Radically subverting the very notion of painting itself, Salvatore Scarpitta's The Corn Queen anticipated the revolution in postwar art. Executed in 1959, its dramatic, destructive treatment of the traditional medium of canvas and stretcher immediately identifies it as a seminal example of the artist's most significant series of work from the late 1950s. Signaling a pivotal period of transformation in the Italian-American's artistic development, these works are examples of total, uninhibited abstraction; minimalist to an extreme, but laced generously with conceptual and art-historical flavor. Using some of the basic physical elements of a painting--stretcher, and cotton as well as its typical scale and shape--Scarpitta has reinvented an age old, established medium and imbued it with a new identity that verges on the surreal. Becoming almost sculptural, the stretcher frame acts as an armature subsumed by the swaths of medical bandages. Reminiscent in color and texture of unadorned canvas, strips of cloth have been tightly woven into a taut, irregular pattern that is weighted by sand and resin. Pulled, stretched and torn, the unorthodox materials used in The Corn Queen display a surprising myriad of textures and tones. Any conventional, supportive role that they might usually have had has been usurped. In this radical, three-dimensional incarnation, it is the material itself that is the subject and central focus of the work. Dating from an important year for the artist, The Corn Queen was exhibited in his first solo show at the Leo Castelli Gallery, New York. Other examples from this exhibition were bought by Willem de Kooning, while Composition I from this year is in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Revitalizing a traditional medium, The Corn Queen speaks of the expressive freedom that Scarpitta surrendered to when making it: "I didn't have a plan, I took the canvas, I cut it, reversed it and wrapped it around the frame" (S. Scarpitta, quoted in "Salvatore Scarpitta in conversation with Laura Cherubini," Castello di Volpaia, exh. cat., Splendente, 1992, p. 17). Exemplifying Scarpitta's experimental use of material, these inaugural "torn" or "bandaged" paintings, which he first began while living in Rome in 1957, marked an intersection between the European Art Informel movements of the immediate post-war years and Arte Povera art that emerged in the late 1960s. Ripping and tearing the canvas in a quest for dematerialization, Scarpitta's work shares concerns with Mario Merz, for instance, while his rejection of geometric structures and formal discipline is in alignment with the iconoclastic agenda of Alberto Burri. In his direct assault upon the sacrosanct surface of the canvas, however, Scarpitta is perhaps most in alignment with Lucio Fontana, who was an acquaintance. It has even been suggested that Fontana's first Concetto Spaziale featuring tagli (slashes) was preceded by a visit to Scarpitta's studio in 1957. The Italian artist Piero Dorazio later wrote of this event: "when Fontana came to Rome I took him to Salvatore's studio. ...The next year I went to visit Fontana and his studio was full of canvases with the famous slashes, which could only have been suggested by the swathing bands of Scarpitta" (P. Dorazio, "For Salvatore Scarpitta," Scarpitta, exh. cat., Arbur, Centro d'Arte Arbur, 2000, pp. 61-2). Although often overlooked in relation to these giants, Scarpitta's work was clearly allied to the pioneering work of this postwar generation in presenting an enduring challenge to social and artistic conventions. This is being increasingly recognized, as evidenced by his upcoming solo exhibition at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C., in 2014, and his recent inclusion in major group shows, such as 2013's Destroy the Picture: Painting the Void, 1949-1962 at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, which later traveled to Chicago.
Although brought up in the United States, Scarpitta had followed in his father's footsteps and studied art in Italy, before serving as a "Monuments Man" during the Second World War. Like Alberto Burri and others of their generation, Scarpitta's driving desire to explore beyond accepted social and cultural boundaries stemmed from their experiences during the war. The bandages in The Corn Queen are deliberately reminiscent of medical dressings. Bound firmly around the stretcher like dressing, they suggest healing, care and spiritual renewal.
Although reflecting the violence and injury inflicted by war, Scarpitta was keen to emphasize that his work of the postwar period in fact reflected his faith in the human spirit being able to overcome adversity. Following his period of service, Scarpitta returned to Rome, staying there for a further ten years. There, reunited with artist friends who had been separated by years of conflict, and filled with optimism for the future, he was overwhelmed by sense of freedom and a spirit of invigoration. The new lease on life that being a survivor gave to Scarpitta unleashed an inspirational zeal that is evident in the sheer innovation and strength of mind that gave birth to The Corn Queen. As Scarpitta said, "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" (S. Scarpitta quoted in L. Sansone, Salvatore Scarpitta Catalogue Raisonné, Milan, 2005, p. 60).