‘Putti’s Pudding’ (1989) – a series of pen, ink and felt-tip drawings on small notebook pages, 45 of which are on show at Studio Voltaire – is Vittorio Scarpati’s last work. It is also, to curator Paul Pieroni’s knowledge, the only work to survive him. In the months leading up to his death in September 1989, Scarpati and his wife Cookie Mueller shared a room at the Cabrini Medical Center in New York as they succumbed to AIDS-related illnesses. Plugged at the chest to a pair of pneumothorax suction pumps, each inflating one of his collapsing lungs, Scarpati started drawing when he could no longer speak.
At times, these breathing machines appear in Scarpati’s pictures as small pigs, standing sentinel beside his bedside or held by handles like weighty porciform suitcases. Elsewhere he compares himself to Shunkawakan, the character who endured suspension from the chest by eagle talons in the 1970 movie A Man Called Horse. Scarpati’s status is that of an inglorious cyborg, at the mercy of mechanics embedded in his chest that at times make it impossible to wash. Thin, sick and filthy, he is dismissed as an ugly creature by the cherubs and homunculi that look on from the margins of his drawings: a grim fate for one of New York’s beautiful people.
Scarpati met Mueller – writer, actress, party girl, John Waters’s Dreamlander and love object of Nan Goldin’s lens – in Positano, Italy, where New York’s druggie bohemia was summering and shooting up. In Edgewise (2015), Chloé Griffin’s oral history of Mueller and her circle, Scarpati enters the scene as an elegant junkie from a wealthy Neapolitan family, described variously as an art historian, merchant marine and graphic artist. There is suggestion, too, that he was a political cartoonist. Certainly he has easy dexterity with a pen and wields a cartoonists’ arsenal: an anvil weighs on his chest as he eyes us, heavy-lidded and listless, from his hospital bed. A menagerie of symbolic beasts – carefree porpoises, savage tigers, snakes, snails and butterflies – populate his pages.
He offers graveyard humour. Scarpati’s spiritual body, zippy in Adidas sneakers and purple trousers, sits astride his limp physical self, wagging his pursed fingers in Neapolitan exasperation: ‘I wanna get the hell out of here basta!!!’ Does his spirit want to leave the hospital, or his own, increasingly useless, body?
In fantasy, he returns to the Amalfi coast. We see Scarpati bouncing into the sea on a dolphin’s back, or in extravagant dandy dress in a spring meadow the unrelenting green of a child’s felt tip. His imagery is old world, both classical and catholic: a female doctor appears with archangel’s wings, the gods on Mount Olympus watch a pair of snakes fight (the same ‘snakes’ perhaps that have their jaws clamped to his chest), cherubs abound – the puddings of putti from which the series takes its name. Praying – for wings, legs, a boat – he checks himself: ‘Who am I talking to’? The imagery is here but God, it seems, is not. Heartbroken and silent, a line drawing shows his wasting body as a frame for distended lungs, from which a cherub gestures invitingly to a deserted moonlit bay.
Works from ‘Putti’s Pudding’ were shown twice shortly after Scarpati’s death, and published as an artist book with text by Mueller, but are otherwise a little-known part of this much fetishized 1980s New York scene – the art world teetering on a fulcrum between impoverished good-time glamour and professionalism, voracity and gentrification. The drawings are hung in a small neon-lit box – part mausoleum, part hospital suite – constructed within Studio Voltaire, chapel-like now, with its windows dimmed pale pink. It is sad and reverent: a memorial for Scarpati and something larger lost.
Main image: Vittorio Scarpati, Untitled (detail), 1989, 21 x 13 cm. Courtesy: Max Mueller; photograph: Andy Keate