A Racing Passion

The Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis has brought together the largest number of Salvatore Scarpitta’s life-size, fully-functioning works of art ever assembled in the U.S.

Photo: Tom Van Eynde
The Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis has brought together the largest number of Salvatore Scarpitta’s life-size, fully-functioning works of art ever assembled in the U.S.
Salvatore Scarpitta's lifelong fascination with racing unfolds in a comprehensive exhibition at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis.

Salvatore Scarpitta’s lifelong fascination with racing unfolds in a comprehensive exhibition at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis.

Courtesy Amy Wolf Fine Art, New York, © Stella Alba Cartaino.

Salvatore Scarpitta, Autoritratto con auto da corsa (Auto Collage), 1966. Tempera and collage on cardboard, 25-1/2 inches x 18 inches. 

“He saw race cars as objects with presence, importance, dynamism, and motion. His car sculptures are homage, not just to the sport, but to its drivers.“

Lisa Melandri

For Salvatore Scarpitta, the sport of car racing was more than an event. It was danger, excitement, courage, speed, and a lifelong fascination that turned up over and over in his art.

To understand the depth of passion an adolescent Salvatore Scarpitta had for race cars, you have to understand that Scarpitta didn’t just go to the car racing events, held near his Hollywood, California home. He went there every week—for four years. He even managed to find his way into a pit crew, though once he was discovered, the crew tossed him out.

So it’s no surprise that when Scarpitta grew up and began working as an artist (he was one of Leo Castelli’s original 10 artists, along with Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns), his later works would include art with racing car motifs and assemblages created from pieces of racing car wreckage. In 1964, as the story goes, he was working on one such assemblage when he realized he had pushed it as far as he could go. He immediately stopped his work and went out and built a facsimile of a race car, using original car parts, wood and plastic. “They were fabrications from found objects,” says his daughter Stella Cartaino. “He repurposed them. But they are good enough to fool true gear-heads.”

A collection of these facsimile cars will be on display through April at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis. In fact, CAM will present the largest number of these life-size, fully-functioning works of art ever assembled in the U.S.

“Scarpitta was a man in between,” says Lisa Melandri, CAM’s executive director and the exhibit’s curator. “He came of age in Italy, and was raised during his teen years in L.A. But he went back and forth between his home country and America a great deal during his life.”

Salvatore Scarpitta, Auto, 1952.
Private Collection, Milan, © Stella Alba Cartaino.

Salvatore Scarpitta, Auto, 1952. Ink and gouache on paper, 18 x 26 inches.

Salvatore Scarpitta, Incident at Castelli, 1987.
Collection of Claudio Guenzani, Courtesy Studio Guenzani, Milan. Photo © 1987 Joan Bankemper, © St ella Alba Cartaino.

Salvatore Scarpitta, Incident at Castelli, 1987. Installation of 8 black - and - white photographs, 1 color photograph, and car scrap . Photographs: 86-1/2 x 116 inches; car scrap: 69-1/2 x 67 x 25-1/2 inches.

Salvatore Scarpitta, Racing Car, 1990.
Galleria Niccoli, Parma, © Stella Alba Cartaino.

Salvatore Scarpitta, Racing Car, 1990. Race car, steel, iron, sheet metal, plastic, 88-1/2 x 157-1/2 x 78-3/4 inches. 

Salvatore Scarpitta, Sal Crager, 1969.
Collection of Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C., © Ste lla Alba Cartaino.

Salvatore Scarpitta, Sal Crager, 1969. Race car, 42 x 132 x 71-1/2 inches. 

Salvatore Scarpitta, Sal’s Red Hauler Special, 1966 – 67.
Collection of Fondazione Alma e Alberto Montrasio, © Ste lla Alba Cartaino.

Salvatore Scarpitta, Sal’s Red Hauler Special, 1966 – 67. Race car, 43 x 106 x 50 inches. 

Scarpitta was studying art at the Academy of Fine Arts in Rome when World War II erupted, and Italy declared war on the U.S. Scarpitta stayed in Italy and fought in the resistance against Mussolini. Eventually, though, Scarpitta was recruited to work with the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives section of the Allies – the Monument Men (and women) who cataloged and preserved works of art stolen by the Nazis. By 1958, New York gallery owner Leo Castelli found Scarpitta in Rome and convinced him to return to America.

Scarpitta may be best known for the wrapped and bandaged “relief” canvases he produced during the 1950s, but he never lost his passion for the dirt track and sprint racing. “My dad loved everything about racing, the sounds, the smells, the speed, the people,” says Cartaino. Adds Melandri: “He saw race cars as objects with presence, importance, dynamism, and motion. His car sculptures are homage, not just to the sport, but to its drivers.”

