Sal and The Power of Illusion

Sal Scarpitta (1919-2007) was a teacher at MICA during my time there in the early 1990's. He was a big, gruff, generous sweetheart, as anyone who knew him would tell you. His work, especially his early painting-constructions, were and are a big influence on me, which I was reminded of on a trip to New York last winter. It set me to thinking about the relationship between illusionism in painting as a foil to the physicality of the painting as an object. A painting is a body, it has a skin.

From a journal entry dated December 19, 2016:

Went to NYC last weekend. Fragonard drawings at the Met–exacting and yet SO loose/gestural. Exhausting to behold. Fun, in a way, but heavy-laden w/detail, minutiae…Froth & Foliage. Then, Max Beckman. So Good. SO German 1920’s, but so American, too. Not ‘democratic’. Human. Commiserating, but not victim art. Lively...not like most Expressionists. I remarked to M and C that the figures still felt to me like persons, not separated into likeness vs. identity. They are one. Also saw Sal Scarpitta at Luxembourg and Dayan. Early works with bandages and rich surfaces in paintings w/mixed media. Burlap, relief structures behind canvas, straps, hooks, etc. SO robust. So many surfaces rich w/patina, though we often couldn’t tell if they were painted to look this way, or just old & dirty.

A 1958 painting by Sal Scarpitta made with bandages, the surface worked up to a rich patina.

A 1958 painting by Sal Scarpitta made with bandages, the surface worked up to a rich patina.

In the end, I think they were painted this way (and a little dirty). That’s a kind of illusionism, too. I guess it’s sometimes called a faux finish. But then a portrait would have to be a faux face…a landscape a faux place, right? Of course it’s faux. All painting is faux. A painting is a conceit. Dawn and I saw a live production of “Meet Me in St. Louis” a couple weeks ago in Rehoboth Beach. I almost teared up at the beginning, just because of all the people up on the stage and us in the audience. I thought, “We’re all pretending together!” If painting isn’t partly like that it’s a missed opportunity.

A painting is a body. It has a skin. Working hard to patina a painting's surface can lend the work, not the illusion that it is old, but a robust sense of timelessness. That this surface is a contrivance does not–as I once thought it did–compromise its authenticity. In a painting, illusionism is always part of the deal.

Sal Scarpitta In the early 1960's

Sal Scarpitta In the early 1960's