But why do you paint? In the world there are 250.000 people who paint! But it is the taste for making your own paintings that count, not comparison with the others, whether they are famous or not. It’s your own experience wound into some moment of extreme precision, under incredible pressure… the confidence of being able to react at the right moment. Being an artist means having good reflexes in the sense I think we are similar to racing drivers’.
(Scarpitta, quoted in c. Lonzi, Autoritratto, Bari, 1969, p. 263, in L. Sansone, Salvatore Scarpitta catalogue raisonné, Milan, 2005, p. 84).
In Salvatore Scarpitta's Red Dust, sensual runs of red material run like a helter-skelter, looping between the struts of the support, creating an incredible, dynamic sense of visual flow that is only heightened by the yawning gaps between some of the strands, which boldly bring our attention both to the material and its absence, highlighting its uniquely sculptural qualities. Created in 1963, Red Dust shows the way in which Scarpitta had managed to push his bandaged works to new, innovative extremes during his years back in the United States. This previously little-known picture was originally a gift from the artist himself, adding a highly personal dimension to its importance.
Scarpitta had returned to the United States four years before he made Red Dust, having spent a long formative period in Italy, based in Rome. Now, he found a new energy and a new focus, as is in evidence in this work. It has an incredible boldness that is accentuated by the rich red of the material. The glimmeringly reflective surface of Red Dust speaks of new industrial processes, of a new world. It has a sensuality and also an optimism, a heat, a sense of energy and activity. This is the red of the racing cars that so consistently fascinated Scarpitta, and which he would begin to construct in later years. This is a red that sings of life, a song whose lyrics are enshrined within the calligraphic arrangement of the bands that weave their way back and forth, up and down, across the boundaries of the work.
Hinging on the wooden frame, these bandage-like strips of material are penetrated with holes through which the world behind the picture is revealed. This glimpse of space is very different to that seen in the Tagli of Lucio Fontana, which some writers have speculated owed their own inception in part to Scarpitta. Instead, these holes emphasise the three-dimensionality of Red Dust, and its sheer objecthood and materiality. While Fontana was cutting through his surface in order to illustrate space, in Scarpitta's work, the presence of this space highlights the nature of the surface. This is all the more emphatic in Red Dust because of the sheer impact of its colour, as well as the wreathing tumult of its composition.
Scarpitta had made his discovery in Rome at a time when other artists, in particular in Milan, were reconfiguring the entire nature of painting, for instance Piero Manzoni, Agostino Bonalumi and Enrico Castellani. Scarpitta's works appear to have emerged just before they began to explore the three-dimensional nature of painting, creating their shaped canvases. At the same time, like them, Scarpitta voided his pictures of any sense of figuration or evocation. Instead, he turned to the monochrome, as is evidenced in Red Dust. This was again a development shared by his Northern contemporaries. However, Scarpitta's monochrome is in many ways a reflection of the material itself, a celebration of its own inherent qualities.
In Red Dust, the bandage-like pieces of canvas that had featured in Scarpitta's earlier works have in fact been replaced by straps, with buckles in evidence on the surface, underscoring the materiality of the work. This shows the distance that Scarpitta had come since his return from Italy: he is embracing the found world in a new way, while also moving further away from the stricter confines of the canvas and its frame. Here, the cross-bars around which the straps have been looped appear like pipes, with cylindrical areas, rather than the traditional wooden beams. Some of the cross-bars appear to be held in place by the material, rather than vice versa, deliberately subverting the former hierarchy of the picture frame and its structure. At the same time, the use of these materials demonstrates the idea that Scarpitta was now dealing less with the issue of painting as with including the real world within the picture-frame. Where his initial solution of using bands of canvas had in a sense resulted from his frustration with painting materials, here he has truly transcended them, creating something that is fresh and yet which is wholly anchored within the world of the observer.