“Salvatore Scarpitta: Traveler” At the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden to Jan. 11, 2015

“Sundial for Racing” by Salvatore Scarpitta (1962)

About 40 years before Mexican artist Damian Ortega started pulling apart Volkswagen Beetles and suspending the parts from wires—and about a decade before the artist collective Ant Farm planted “Cadillac Ranch” in a field in Amarillo, Texas—Salvatore Scarpitta was assembling sprint cars and exhibiting them in Leo Castelli’s New York gallery. It’s an odd gesture for a painter, but for a man who once painted numbers on the sides of racecars at the age of 14, not so much; he put down his paintbrush and built a nonfunctional replica of a 1930 American racing car in 1965, and again in 1969. And just like Jasper Johns’ beer cans, Leo Castelli showed and sold them.

Last week, the Hirshhorn opened “Salvatore Scarpitta: Traveler,” anchored by two of Scarpitta’s cars—“Sal Cragar,” which Scarpitta built by hand in 1969, and “Trevis Race Car,” which he bought and painted in 1985. But despite their ostentatious presence and novelty, the vehicles don’t lap the other fine works in the exhibition.

Though the cars that once spun circles on dirt tracks are the simplest illustration of travel in the exhibit, it is also a continuing thread in Scarpitta’s evolution into mature work. Born in New York and raised in California, Scarpitta moved to Italy in 1936 at the age of 17 to study at the Academy of Fine Arts in Rome. He spent parts of World War II dodging Nazis, and for a year, he repatriated Italian national treasures as a Monuments Man. After the war, Scarpitta returned to the academic act of wrestling with Cubism and Futurism. However, as the postwar influences of Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning migrated east, Scarpitta and several other European artists moved away from the influences of Pablo Picasso and Giacomo Balla to find their own voices. Lucio Fontana slashed canvases. Alberto Burri stitched canvases together from sackcloth.

And Scarpitta began his series of Extramurals, which are visible in the first gallery of the Hirshhorn exhibition. Nearly achromatic strips of canvas bandage the stretchers, stained by iodine and tea. The works are, in a way, faster than the cars, and quick to seduce with their overlapping folds and intersections. When the Extramurals were first exhibited in Rome in 1957, a young Piero Manzoni asked to imitate them, and a-not-so-young Castelli asked to exhibit them in New York. Scarpitta was about to travel again.

The second gallery of the exhibit slows down. The cars dominate the floor, and in a sense they also dominate the walls; after returning to the U.S., Scarpitta started including car parts in paintings like “Sundial for Racing,” binding colored canvases together with straps and belts. He was channeling the passions of his inner child by constructing cars but, ironically, the work flips the influence of Futurism on its head. The dynamism is rendered static, the influence of Balla in freeze frame.

The third gallery, however, turns a corner, and the work speeds up once again with a suite of sleds. Scarpitta took the wheels off his cars and replaced them with runners, bandaging them up like his earlier paintings. In many respects, they are more adventuresome than either earlier set of work. Where the cars might only spin their wheels and drive in circles, the sleds take our imaginations across distant terrain to the poles of the earth.

While the show is intended to be a simple survey—a reintroduction to the work of a singular artist who taught at MICA for more than 30 years—the novelty of the cars appears to be the big winner. However, as potential backmarkers of the exhibition, it’s the paintings and sleds that get the checkered flag.

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