Salvatore C. Scarpitta Jr. (1919-2007)
Avant-garde painter and sculptor, Salvatore Scarpitta, Jr. was born in New York City on March 23, 1919. His early life was spent in the studio of his father, the famed Sicilian architect and sculptor of the same name. After the family relocated to Hollywood, California, his mother pursued a career as an actress while his father completed a commission for the bas-relief sculptures of the Los Angeles Stock Exchange Building. At the age of seventeen, he travelled to Italy with the intention of pursuing his own formal education in art. However, his Italian was not good enough for entry into the prestigious Italian academies. He first attended a “preschool” for several months before being admitted to the Italian World Academy of Architectural Arts in Palermo, Sicily, his father’s alma mater. Scarpitta then completed his training as the only American at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Rome in early 1940.
In June 1940, Italy declared war on Britain and France. Scarpitta immediately fled to the American Consul in Romania before a smallpox outbreak forced him to return to Rome. Soon after his return to Italy, he was arrested at a party hosted by the American Consul and placed under surveillance by the Fascist government. In 1942 he was sent to an internment camp outside of Rome, where he lived for eighteen months until his escape. He then lived in the Apennine Mountains among a large group of rebels which included fellow escaped prisoners, military men, and partisan groups. After almost a full year in hiding, he and seventy-eight others successfully crossed through German lines and went south to Naples, where the group was placed under diplomatic protection.
Only days after crossing enemy lines into safety, Scarpitta volunteered with the U.S. Navy and was inducted on board a Navy ship. He first served as an interpreter and interrogator of Italian prisoners of war and later assisted in the translation of papers from Mussolini’s office. He met Monuments Man Lt. Col. Ernest DeWald, Director of the MFAA Subcommission, through his father, who had been trapped in Italy during the war as a member of underground groups working to deter the Axis forces (despite having sculpted two portraits of Mussolini in the 1930s).He subsequently became involved with the MFAA in Italy, working alongside DeWald and Monuments Men Lt. Col. John Bryan Ward-Perkins, Capt. Cecil Pinsent, and Capt. Charles Morey. Scarpitta traveled to various repositories across the Tuscan countryside, inside which were hidden thousands of works of art belonging to museums and private collections in Florence. He assisted in the sorting, cataloguing, and return of countless works of art and other cultural objects before his discharge in early 1946.
But for two brief visits to the United States, Scarpitta remained in Italy until 1958. After the war, he was admitted to the American Academy in Rome, but was dismissed in 1949 after being falsely accused of harboring Communist sentiments. His first solo exhibition was held in 1948 at the Gaetano Chiurazzi Gallery in Rome, where he was hailed as “one of the protagonists of the renovation of Italian art in the post-war era.” By 1958, he had developed his trademark “bendati” or “bandaged” style of paintings, in which he purposefully slashed his canvases, then repaired them. After relocating to New York City in 1959, he held a succession of ten one-man shows at the Leo Castelli Gallery, and participated in several group shows.
Widely known as a pop artist who focused on found-object collages in his early career, Scarpitta’s work moved in a new direction in the 1960s. From 1964 to 1969, he used his childhood passion of racecars as inspiration. He built six racecars, two of which were displayed at the 1972 Venice Biennale. Scarpitta later expanded his interest to include skis and sleds, one of which was purchased by the artist Willem de Kooning.
In addition to his work as an artist, Scarpitta was a visiting critic and professor at institutions and universities across the United States, including the Maryland Institute College of Art, the School of Visual Arts in New York, and Harvard University. His work has been exhibited at the Albright-Knox Gallery, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, the Tel Aviv Museum, and the National Museum of Milan.
Salvatore Scarpitta died in New York City on April 10, 2007.
Photo courtesy of the Walter Gleason Collection, The Monuments Men Foundation Collection, the National WWII Museum, New Orleans, LA.