Italo Scanga

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Italo Scanga (June 6, 1932 - July 7, 2001), an Italian-born American artist, was known for his sculptures, prints and, paintings, mostly created from found objects.


Italo Scanga was an innovative neo-Dadaist, neo-Expressionist, and neo-Cubist multimedia artist who made sculptures of ordinary objects and created prints, glass, and ceramic works.

Scanga's materials included natural objects like branches and seashells, as well as kitsch figurines, castoff musical instruments and decorative trinkets salvaged from flea markets and thrift shops. He combined these ingredients into free-standing assemblages, which he then painted. Although visually ebullient, the results sometimes referred to gruesome episodes from Greek mythology or the lives and deaths of martyred saints.

He considered his artistic influences to be sweepingly pan-cultural, from African sculpture to Giorgio de Chirico. He often collaborated with the sculptor Dale Chihuly, who was a close friend.

Use of myth[edit]

Myths had always fascinated Italo Scanga. Many of his sculptures translate written or oral narratives into the realm of visual objects. Constructed of wood and glass, found objects or fabric, his ensembles reflect a trio of activities—working, eating, and praying. These activities dominate the lives of those who live close to the land, but they are also activities that are idealized by many who contemplate, romantically, a simpler, bucolic life.

Scanga—through a vocabulary of basic tools, icons, and foodstuffs, reworked in a very personal way—attempts to restore the original sense of the peasant world: the realities of hard work or religious devotion, often ameliorated by civilized sentimentality. He invokes myths to give us the essentials of such a cultural experience.

While there is no single source for Scanga's work, many of the stories, traditions, and superstitions retold in through adumbrated saints and basketed scythes are native to the folk-life of southern Italy. This culture, inhabiting the time-worn Calabrian countryside of Scanga's native land, provides the artist with his most consistent and powerful source material.

Whether religious or secular in content, Scanga's works of the past decade[clarification needed] are the artist's reflections on the immutable, universal aspects of peasant life. Some, like the series of Italian photographs, are intensely personal, while others use a more generally recognized set of images—old farm tools, wooden bowls or large plaster statues of Saint Joseph and the Madonna. They are all, however, Scanga's own reinterpretation of those universals, his personal memories and thoughts commingled and then frozen for his audience to contemplate.

Potato Famine sculptures[edit]

Scanga's newest series of works, the "Potato Famine" sculptures, are logical extensions of his earlier efforts. He begins with the familiars of saints and tools, but here they are supporting armatures not focal points. If his earlier offerings of herbs, peppers, and the like were presented in blown glass peasant ware or hung as dried provisions domesticating an exhibition space, these potato supplications are affixed directly to the accompanying icons—not unlike the devotions pinned directly to the images of saints and Madonnas as they are paraded before the faithful in street processions. Other spuds rest in huge ladles and bowls just as they are—a simple, raw food—uncooked but potentially nourishing.

Far from being an attempt at humour or funk, Scanga's choice of the white (sometimes called Irish) potato is in fact a perfect conflation of symbols for the peasant life he intends to evoke. The dusty tubers, extracted from the ground, retain much of their earthy character. Beneath their dry brown exterior is a moist, crisp flesh—a humble organic metaphor for the meager existence of the rural working class.

Employing real potatoes enables Scanga to extend such parallels even further. His spuds eventually sprout greenery and if left in place long enough return in a desiccated state to an earth-like dust. Natural cycles of birth, life, death, and rebirth, at the core of so many myths, are encapsulated here in a single, ever changing symbol.

Raising political awareness[edit]

There are familiar images in these potato pieces but they evoke those contadini[clarification needed] themes of Christian faith and rural labor in a new context. Like the saints that are now the supporting structures for the potatoes, the themes of the past decade[clarification needed] are now the backdrop for another extended reality in the everyday life of the peasant—the political divisions of the working and privileged classes. The "Potato Famine" sculptures are restorations of political events that occurred over a century ago. The images and symbols are pushed together by the sculptor to achieve a new tension, a different syntax to convey some of the original essence of oppression.

The politics that concern Scanga here are not specific to Italy, in fact this particular source of inspiration is derived from a different peasant culture, the rural class of Ireland. Soon after his move to the West Coast in 1978, Scanga read detailed information on the infamous Irish Potato Famines of the late 1840s. As he almost always does, he began to research this sociopolitical tragedy and quickly realized the enormity of the facts and figures. Close to one million Irish dead, over a million emigrated caused by successive failures of the staple food crop the white potato. Waves of economic and social upheaval raced through the poor rural class as did epidemics of cholera, typhus, dysentery and scurvy. The population of a nation was decimated in a few decades from 7 million to well under 3 million.

