“Museum quality” is how many galleries describe their art fair booths, but Tornabuoni might be turning a buzzword into reality at Art Basel this year. The Italian gallery’s solo stand on the US artist Salvatore Scarpitta, which will go on show at the Swiss fair later this month, is due to be exhibited at the Contemporary Art Museum in St. Louis, Missouri, at the start of 2017. Plans are also underway to recreate the gallery’s booth at an Italian museum, possibly the Museo Marino Marini in Florence.
Both shows are due to highlight Scarpitta’s collaboration with the influential New York dealer Leo Castelli, and his lifelong interest in racing cars—a symbol of post-war America and a little-explored aspect of the artist’s work.
Scarpitta is best known for his mixed-media wall pieces that incorporate bandages, seatbelts, and racing car exhaust pipes—his top selling work of this kind, The Corn Queen (1959), sold at Christie’s New York, in 2014, for $1.4m (with fees), more than double the lower estimate.
The star of the gallery’s Art Basel booth, however, is Sal Ardun Special (1964-83), a fully functioning race car, built by Scarpitta, that served as a prototype for the other cars that he would build and race across the US. The work carries an asking price of €650,000. The other major piece on show is Sling Shot (Kenny Adam’s Eve) (1996), a mixed-media sculpture made from a racing car frame and industrial straps, which carries an asking price of €1.7m.
Scarpitta began to build replica race cars in 1964. That year, he constructed the Hal Special, which became the Sal Ardun Special (1964-83) after he fitted it with a Ford engine in 1983. It was the second car he ever built, but the first one that worked. “This work constitutes the link between Scarpitta’s early car sculptures and his subsequent ‘real’ cars. It’s taken us a year of research to piece together the full story,” says Michele Casamonti, the gallery’s director. An extensive catalogue with never-before-seen archive photographs accompanies the presentation at Art Basel.
Between 1959 and 1992, Scarpitta had ten solo shows at New York’s prestigious Leo Castelli Gallery. The Sal Ardun Special (1964-83) was exhibited there twice, in 1965 and 1969. The gallery went on to become the official sponsor of Scarpitta’s racing team, and its name was painted onto the side of the cars. A radical move at the time, Scarpitta took art and the gallery outside of the usually insular art world. For Scarpitta, the race was a performance. “I don’t know if it’s art,” he once said, “it’s art if other people continue to look at it.” The Sal Ardun Special never took part in any races, but it served as the team’s coat of arms and lucky mascot, with Scarpitta taking it to every race.
Scarpitta (right) in his studio-garage with the driver Greg O’Neil, Baltimore, Maryland, 1986. All his racing cars were sponsored by the Leo Castelli Gallery.
The gallery is hosting a talk in Art Basel’s auditorium (Saturday 8 June, 3pm), titled “Salvatore Scarpitta: Where action is attraction”, with Luigi Sansone, the author of Salvatore Scarpitta’s catalogue raisonné, James Harithas, the director of the Station Museum of Contemporary Art in Houston, Texas, the artist Not Vital, a personal friend of Scarpitta, and Lisa Melandri, the director of the Contemporary Art Museum of St Louis. The talk will be moderated by the art historian Mirta d’Argenzo.