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First East Coast Exhibit Of Italian-American Artist's Work Opens In D.C.

Salvatore Scarpitta, Sal Cragar, 1969. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC.
Stella Alba Cartaino
Salvatore Scarpitta, Sal Cragar, 1969. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC.

Growing up in Los Angeles in the 1930s, Salvatore Scarpitta fell in love with sprint car racing. His admiration for speed later carried over into his artwork, some of which is now on view at the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.

Salvatore Scarpitta: Traveler is the first solo exhibit of the late artist's work to be seen on the East Coast. In the exhibit, visitors can see a variety of Scarpitta's work, including painted car-parts, racecars, hand-crafted sleds and the so-called Extramurals, a series of 3D, sculptural paintings. One of the automobiles on display is from Scarpitta's own sprint car racing team, which he formed in 1986.

Hirshhorn Assistant Curator Melissa Ho says by looking at Scarpitta's work, people can get a sense of what he was experiencing in his personal life.

"The earliest body of work in the show are his so-called Extramurals, which are shaped and wrapped, for lack of a better term, paintings but they're very sculptural and those he makes after the Second World War when he's still living in Italy," she says. "So he had had a very first-hand experience of the traumas of the 20th Century in Europe, and he's talked about making those works as a kind of exorcism of working out some of the things that he had gone through during that time, and so you see in those works references to violence, but also references to healing."

When Scarpitta returned to the U.S. in the late 1950s, he started using racecar parts such as straps and buckles to make art pieces. Ho says he loved working with automobiles so much, he then made six life-sized, functional cars that are representative of human emotions.

"I think Scarpitta saw what was important about car racing was…not the cars, this technological accomplishment, but the cars an extension of human desire," she says. "He loved that the drivers were so passionate and so full of life, even as they were risking their lives on the track."

According to Ho, the abstract art that Scarpitta created in the '50s was hard for Americans to grasp because they never saw that type of work. Even though it was displayed by New York gallerist Leo Castelli for 40 years alongside other artists like Jasper Johns, Scarpitta had a hard time adjusting to the way American painters painted, which caused him to be overlooked by people.

Italian Ambassador to the U.S. Claudio Bisogniero says through Scarpitta's art, Americans can connect to Italy.

"It's a great Italian and American artist" he says. "He was born in the U.S., but he had very deep roots in Italy and he represents, the way we see it, really a bridge across the Atlantic between the U.S. and Italy."

The exhibit will be on display through Jan. 11, 2015.

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