Scanga's research revealed that it was not simply the blight and natural forces that caused so enormous a loss, but the presence in Ireland of a domineering political force—Great Britain. The failure of Great Britain to aid the Irish during the crucial years of 1846 through the 1850s, the almost inhuman absence of aid for a country that was almost totally dependent on the British, was the injustice that moved Scanga to create his sculptures.

Thus Scanga attempts to reinvigorate this century-old conflict and restore some of the feelings lost on us today. These events have, as have many, long ago been embroidered by myth, homogenized by history. In a very real sense, Scanga's work is anti-historical, as he tries to undo what the selectivity of history made palatable—he searches for the primal impact, the distilled significance of what really happened—not just facts and figures but sensibility.

As part icon and part offering, Scanga's newest works encompass both contemplation and action. These two polarities—thinking and doing—are part of the political process as well. These "Potato Famine" works rekindle our own abilities to be politically conscious, as they are both a reminder and a reinterpretation of universal political injustices wherever they occur.



1932: Born in Lago, Calabria, to Giuseppe and Serafina Ziccarelli, the youngest of four children, the others being Carolina, Mafalda and Nicolino.

1939-1945: Prepares to leave with his mother for America to meet his father and brother. American troops invade Italy on the day of departure and they are unable to leave. Spends the war years in Lago with his mother and very few resources. Works as a cabinetmaker's apprentice and studies sculpture with a man who carves statues of saints.


1947: Emigrates to America with his mother, to Point Marion, Pennsylvania, where his father works as a laborer for the railroad.

1950: Moves to Garden City, Michigan, with his family and works at General Motors lifting transmissions on an assembly line.

1951-1953: Studies at the Society of Arts and Crafts in Detroit, MI.

1953: Due to his language barrier, graduates from Garden City High School at the age of 21 while continuing to work evenings at General Motors.

1953-1955: Serves in the US Army, stationed in Austria in an armored tank division.

Marriage and college[edit]

1956: Marries Mary Louise Ashley, a librarian at the Garden City Public Library. Moves to East Lansing, MI where he enrolls at Michigan State University.

1956: First son, Italo Antonio Amadeo (Tony) born.

1958: Father, Giuseppe dies in Garden City, MI.

1959: Daughter, Katherine Elizabeth (Cici) born. Look Magazine commissions him to do a photographic "human story" about his mother, a widow immigrant, returning with her to Calabria (where she remains until the end of her life). Publishes a book of these photographs in 1979.

1960: Graduates from Michigan State University with a BA. Meets Richard Merkin and David Pease, fellow students who remain friends throughout his life. Studies under Lindsey Decker who introduces him to welding and sculpture after his initial interest in photography. Also studies with Charles Pollock, brother of Jackson Pollock.

1961: Receives an MA degree from Michigan State University. First teaching job at University of Wisconsin (through 1964). Meets Harvey Littleton, a fellow instructor. Lives in faculty housing.

1962: Daughter Serafina Annaliese (Sarah) born.

1963: Son Giuseppe Edward (Joe) born.


1964: Moves to Providence, Rhode Island,I to teach at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). Is colleagues with artists Richard Merkin and Hardu Keck. Starts a correspondence with HC Westermann. Spends summers teaching at Brown University; colleague of Hugh Townley.

1966: Moves to State College, PA, and teaches at Pennsylvania State University for one year. Meets artists Juris Ubans, Harry Anderson, Richard Frankel, and Richard Calabro, who remain friends throughout his career.

1967: David Pease helps him get a tenure track position at Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia, PA, and the family moves to Glenside, PA. Artists he works closely with include Ernest Silva, Lee Jaffe, Donald Gill, and William Schwedler. Meets graduate student Dale Chihuly while lecturing at RISD and develops a lifelong friendship.


1969: Son, William Frankel (Bill) born. One person exhibition, Baylor Art Gallery, Baylor University, Waco, TX. Buys his first home in Glenside, PA, at 2225 Menlo Avenue. Works in his basement studio, creates installations with farm implements, herbs, glass containers and saint iconography. Works very closely with students Larry Becker and Heidi Nivling (who later run a gallery in Philadelphia, PA), and Harry Anderson. Welcomes many artists into his home including Donald Judd, Dan Flavin, Bruce Nauman (a former student), Vito Acconci, Ree Morton and Rafael Ferrer.

1970: Exhibits "Saints, Glass, Tools, and Romances" at Atelier Chapman Kelly, Dallas, TX, one of his first one-person installations. Included in the sculpture annual at the Whitney Museum of American Art, NYC. Receives Howard Foundation grant from Brown University.

1971: Collaborates with Dale Chihuly and Jamie Carpenter pouring molten glass into bamboo at RISD. Exhibits the work at Museum of Art, Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, NY. Teaches summer school at University of Rhode Island, Kingston, RI (through 1973) and has a show, "Christ & Pythagoras." Shows an installation at Henri Gallery, Washington, DC.

