Destroy the Picture: Painting the Void, 1949–1962

Salvatore Scarpitta, Sun Dial for Racing, 1962, resin, canvas, aluminum paper, and flex tubing, 89 1/4 x 72 1/2 x 5 1/2".

THAT THE RACE CAR is at the center of Salvatore Scarpitta’s art is hardly surprising, since in life he was perpetually in motion: He was born in New York but grew up in LA, lived abroad for twenty-two years, and traveled a circuit that included the international art world and rural racetracks. His is not the best known of the twenty-six names that make up the roster of artists featured in “Destroy the Picture: Painting the Void, 1949-1962,” Paul Schimmel’s important final exhibition as chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in LA, but Scarpitta’s work is among its revelatory highlights. The show’s impressive catalogue examines the productive mistreatment of painting’s picture plane by a generation of artists who spearheaded movements in Europe, the United States, and Japan immediately following World War II, and it extends Schimmel’s study of experimental art practices of that period in his 1998 exhibition “Out of Actions.” Scholarly essays and full-page illustrations (with plenty of detail shots of modernism unraveling) coax artistic strategies and underexposed connections from the wreckage.

The works in the catalogue’s almost three hundred pages, by the likes of Burri, de Saint Phalle, Deschamps, Fautrier, Fontana, Klein, and Shimamoto, sometimes resemble aggressive art-historical crime scenes (with crusted-over impasto, jagged slashes and bullet holes, and actual burns), while Scarpitta’s surfaces appear to be in the process of healing, held together by crude suturing and tightly wrapped bandages. His literal take on a painting’s material definition as canvas on a stretcher tempts one to think of a medical stretcher pulled through the trenches. His early “paintings” didn’t have much (if any) paint but rather were dyed monochromes pieced together (lists of their materials suggest the needs of a doctor restocking between shifts: fabric, gauze, iodine, coffee, tea). A breakthrough toward Scarpitta’s most distinctive style came in the early 1960s when he began using found race-car parts such as safety belts and flexible tubing.

Then, struck by the saturated canvases of New York colleagues, he embraced “American color.” Sun Dial for Racing, 1962 (above), is a bold proclamation of this heritage, complete with commanding scale (it is over seven feet tall) and horizontal swathes of color as vibrant as racing flags—exhibiting what Scarpitta would later call color’s “vitamin role” in painting—all held in suspension by straps and cables. The picture plane, like an upended car’s chassis, exposes the tension of its innards—what makes it “work”—through transparent negative space adjacent to a hybridity that refuses flatness, proudly carrying the pun of its suspension with a pair of “suspenders” that clamps the top red band to the striped gold below it. The impatience with which this show’s artists dispatched traditional expectations (of taste as much as of painting procedure) registers in Scarpitta’s title. He evokes the ancient tool that tracks the sun’s movement across the sky, as if every element were hurrying to make its mark on a surface.