A new exhibition at Studio Voltaire shines a light on the final project of actress and writer Cookie Mueller and her artist husband Vittorio Scarpati, as they battled the AIDS virus in 80s New York
In 1989, as she and her husband of three years, the Italian artist Vittorio Scarpati, lay dying from AIDS-related complications in New York’s Cabrini Medical Centre, American actress, writer and poet Cookie Mueller – best known for her bawdy turns in early John Waters films like Multiple Maniacs (1970) and Female Trouble (1974) and immortalised in the photographs of Nan Goldin, Robert Mapplethorpe and Peter Hujar – set her mind to one last project. Scarpati’s lungs had collapsed and he had lost the power to speak, so, in Mueller’s words, “out of sheer boredom with time passing [he] asked for pens and pads to draw [and] with his indomitable spirit and vitality set about rendering his reality though his talent.” The result was a series of felt-tip illustrations, for which Mueller penned accompanying texts in her distinct impressionistic style. The duo published their work, under the title Putti’s Pudding, shortly before their deaths the very same year.
Now, a newly opened exhibition at London’s Studio Voltaire re-configures the original drawings and texts in a small but impactive display that serves to spotlight two oft-overlooked, yet inimitable creative talents. “I bought the original 1989 publication online after reading about it in Edgewise, Chloe Griffin’s oral history of Mueller’s life,” curator Paul Pieroni tells AnOther of his decision to compile the exhibit. “Both the drawings and writing have this piercing quality. I understand history as written by its victors, and within the cultural context of 80s New York, the ‘victors’ were perhaps those who survived AIDS, or who came up after the most violent moment of the epidemic had passed. Those who didn’t – so many brilliant people, who died young and couldn’t easily be incorporated into the model of success back then – have been marginalised by history. Thankfully there is now an ongoing process to pay homage to those people, and I guess this show is a small contribution to that.”
There’s no denying Mueller and Scarpati’s brilliance. In spite of his frail state, the artist’s pictures leap from the page with fervent intensity, depicting linear men and women alongside monsters, dolphins and religious figures such as angels, nuns and saints, each etched in gaudy hues. Some images are haunting, others despairing, others distinctly psychedelic – Scarpati was super-high on various crazy painkillers and other drugs, notes Pieroni. “His images begin to trip and melt at certain points” – but all serve to paint a deeply stirring account of living with, and dying from, AIDS. Mueller’s texts are similarly enlightening, scribed with a typical candidness and poetry. “I wanna get the hell out of here. Enough. I wanna get out!!! A tube in the anus/That’s not a way to treat a pig...” reads one; while another declares with a potent simplicity, “LOVE KILLS / LOVE KILLS / LOVE KILLS.”
Perhaps the most poignant text in this setting, however, reflects on the many missed opportunities of a creative life cut short: “In the eternity of my life I would hope to produce a little / Farenello? / More for everyone / Glorious Farenello? / With dreams of Magnanimity / And a truly powerful will / Much much more than this.” Happily, thanks to Pieroni’s efforts, these truly affecting works – which the curator describes as the definitive example of “making art with the soul and not the ego” – and their extraordinary makers are finally reaping the recognition they deserve.
Putti’s Pudding is at Studio Voltaire, London until November 12, 2017.