survey exhibition at the Contemporary Art Museum in Houston, and the Leo Castelli Gallery’s extensive 1982 show Salvatore Scarpitta, American Cycle 1958-1982. In 1990 the work was also included in Sal Scarpitta in cooperation with Leo Castelli Gallery, hosted by the Scott Hanson Gallery. Originally acquired by Leo Castelli, the provenance of Red Freight is exceptional, a testament both to the significance of the work, and of this most fruitful relationship between a legendary artist and dealer.


    Installation view of the present work, Sal Scarpitta in collaboration with Leo Casetelli at the Scott Hanson Gallery, New York, 1990
    Installation view of the present work, Sal Scarpitta in collaboration with Leo Casetelli at the Scott Hanson Gallery, New York, 1990


    Collector’s Digest


    • One of the greatest Italian artists of the post-war period, Salvatore Scarpatti’s work bridges many central art movements of the 20th century, including Minimalism, Abstract Expressionism, and Arte Povera. In its intense materiality and focus on the working lives of his materials, Scarpitta’s wrapped canvases are undoubtably the most highly prized of the artist’s oeuvre, laying important groundwork for the Arte Povera movement and contemporary artists such as David Hammons.


    • When the work last appeared at auction in 2007, it set a world record for the artist. 


    • Examples of Scarpitta’s wrapped paintings are held in major institutions worldwide including The Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Civico Museo d’Arte Contemporanea in Milan, amongst others.


    • Representing one of the most important working relationships of his life, this work was originally acquired by Leo Castelli, and presented in the significant 1982 exhibition Salvatore Scarpitta, American Cycle 1958-1982 at the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York.


    i Luigi Sansone, Salvatore Scarpitta: Catlogue Raisonné, Milan, 2005, p. 52.
    ii Piero Dorazio, 'For Salvatore Scarpitta' in Scarppitta, (exh. cat.), Arbur, 2000, p. 62.
    iii Pietro Dorazio, quoted in Luigi Sansone, Salvatore Scarpitta: Catlogue Raisonné, Milan, 2005, p. 117
    iv Cesare Vivaldi, quoted in Luigi Sansone, Salvatore Scarpitta: Catalogue Raisonné, Milan, 2005, p. 65.

    • Provenance

      Leo Castelli Gallery, New York
      Scott Hanson Gallery, New York
      Christie's, New York, 23 February 1994, lot 62
      Tricia Collins Contemporary Art, New York
      West Collection, Pennsylvania (acquired from the above in September 1998)
      Sotheby's, New York, 15 November 2007, lot 125
      Acquired at the above sale by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      Los Angeles, Dwan Gallery, Scarpitta, 26 June – 22 July 1961
      Houston, Contemporary Arts Museum, Salvatore Scarpitta, 14 May – 30 July 1977, p. 16 (illustrated, dated 1960)
      New York, Leo Castelli Gallery, Salvatore Scarpitta, American Cycle 1958-1982, 20 November – 11 December 1982
      New York, Scott Hanson Gallery, Sal Scarpitta: A Curatorial Project by Collins & Milazzo. In Cooperation with Leo Castelli, 3 - 24 February 1990, n.p. (illustrated, dated 1962-1963)

    • Literature

      Giorgio Di Genova, Storia dell'Arte Italiana del '900. Generazione Anni Dieci, Bologna, 1990, p. 262 (dated 1962-63)
      Luigi Sansone, Salvatore Scarpitta: Catalogue Raisonné, Milan, 2005, no. 280, p. 179 (illustrated, p. 331)
      Salvatore Scarpitta, exh. cat., Galleria Civica d'Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, Turin, 2012, pp. 146, 236 (illustrated; Scott Hanson Gallery, New York, 1990 installation view illustrated)


Red Freight

signed, titled, inscribed and dated ‘“RED FREIGHT” S. Scarpitta 1961 75” x 61” c/o Leo Castelli 4 E 77 ST NY NY’ on the reverse
bandages and mixed media on canvas
190.5 x 154.9 x 14.5 cm (75 x 61 x 5 3/4 in.)
Executed in 1961.

Full Cataloguing

£900,000 - 1,200,000 ‡♠

Sold for £1,111,500

Contact Specialist

Rosanna Widén
Senior Specialist, Head of Evening Sale
+44 20 7318 4060

Olivia Thornton
Head of 20th Century & Contemporary Art, Europe
+44 20 7318 4099

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 14 October 2022