‘Canvas: twisted, stretched, slashed, ripped, taut as the hood of an ancient touring car, as the cover of a prairie schooner, swollen as a sail flapping in the wind, rigid as a bandage, cheerful as a tablecloth stained during a convivial feast, tragic as a sheet in a morgue. Canvas: by man woven for man destined; canvas, this utterly human integument which accompanies man from his first cry at birth to his dying gasp, this element so vital to every culture, agriculture, maritime or pastoral; this alpha and omega of the post-medieval painter and of the modern artist is here in Scarpitta elevated to the only material with which he works’ (CESARE VIVALDI)
‘‘De Kooning, who in my opinion was the most intelligent painter in America in the last hundred years, told me: “You look like someone who wants to break the window of a jewellery store with his fist. And what counts isn’t the jewellery, but the broken window.” He truly understood the significance of my works... He also said: “Burri makes wounds, but you heal them!”’ (SALVATORE SCARPITTA)
Executed in 1958, Salvatore Scarpitta’s Isola (Bedroom Wall) is one of the first of the artist’s radical and trailblazing ‘wrapped’ canvas works, a pivotal series that challenged and significantly expanded the concept of painting in the post-war era. Constructed from stretched bands of horizontal canvas coated in glue, known as bandages, this work is simultaneously a painting and a sculpture, its material composition collapsing the distinctions between the support and subject to become a three-dimensional, autonomous object. With all traces of the artist’s own hand expunged, Isola (Bedroom Wall) is an elegant and minimal single entity, its bipartite structure extending into and coalescing with the space surrounding it. 1958 was a breakthrough year in the life and career of Scarpitta, an annus mirabilis that saw him emerge as a prominent figure in the international art world, as well as forge a lifelong friendship with the legendary gallerist and dealer, Leo Castelli. Castelli, who originally owned Isola (Bedroom Wall), encouraged Scarpitta – an American born to parents of Italian and Russian-Polish origin – to return to his native USA, and so, at the end of the year, the artist set sail for New York, marking the end of this formative period of his early career.
Executed while the artist was living and working in Rome, Isola (Bedroom Wall) was born out of a time of fervent creative experimentation and optimism as artists sought to revitalise art. As Scarpitta recalled, ‘there was an atmosphere of extraordinary energy, we were survivors, and the happiness and desire to live were so great that we created a new art’ (Scarpitta, quoted in L. Sansone, Salvatore Scarpitta: Catalogue Raisonné, Milan, 2005, p. 60). It was in this atmosphere of intense excitement and creativity that Scarpitta made a sudden, radical and decisive breakthrough: he ripped up his oil painted canvases, slashing and tearing them before reconfiguring the fragmented pieces on a frame. Then, as Scarpitta explained, he created, ‘a work to clean up what had been a rather exasperated gesture. I somehow had to recover the lost material, so I polished this idea that was rather iconoclastic, and took the canvas from a dilapidated state to a more “surreal”, almost abstract condition, due to the raw, plain canvas, no longer ripped but pulled’ (Scarpitta, quoted in ibid., p. 66). Isola (Bedroom Wall) is one of the aforementioned works; a unified entity of sweeping, stretched, colourless material, it resonates with a purified simplicity. Like Piero Manzoni’s concurrent, self-generating Achromes and Enrico Castellani’s Superfici, Isola (Bedroom Wall) refers solely unto itself, freed from mimesis and illusionism.
Said to have been inspired by the bands of cloth used to swathe his new born daughter, the ‘wrapped’ or ‘bandaged’ canvases such as Isola (Bedroom Wall) can also be seen as a direct and visceral response to the war. Scarpitta had served in the US Army, working as a ‘Monuments Man’ to track, save and salvage artworks looted by the Nazis. Like many of his contemporaries, in particular Alberto Burri, Scarpitta felt that traditional means of pictorial expression were no longer adequate within a post-war era and sought a new, more direct and visceral mode of art. For him, the act of ripping up and reconfiguring the canvas – the basis of painting since the Renaissance – was an emancipatory, cathartic gesture; the result of a need to free himself completely from the weight of the past and embrace reality. ‘In my previous paintings I used oils, tubes and brushes’, Scarpitta explained, ‘the tubes of paint were like shells, but I wanted to hunt the prey with my bare hands. 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. Otherwise I would never have been cured of the war’ (Scarpitta, quoted in ibid., p. 65). Often described as medical bandages straddling gaping wounds, the horizontal bands can be seen as intrinsically healing, akin to Burri’s stitched Sacchi. Reducing art to its elemental components, Scarpitta’s ‘wrapped’ canvases were inherently of their time, paving the way for the artistic tendencies that would come to dominate the 1960s, namely Arte Povera, Minimalism and Conceptual art.