By Richard Zagrzecki
Hanging on a wall in the lobby of Dudley Hall in the Fine Arts Building is a reminder of the time nearly 40 years ago when acclaimed artist Salvatore Scarpitta spent a semester teaching University of Houston students.
The sculpture, named “Manhole Uprising Sled,” is a triptych – a piece of art comprising three distinct sections – that is approximately 11 feet high and 15 feet wide.
Scarpitta created it in his windowless, all-white studio in the spring of 1978, after he had accepted an invitation to come to UH and serve as a visiting distinguished professor of sculpture. As the semester was coming to a close, he gave the piece to the University during a public reception and unveiling.
At the time, Scarpitta, who died in 2007 at the age of 88, characterized the piece as relating to mankind’s universal attempts to climb or achieve, and fit his overall themes of life, death, rebirth and movement.
The center panel, which is darker than the two that flank it, is covered by a striped pipe with crossbars. Narrow horizontal slots with pointed ends interrupt the long vertical panels.
Scarpitta decided to come to UH after students petitioned the administration to invite a major sculptor from the East or West Coast to come and teach here. Scarpitta, who operated out of a studio in New York City, was voted on by students as their first choice.
When he died, the New York Times described him as a “an artist whose work ranged from three-dimensional wrapped canvases that evoked survival and death to sculptural renderings of cars and sleds that extolled his belief in travel as a metaphor for life.”
“Scarpitta was part of an influential movement called Arte Povera that began in the 1960s and has seen a major influence in the last few years,” said Mike Guidry, curator of the UH Public Art Collection. “He and artists of his generation continue to influence younger artists today. It’s important he is part of the UH Art Department’s history and we are fortunate to have this piece in our collection.”