Saturday, July 26, 2014

Salvatore Scarpitta: Traveler

Where: Hirshhorn Museum

When: through January 11, 2015

Believe it or not, long-time readers, I saw a show at the Hirshhorn this week that I didn't hate!  I can only imagine the apocalypse is fast approaching, so repent those sins now, while there's still time.

This relatively small show, on the lower level, is of work by Salvatore Scarpitta, an American artist who was previously unknown to me.  Born in the United States, he lived for a time in Italy, including during World War II.  Having read about some of the conditions in that country during the War, my sympathies go out to anyone who had to endure it.

He began his artistic career with portraiture, but moved into other, more abstract areas as the years progressed.  The show opens with several examples of works he made after the War that were meant to express his feelings about what he had witnessed at that time.  It was a way for him to release his anger in a non-violent way - a lesson we could all stand to learn from time to time.

He then moved on to creating modes of transportation, most notably racing cars, but sleds as well.  He became a racing enthusiast (rural dirt track racing, rather than the bright lights of NASCAR or Indy cars), and he created works that were made with bits of equipment from the cars, as well as fully equipped and functional cars themselves.  He described them as portraits of the drivers, so perhaps his early training stuck with him?

The show raised a question for me: if you could operate one of his sleds or cars, and use it as a mode of transportation, is it art?  Is art inherently representational?  I hashed this out a bit with a friend of mine, and finally decided that, if the item can be used, then it's a craft and not art.  It's the difference between a vase that can hold flowers (craft) and  a still life painting of a vase holding flowers (art).  Doubtless, there's a vast scholarly literature on this topic, but I'm happy enough with my definition that I won't seek it out.

Verdict: An interesting show that raises many questions; small enough to be manageable in a lunch hour.

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