Published in 1990, Putti’s Pudding was a collaborative artist’s book and ‘final project’ by American writer Cookie Mueller and her partner, Italian artist Vittorio Scarpati. Pairing drawings by Scarpati with short texts by Mueller, the project was conceived in New York’s Cabrini Medical Centre while both were dying from AIDS related illnesses in 1989.
At Studio Voltaire, Putti’s Pudding is reimagined as an exhibition featuring forty–five original felt tip pen on notepad drawings by Scarpati, texts by Mueller and other period materials. Additionally, a public programme of talks, workshops and screenings will contemporize the original project, asking how this particular historical moment relates to our own political present.
By the summer of 1989, Vittorio Scarpati had lost the ability to speak. As Cookie Mueller explains in the introduction to the Putti’s Pudding book:
“As I write this, his life more or less hangs in the balance, both his lungs are collapsed, a complication of bouts with the pneumonia specific to AIDS. He’s attached by tubes to two machines called pneumothorax suction pumps. A tube the circumference of an American nickel coin is affixed into a chest incision that goes into the pleural lining of his lungs. Bubbling with water like tropical fish aquariums, these strange looking clear plastic machines drain the excessive fluid from his lungs while also inflating them, thus keeping him breathing. Out of sheer boredom with time passing, Vittorio asked for pens and pads to draw. With his indomitable spirit and vitality he set about rendering his reality though his talent.”
The resulting works tell a moving story, depicting the brutal, uncertain, ghostly nature of living with AIDS in the 1980s. However, in the face of immense pain, isolation and looming death, Scarpati’s drawings also radiate life. Something accounted for, and indeed celebrated, in Mueller’s accompanying writing.
This will be the first display of Scarpati’s drawings since their inclusion in Nan Goldin’s Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing at Artists Space, New York, (1989), and the first time they have been shown outside of the US. Importantly, the exhibition introduces Scarpati, a still largely unrecognised figure, to international audiences and contributes to the ongoing project of bringing recognition to Mueller’s life and work.
During the 1980s Mueller became a highly charismatic and influential figure in New York’s downtown scene. Mueller is known for her ribald appearances in the early works of provocative filmmaker John Waters, who memorably described Mueller as “a writer, a mother, an outlaw, an actress, a fashion designer, a go–go dancer, a witch–doctor, an art–hag and above all, a goddess.”
Mueller’s short fiction, including Walking Through Clear Water In A Pool Painted Black, 1990 – the first book published by Chris Kraus’ Native Agent imprint for Semiotext(e) and journalism including her East Village Eye medical self–help column Ask Dr. Muller which covered everything from AIDS conspiracy theories to new age remedies with quick–witted humour and candidness, continue to be celebrated.
Both Mueller and Scarpati were documented prominently during this mythologised era by artists such as Gary Indiana, Peter Hujar, Philip Lorca diCorcia and most notably, in Nan Goldin’s key series Cookie Portfolio (1977–1989) and Ballad of Sexual Dependency (1986). Goldin has described her compulsion to photograph friends as a way to safeguard or honour them at a time when AIDS was not only untreatable, but patients, and the gay community at large, were actively discriminated against by the government, health commissioners and press.
Putti’s Pudding distinctively prioritises self–portraits of Scarpati and Mueller, rather than documents of them made by others. These works are deeply intimate portrayals not only of their relationship to each other, but the illness that claimed them both.
This exhibition is curated by Paul Pieroni in partnership with Studio Voltaire.
Putti’s Pudding is supported by Stephen & Yana Peel and the Cookie Mueller and Vittorio Scarpati Supporters Circle. With thanks to Max Wolfe Mueller, the Estate of Cookie Mueller and Bill Stelling.
Cookie Mueller (1949–1989) was an American actress, writer, and ‘Dreamlander’ who starred in many of filmmaker John Waters’ early films, including Multiple Maniacs, Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, and Desperate Living. Mueller wrote the health column Ask Dr. Mueller for the East Village Eye and later served as art critic for Details. Mueller’s books include Ask Doctor Mueller (1996), a collection of her writings; Walking Through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black (1990), a memoir; and Garden of Ashes (Hanuman Books, 1990). Other works include the novella Fan Mail, Frank Letters, and Crank Calls (Hanuman Books, 1988) and several collections of short prose. In 2014, Edgewise: A Picture of Cookie Mueller by Chloe Griffin was published, comprising an oral history composed of more than 80 interviews by Mueller’s friends and contemporaries. Mueller died from AIDS–related causes on 10 November 1989 in New York City, aged 40.
Vittorio Scarpati (1955–1989) was an Italian artist, political cartoonist and jewelry designer. Cookie Mueller met Vittorio Scarpati in Positano, Italy in the summer of 1983. Three years later they married in New York City. Cookie and Vittorio were both hospitalized in 1989 for AIDS. Toward the end they shared a hospital room and Vittorio chronicled his illness through a series of drawings, which were later compiled into the collaborative artist’s book Putti’s Pudding. Scarpati died from AIDS–related causes on 14 September 1989 in New York City, aged 34.