1972: Solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, NYC. Installations at the Clocktower, NYC, and Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, VA. Teaches in Rome, Italy. for Tyler School of Art.

1973: "Saints Glass" at 112 Greene Street Gallery, NYC. Installation at the Institute of Contemporary Art at University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA. Meets Gordon Matta Clark and contributes to an artist cookbook. Goes to Pilchuck Glass School, Stanwood, WA, founded by Dale Chihuly, as a visiting artist. He continues to work there annually through 2001. Works over the years with Pilchuck artists Richard Royal, Seaver Leslie, Jamie Carpenter, Joey Kirkpatrick, Flora Mace, Robbie Miller, Billy Morris, Buster Simpson, Toots Zynsky, Howard Ben Tre, and Therman Statom. Separates from his wife Mary and leaves Glenside, PA to live in Philadelphia at 1359 71st Ave. Receives an NEA grant.

1975: Meets Stephanie Smedley, an artist, who years later becomes his wife. "Restoration Pieces" at Alessandro Gallery, NYC.


1976: Moves to La Jolla, CA to take a one-year job teaching at the University of California, San Diego as a visiting professor. Hired by David and Eleanor Antin at the suggestion of Ree Morton.

1977: Moves back to Philadelphia, PA, and returns to Tyler School of Art. Exhibits "Saints, Lamentations, Limitations" at Alessandro Gallery.

1978: Moves permanently to La Jolla to teach at UCSD with Newton and Helen Harrison, David and Eleanor Antin, Manny Farber, Patricia Patterson, and Alan Kaprow. The University supplies him with his first real studio in an old water tank on campus. Creates "Fear" series while visiting Dale Chihuly that summer in Providence, RI. Begins the first of several trips to Italy to make pilgrimages, to visit his family, and to look at art and architecture.

Potato Famine series[edit]

1979: Creates the "Potato Famine" series, his first work at UCSD. Exhibits them at the Boehm Gallery, Palomar College, San Marcos, CA and at Gallery One, San Jose State University, San Jose, CA. Meets art dealer Barry Rosen.

1980: Exhibits "Fear" and "Potato Famine" pieces at the Frank Kolbert Gallery, NYC. Receives NEA grant.

1981: Two week residency at Crown Point Press, San Francisco, CA. Long time friend Dale Chihuly calls asking what the Italian word for "spots" is, after creating a design using all the available colors in the hot shop. The Dale Chihuly "Macchia" series was named by Italo Scanga, only after Dale Chihuly's mother Viola Chihuly called the series of glass the "Uglies".

1982: Exhibits at Charles Cowles Gallery, NYC. Creates woodcuts with Chip Elwell. After 9 years of separation, he and Mary Louise Ashley divorce.

Second marriage[edit]

1983: Marries Stephanie Smedley. Included in the Whitney Biennial, Whitney Museum of American Art, NYC. Exhibits "Archimedes Troubles: Sculptures and Drawings" at the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art, "Italo Scanga Heads" at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and "Italo Scanga: Sculptures" as titled at the Delahunty Gallery, NYC. "Animal in Danger" and "Montecassino" series made. Working with studio assistants Ryk Williams and Dan Britton.

1984: Constructs "Figure Holding Fire", with his son Joe, at Santa Barbara Museo, Mammola, Italy, his first public commission. Joe and he continue doing the public commissions together through the years. Included in "Primitivism in 20th Century Art" at the Museum of Modern Art, NYC. Has his first one-person show in Florida at the Bruce Helander Gallery.

1985: Begins the "Metaphysical" series with Ryk Williams in the water tank, UCSD. "Italo Scanga New Works" at Arte Contemporaneo, Mexico City, Mexico. Travels to Leggia, Switzerland and creates work for dealer Reto a Marca, with assistant Chuck Collings. Toru Nakatani begins working with him at UCSD, and continues this working relationship (at his Turquoise Street studio) for the remainder of his[clarification needed] life.

1986: His first retrospective, "Italo Scanga: Recent Sculpture and Drawings" at the Oakland Museum, Oakland, CA. Shows at John Berggruen Gallery, San Francisco, CA; the Fabric Workshop, Philadelphia, PA; and Bette Stoler, NYC.

1987: Exhibits "Troubled World" series at Amalfi Arte, Amalfi, Italy.

1988: Purchases 961 Turquoise Street studio, San Diego, CA. Exhibits at Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice, Italy; Anders Tornberg Gallery, Lund, Sweden; Dorothy Goldeen Gallery, Santa Monica, CA; Larry Becker Gallery, Philadelphia, PA; and Germans Van Eck Gallery, NYC. Commission for the City of San Jose, CA, "Figure Holding the Sun."

1989: Amalfi Arte publishes "Italo Scanga" with an essay by Michele Buonomo. Separates from Stephanie Smedley and moves into Turquoise Street studio. Receives Distinguished Alumni Award from Michigan State University.