By 1959, Scarpitta had moved on from his wrapped canvases and began incorporating actual car parts into his artwork. Shortly after that, Scarpitta began to build sculptural replicas of cars whose racers he most admired. “Scarpitta especially admired the drivers of the 1920s and ‘30s,” says Melandri. “They were racing at a time when there were no safety features in cars or at the tracks. It took a lot of courage, risk-taking and innovation to take part in the sport back then.”

The first car Scarpitta built was Rajo Jack, in the early 1960s. Rajo Jack was the only black race car driver in the late 1920s. “If my father had a favorite car, it would be this one,” says Cartaino. “It was the first car he fabricated. It was a pioneer moment for him, not just in his career but in his life.”

Collection of Richard Milazzo and Joy Glass, New York, © Stella Alba Cartaino.

Salvatore Scarpitta, Racer (Mike), 1988. Ink on paper, 29-1/2 x 24-1/2 inches.

“This exhibit is about a boy, my father, and his journey, from the beginning, at the race-track, through the middle, as an artist, and now an end, as an artist who embraced the little boy and followed his dream.”

Stella Cartaino

After building facsimile cars through the ‘60s, Scarpitta then began to build cars that could actually race. “By the 1980s, Scarpitta had hired a mechanic and a driver to race his cars,” says Melandri – primarily at the Mid Atlantic Leagues Sprint Cup circuit. “For him, there was no difference between life and art. The object of the car was an important piece of work,” says Melandri. “The racing part of it had the vestiges of performance art. The whole was a total, thoughtful artwork.”

Visitors to the Salvatore Scarpitta: Racing Cars exhibit at CAM will see the range of cars the artist produced, along with examples of Scarpitta’s racing-themed artwork. There are five cars on exhibit, representing racing cars from the 1920s-1930s, 1980s and 1990s. “Only seven of Scarpitta’s cars exist in the world today,” says Melandri, “And the only time five or more were featured in an exhibit was in Turin, Italy in 2013. You don’t get a chance to see these cars very often.”

The temporary walls will come down for this exhibit, says Melandri. “The space will have the atmosphere of an automobile showroom.”

Installation view, Salvatore Scarpitta: Racing Cars
Photo: Tom Van Eynde

Installation view, Salvatore Scarpitta: Racing Cars, Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, January 19, 2018-April 22, 2018.

Installation view, Salvatore Scarpitta: Racing Cars
Photo: Tom Van Eynde

Installation view, Salvatore Scarpitta: Racing Cars, Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, January 19, 2018-April 22, 2018.

Installation view, Salvatore Scarpitta: Racing Cars
Photo: Tom Van Eynde

Installation view, Salvatore Scarpitta: Racing Cars, Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, January 19, 2018-April 22, 2018.

Installation view, Salvatore Scarpitta: Racing Cars
Photo: Tom Van Eynde

Installation view, Salvatore Scarpitta: Racing Cars, Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, January 19, 2018-April 22, 2018.

Installation view, Salvatore Scarpitta: Racing Cars
Photo: Tom Van Eynde

Installation view, Salvatore Scarpitta: Racing Cars, Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, January 19, 2018-April 22, 2018.

Installation view, Salvatore Scarpitta: Racing Cars
Photo: Tom Van Eynde

Installation view, Salvatore Scarpitta: Racing Cars, Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, January 19, 2018-April 22, 2018.

Installation view, Salvatore Scarpitta: Racing Cars
Photo: Tom Van Eynde

Installation view, Salvatore Scarpitta: Racing Cars, Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, January 19, 2018-April 22, 2018.

Among the cars on exhibit will be one of the #59 sprint Art cars, sponsored by Castelli. The number #59 is the number under which Scarpitta’s cars raced when they competed.

“They always had the word ‘Art’ on them,” says Cartaino, “and my father loved to tell the story of how other racers who didn’t know him thought Art was his name. They’d greet him with ‘Hi Art, how you doing?’”

In a sense, the cars will be teaching tools, giving art lovers a new perspective on art—something beyond painted canvas and sculpture – while providing car lovers with a new view of their object of passion. “We’re reaching out to car clubs and hot-rod clubs in the area. Many of those who are passionate about cars will be coming to our museum for the first time,” Melandri says.

It seems fitting. “Sal was a teacher,” says Melandri. And even now, he continues to teach. “His work tells young artists today that art is not something you can tie up with a bow. It’s a passion, and it’s possible to forge your own creative path in the art world, in whatever form that might take.”

“This exhibit is about a boy, my father, and his journey, from the beginning, at the race-track, through the middle, as an artist, and now an end, as an artist who embraced the little boy and followed his dream,” says Cartaino. “The exhibit shows that journey full circle. My father’s spirit is weeping with joy.”

For more information on the exhibit Salvatore Scarpitta: Racing Cars visit www.camstl.org

About the Author

Karen Edwards

Karen Edwards writes about books, food, wine, and pets from her home in Worthington, Ohio.

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