Held in the same private collection for over half a century, and unseen in public during that time, Gonippo is one of Salvatore Scarpitta’s trailblazing ‘wrapped’ canvas works: a pivotal series that challenged the very concept of painting in the postwar era. Constructed from stretched, interwoven bands of raw fabric coated in glue, it is at once a painting and a sculpture. With the distinction between support and subject collapsed, the picture plane is restaged as a structure of live material tension. Its irregular, interlaced surface tautens and swells like a chrysalis. Said to have been inspired by the swathes of cloth Scarpitta used to swaddle his new-born daughter, the ‘bandages’ in these works can be seen to express a healing impulse in the years after the Second World War, akin to Alberto Burri’s stitched Sacchi. Gonippo is a vision of catharsis, rejuvenation and rebirth. Its title is a tribute to Gonippo Raggi, a celebrated ecclesiastical artist who died in New Jersey in 1959.
At some point in my life, around 1957, I decided that the oil paints that I was using were kind of slipping away, slipping off the canvas. They were losing their presence. To staunch the flow of losing paint, I started to wrap them, treating them as if they were objects that had been wounded in some way or another, or that required healing”
Like Raggi, who came to America from Rome as a young man and became renowned for his decoration of numerous Catholic churches—including the famed Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Newark—Scarpitta was a transatlantic artist. Born in Manhattan in 1919 to parents of Italian and Russian-Polish origin, he returned to his ancestral Sicily as a teenager, and went on to study in Rome. In December 1958, encouraged by the legendary gallerist Leo Castelli, he moved back to New York. Here he began a rise to international prominence, exhibiting in solo and group shows at Castelli’s gallery alongside such other artists as Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg and John Chamberlain; the reverse of Gonippo bears his inscription of Castelli’s East 77th Street address, from where the work was first sold. While perfectly in tune with this American avant-garde, Scarpitta’s reimagined canvases had sprung from a time of fervent experimental optimism in postwar Italy. As he 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.’ He had begun slashing and tearing up his oil-painted canvases around 1957, before moving on to a more refined method. ‘I polished this idea that was rather iconoclastic,’ he said, ‘and took the canvas from a dilapidated state to a more “surreal”, almost abstract condition … no longer ripped but pulled’ (S. Scarpitta, quoted in L. Sansone, Salvatore Scarpitta: Catalogue Raisonné, Milan 2005, pp. 60, 66). Gonippo is one of these works. A unified body of stretched, criss-crossed material, it resonates with dynamic energy.
I started ripping up the oil paintings, the canvas that had become an utter enemy for me”
Scarpitta had served in the US Army during the war, working as a ‘Monuments Man’ to track down, save and catalogue artworks looted by the Nazis. Like many of his contemporaries, he began to regard traditional modes of artistic expression as inadequate in the wake of these experiences. For him, to rip up and reconfigure the canvas—the basis of painting since the Renaissance—was an emancipatory gesture: he needed to free himself from the weight of the past and to enact a physical, visceral embrace of reality. ‘It was a necessity’, he said, ‘connected with my human experience; the war had changed me … 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’ (S. Scarpitta, quoted in ibid., p. 65). In this sense, the evocation of injury in Gonippo is tempered by its sense of repair, and even of salvation. In winding the bands of fabric together, Scarpitta brings his surface to a new state of wholeness.
Lot Essay Header Image: The present lot (detail).