1990: Artist in Residence at Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, Skowhegan, ME. Builds sculptures with son, Bill. Exhibits at Betsy Rosenfield Gallery in Chicago, IL. Divorces Stephanie Smedley. Starts spending a majority of his time working on paintings.

1991: Meets welder David Grindle and initiates a series of metal sculptures with glass, trees, & cones, and several large welded "Trees" at Turquoise Studio. Travels to Vietri Sul Mare, Italy, with son Bill, to work at a ceramics factory.

Su-Mei Yu[edit]

1992: Meets Su-Mei Yu, a chef and restaurateur, his companion through the end of his life. Exhibits in solo shows at the Athenaeum Music and Arts Library, La Jolla, CA, and the Susanne Hillberry Gallery, Birmingham, MI. Meets David and Leisa Austin, and becomes a featured artist at Imago Galleries, Palm Desert, CA.

1993: Moves to Su-Mei Yu's house in La Jolla, CA but continues using Turquoise Street as a studio. Has one person shows at the Tacoma Art Museum, Tacoma, WA and the Fay Gold Gallery, Atlanta, GE.

1994: Meets Nando Randi, visiting from Ravenna for the America's Cup. Over the next years establishes friendships with many Italians visiting San Diego and living in Italy, including Chiara Fuschini, Felice Nittolo, Diego Esposito, Ubaldo Grazia, and Giuseppe Padula.

1995: Exhibition at Galleria Il Patio, Ravenna, Italy. Travels to Deruta, Italy, with son Bill, and works at Deruta ceramic factory; also in 1996, 1997, and 1999. Travels to Thailand with Su-Mei Yu. Receives Chancellor's Award, University of California, San Diego.

1996: Starts making sculptures with large carved wood religious figures that he has carved in Thailand. Exhibition at Barry Rosen & Jaap van Lier Modern & Contemporary Art, NYC.

1997: Artist-in-residence for two weeks at University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA. Makes frescoes with Megan Marlatt. Exhibitions at Bayly Art Museum, Charlottesville, VA; Bryan Ohno Gallery, Seattle, WA; and Comune di Ravenna, Ravenna, Italy.

1998: Begins a series of small bronzes. Exhibits at Grossmont College Hyde Gallery, San Diego, CA and Cuesta College Art Gallery, San Luis Obispo, CA

1999: Purchases a second studio at 4130 Napier Street, San Diego, CA. Shows at Flanders Contemporary Art, Minneapolis, MN. and The Lillian Berkley Collection, Escondido, CA.

2000: Begins work on an exciting new series of work, after several years of primarily painting, called the "Candlestick" series with Mike Patterson and Neal Bociek. Exhibition at Larry Becker Gallery, Philadelphia, PA


2001: Major commission, "Continents", at the San Diego International Airport. Ready to travel to Italy for several months for scheduled exhibitions in Lago, Calabria and Ravenna, Italy. Also working on creating a museum of his work in his hometown of Lago, Calabria. Dies of heart failure on July 27 at Turquoise Street studio at age 69.[1]

2001: He is survived by his companion, Su-Mei Yu; two daughters, Katherine Scanga of Riverside, R.I., and Sarah Scanga of Charlottesville, Va.; three sons, Anthony of Glenside, Pa., Joseph of San Francisco and William of New York; and four grandchildren.

Permanent collections[edit]

  • Albertina Museum, Vienna, Austria
  • Albright Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY
  • Arizona State University Art Museum, Nelson Fine Arts Center, Tempe, AZ
  • The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL
  • Berkeley Art Museum, Berkeley, CA
  • Boca Raton Museum of Art, Boca Raton, FL
  • Brooklyn Museum of Art, Brooklyn, NY
  • Cincinnati Art Museum, Cincinnati, OH
  • Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, MI
  • The Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia, PA
  • Fogg Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA
  • Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC
  • Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA
  • The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY
  • Milwaukee Art Museum, Milwaukee, WI
  • Mingei International Museum, San Diego, CA
  • Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, La Jolla, CA
  • The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY
  • Norton Museum of Art, West Palm Beach, FL
  • The Oakland Museum of California, Oakland CA
  • Orange County Museum of Art, Newport Beach, CA
  • Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, PA
  • Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA
  • San Diego Museum of Art, San Diego, CA
  • Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Santa Barbara, CA
  • Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago Museum, Chicago, IL
  • Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, OH
  • University of Wisconsin Hospitals & Clinics, Madison, WI
  • Utah State University, Logan, UT
  • Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, MN
  • Yale University, New Haven, CT


  1. ^ Cotter, Holland. "Italo Scanga, 69, an Artist Inspired by Found Objects". New York Times. The New York Times Company. Retrieved November 25, 2014.

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